The words jihad and jihadi have been in abundant use over the last two decades, in particular for negative purposes. These words have come to be closely linked with two other words, terrorism and violence. “Jihad” got a negative connotation globally after the 9/11 attack. Nearly 3,000 innocent people were killed when the World Trade Center in New York City was hit by two aeroplanes on 11 September 2001. The victims belonged to most countries around the world and professed a range of religions. In its aftermath, the chief of the Al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, called the incident an act of “jihad”.
The American media coined the word “Islamic terrorism” after this incident and most acts of Islamist terror groups have been labelled under this title ever since. This is irrespective of the fact that many an Islamic scholar and many a Muslim cleric (including the maulanas of Deoband and Barelvi in India) have repeatedly asserted that Islam does not approve of violence against innocent people. The phrase Islamic terrorism has, simply, stuck.
In this way the communal and sectarian elements got one more weapon in their arsenal to browbeat the entire Muslim community with. Apart from the mainstream media, social media has been propagating the association between jihad, terrorists, terrorism and Muslims with gay abandon. Most sections of the mainstream media, which are an important part of the communal opinion-making machinery today, have been using this term day in and day out.
For instance on 11 March, the top editor of Zee News displayed on his channel a chart from a dubious source which classifies jihad into various categories; that of love, land and the latest, corona-jihad. The show concluded that all these kinds of jihad are being practised in order to weaken India. Surely such programs have been increasing in frequency in general on Indian TV, and they are serving to intensify hate against the entire Muslim community.
However, this time around, a complaint was filed with the police against the editor of the news channel, Sudhir Chaudhary, and an FIR was registered. Lo and behold, Zee News did an about turn and in the next program Chaudhary spoke rather respectfully about jihad! Was this a case of belatedly realising what jihad really means or was it the fear of facing criminal action which prompted the change?
As such, jihad is used as synonym for violence and terrorism in the popular narrative today, but this is very much contrary to how the Muslim’s holy book, the Koran, uses it. Islamic scholar Asghar Ali Engineer had argued that “jihad” has multilayered meanings in the Koran. It stands for “utmost striving” and has nothing to do with violence against the innocent. To him, the concept of jihad is both divorced from violence and abjures it. Those who indulge in power games have used the term as a cover to justify expanding their powers and they have also termed it a holy war. This is very similar to the use of “crusade” by Christian kings and “dharm yuddh” by Hindu rulers.
A deeper and more rational study of the Koran and in particular the law-giving Hadith, bring forth the real meanings of the term. The Sufis, who focussed on spiritual aspects of their religion (rather like the bhakti saints or liberation theologians) unfolded the deeper meaning of jihad. For instance, Engineer points out in his chapter, On Multi-Layered Concept of Jihad, in his book, A Modern Approach to Islam, that the Sufis described literal war as “jihad-e-Asghar” and the “jihad to control one’s greed and selfish desires as jihad-e-Akbar (great jihad)...”
The Koran uses the word jihad around 40 times; but it refers to jihad-e-Akbar that is, the struggle to overcome personal greed and selfishness, the most number of times.
The real transformation of the word jihad in popular perceptions—and Chaudhary is an extreme example of that—takes place during the training of the mujahideen fighters in specially set up madrasas in Pakistan in the 1980s. This was initiated and coordinated by the United States at a time when the Russian army occupied Afghanistan. That was also the time when American forces were completely demoralised by the humiliating defeat in Vietnam at the hands of the Vietnamese people.
To confront the Russians, the United States planned to join the anti-Russian forces in Afghanistan, and for this it enlisted the support of the extremist Salafists, who promoted radical tendencies among a section of Muslims. The brainwashing of these Asian Muslim youth to turn them into mujahideen, (who later morphed into the Taliban) took place in few Pakistani madrasas, and this was an American-funded exercise. For it to succeed, even an opium trade was put into operation in Afghanistan.
The brainwashing module had many components including distorting the concept of “Kafir”, and creating hate against the communists. Communists were labelled as Kafirs (or non-believers) and attacks against them were represented as jihad. To die during such an act was to be rewarded in the afterlife.
The United States further promoted the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, which joined the anti-Russia forces. Academic Mahmood Mamdani in his book, Good Muslim Bad Muslim, infers based on CIA documents that the United States invested $8,000 million and supplied 7 tonnes of armaments including sophisticated missiles to arm these forces. (Recall also the radical Islamic leaders’ visits to America during the time of President Ronald Regan.)
Now of course the situation has taken a different turn and nearly three decades after their inception the same radical elements (lately morphed into the Islamic State or ISIS) have cost thousands of Muslims their lives and engineered their exodus from large territories in massive numbers. Closer home, it is estimated that over 70,000 Pakistanis have been killed due to the actions of militant religious groups propped up and nurtured by the United States to enhance its control over the oil wells in West Asia.
One can merrily keep propagating hate using “jihad” in any combination or permutation possible, but we learn from the Sudhir Chaudhary episode that such elements are at least partly controlled by the due process of law. This is one great takeaway from the FIR filed against the channel’s content. Such hate-filled programs will come to a halt everywhere if they are countered ideologically and if we resort to the protection of the Indian Constitution. At the very least this is what we can hope for.
The author is a social activist and commentator. The views are personal.