#MyJihad is Language

By Davi Barker

There is a public education campaign making some waves titled “#MyJihad.” Their homepage proclaims their mission as “Taking back Islam from Muslim and anti-Muslim extremists alike.” It includes a pretty robust social media buzz on Twitter and Facebook, a series of speaking events around the country, and a national print ad campaign.

The advertising campaign splashed across buses and trains show colorful photos of sunnah smiling Muslim faces proclaiming, “My Jihad is Freedom & Peace for Syria. What’s yours?”  or “My Jihad is Making New Friends. What’s yours?”  or “My Jihad is Eating More Broccoli. What’s yours?” And so on. In addition, bloggers across the interwebs are contributing their verse to this chorus of reclaiming.

The effort of the campaign is to reclaim the word jihad from the maw of the corrupters and restore it’s rightful meaning, which is simply to struggle in the way of God — meaning to strive for justice, compassion, self improvement and when it’s called for, self-defense.

I know a thing or two about reclaiming words from before I accepted Islam. In my Pagan days I participated in active campaigns to reclaim terms like “witch,” “heathen” and “crone” from their negative connotations after generations of scary bedtime stories. After centuries of forced conversion to Christianity, the chain of narration of the Pagan traditions have been shattered and nearly lost, but still these communities struggle to reconstruct the pieces. Ten years ago, that probably would have been my answer. But conversion to Islam has presented unique linguistic challenge that I have never had in any other field.

In most discourses, language is fluid. During the early days of the Occupy Movement the term “occupiers” caught on, but many of us preferred “occupants.” The difference is subtle, but important. “Liberal” once described a philosophy of small government and laissez-faire capitalism. When the term was adopted by those espousing social justice and wealth redistribution, some attempted to reclaim the original meaning by calling themselves “classical liberals.”

Now that the political left has abandoned “liberal” in favor of “progressive,” soon “liberal” will be available for someone else to claim. When “capitalism” isn’t polling well, capitalists use “free market.” When “socialism” has a bad reputation, socialists use “fair share.” If “anarchist” is too scary, anarchists use “voluntaryist.”

Movements regularly change their rhetoric to suit the values and prejudices of their time. A change in language can even induce an entire paradigm shift. Imagine the change in thinking required for the common nomenclature to shift from “savages” to “Indians” to “indigenous people.” Language is a fertile cornucopia of connotation, accusation, smears, fears and propaganda. But, Islam resists this.

Language mutates. But, if Muslims find Islam’s vocabulary challenging, we can’t simply abandon it as other discourses may – because our vocabulary is codified in primary sources still available in their original language. If the baggage no longer suits them, Christians can abandon “trinity” if they wish, because Greek and Latin were not the language of the prophets. But “jihad” will always and forever be part of the Islamic discourse.

We cannot change the words, so reclaiming their original meaning is our only option when people misuse them. As a result the Islamic discourse is characteristically averse to slogans. “Islam means Peace” makes a nice bumper sticker, but in reality one could write a book analyzing why Islam means peace and another book analyzing why it doesn’t. Islam’s vocabulary is complex by necessity, perhaps even by design.

My jihad, as both a convert to and advocate of Islam, as both a writer and a speaker, is language itself. To first derive a correct, complete and nuanced understanding of a complex vocabulary and constellation of concepts in a language foreign to me, and then to find accurate and innovative ways to translate and articulate those concepts respecting the constant mutation of religious and political discourse in the English language.

It is a struggle to find language that is both old and new again. It is my jihad.

Davi Barker writes at The Muslim Agorist and for other publications. He will be soon writing a blog for Patheos. Barker was born in California and during childhood travels, he was struck by the wonders of nature — a lightning storm over a primordial desert in Arabia, or the cherry blossom petals sprinkling down on the floating markets in Thailand. He spent his adolescence as an outsider, but recently is realizing alienation is not uniqueness, but a universal similarity that crosses all cultures and religions, caused by our separation from our true self and our separation from nature.

  • Pingback: #MyJihad: Reclaiming Islam

  • Michael Gatto

    I’d say that reclaiming a term is extremely expensive, time-consuming and going against all social trends. Davi details how US social and political movements change terminology routinely. What he misses is that they do so for a very good reason: to cope with irresistible cultural forces and avoid *irrelevancy*. Its unclear to me, beyond having original sources in Arabic available to us, why he thinks Islamic cultures and movements will/are somehow immune to these potent socio-cultural forces.

  • Michael Gatto

    “Islam’s vocabulary is complex by necessity, perhaps even by design.” – This, I like very much; we should explore this point much more.


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