Muslim American activist Linda Sarsour has fired back at critics for misrepresenting her use of the term “jihad” in her keynote address for the Islamic Society of North America earlier this month.
In the July 1 speech, Sarsour shared a story from Islamic scripture concerning a man who asked Mohammed, the prophet of Islam, about the “best form of jihad.” “And our beloved prophet … said to him, ‘A word of truth in front of a tyrant ruler or leader, that is the best form of jihad,’” Sarsour told the crowd.
Sarsour urged fellow Muslims to “stand up to those who oppress our communities,” as “we are struggling against tyrants and rulers not only abroad in the Middle East or on the other side of the world, but here in these United States of America.”
But after edited video of the event began to circulate online, Sarsour received a barrage of criticism and threats, a result of conservative media publications like Breitbart and the Daily Caller accusing her of encouraging fellow Muslims to incite a “holy war” against the Trump administration.
Even Donald Trump Jr. got involved, retweeting a Fox News story titled “Activist Linda Sarsour Calls for 'Jihad' Against Trump Administration,” adding, “Who in the @DNC will denounce this activist and democrat leader calling for Jihad [against] trump?”
Now Sarsour is pushing back against these critics. In a July 9 op-ed for the Washington Post, she writes that the term “jihad” has “been hijacked by Muslim extremists and right-wing extremists alike, leaving ordinary Muslims to defend our faith.”
“In my speech ... I sent not a call to violence, but a call to speak truth to power and to commit to the struggle for racial and economic justice,” Sarsour explains. “Most disturbing about this recent defamation campaign is how it is focused on demonizing the legitimate yet widely misunderstood Islamic term I used, ‘jihad,’ which to a majority of Muslims and according to religious scholars means ‘struggle’ or ‘to strive for.’”
Sarsour’s argument, that her use of ‘jihad’ was both nonviolent and taken out of context, is one the overwhelming majority of Muslims around the world share. But while her use of ‘jihad’ may not have been intentionally harmful, the multifaceted term has been widely interpreted by Islamophobes and extremists alike as violent.
The complex definition of “jihad,” and its distortion over the past 15 years, complicates the fight of Muslim Americans like Sarsour to reclaim it
The Palestinian-American activist and co-organizer of the Women’s March on Washington has received a lot of attention in recent months. Some of that has been praise for her involvement in the anti-Trump resistance movement, as well as her efforts to raise more than $160,000 to repair a Jewish cemetery that was vandalized in St. Louis, Missouri.
Some people, however, have been more critical, particularly of her negative views on Israel and Zionism, which some feel tip over into overt anti-Semitism.
Sarsour’s career took off following the 9/11 attacks, but her more recent efforts to address the country’s Islamophobic backlash have catapulted her into the national spotlight and made her a consistent target of what she identifies as “the Islamophobia industry.”
New York magazine and Mother Jones contributing writer Yashar Ali acknowledged that Sarsour’s use of the term would surely be distorted from its actual meaning. “You can’t use the word jihad anymore. You just can’t. Not in the US,” he tweeted.
While some define “jihad” as terrorism and the desire to “wage holy war,” executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations Nihad Awad argued in a 2015 op-ed for his organization’s site that its current use is “terribly inaccurate.”
In recent years, we have seen the term “jihadist” come to be used as if it means a person who kills people out of a religious motivation. But ... “Jihad” does not mean “holy war.” Literally, jihad means to “struggle,” strive and exert effort. It is a central and broad Islamic concept that includes struggle against evil inclinations within oneself, struggle to improve the quality of life in society, struggle in the battlefield for self-defense (e.g., — having a standing army for national defense), or fighting against tyranny or oppression.
“Islam allows legitimate self defense, but prohibits the killing of innocent people, even in times of war or conflict,” Awad wrote. “So yes, there are some Muslims who have extreme views, or mental illnesses, or political grievances, or a host of other reasons that lead them to kill people, and this is not only a tragedy and a crime but an egregious violation of the principles of Islam.”
The events of the past two weeks have forced the Brooklyn-based Sarsour to “think about securing my physical safety even while walking through the neighborhoods of Brooklyn,” she notes.
“It saddens me deeply that my three children are frightened,” she writes. “But I refuse to be intimidated. I will not walk away from the people and communities whom I love deeply. ... Dissent is the highest form of patriotism, and I intend to continue to push my country to respect the rights of all its citizens. I will not be silenced.”
In the end, this controversy highlights how far we still have to go when it comes to understanding Islam, as well as Muslims in America and around the world.