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July 18, 2008

What's a Jihad When It's at Home?

The word jihad has been used in English to refer to doctrinal crusades since 1880.

jihad.pngThe literal meaning of the word is struggle, as Professor John Esposito of Georgetown University explains in his series on Islam for The Teaching Company. The struggle in question doesn't have to be war.

Nevertheless, most Americans automatically equate jihad with violence.

When I first learned the term in high school, there was no suggestion that the word could mean anything but holy war. But depite that lack of nuance, no one at the time equated jihad with terrorism. As we saw it then, wars were declared by governments and terrorists were isolated individuals. (This was long before there was a war on drugs, never mind a war on terror.)

Yesterday's "Morning Edition" on NPR reported that someone has finally explained to the Bush administration that jihad "has very positive connotations in the Islamic world."

Linguistically, the multiple meanings and positive connotations of jihad should not come as a surprise. After all, when English speakers use the word "crusade," they're not often talking about having the Pope guarantee them admission to heaven if they take up the cross and head for the Holy Land to kill Muslims. Yet before 1786, that's exactly what the word meant.

Crusade, like crucifix, comes to us from the Latin word for cross.

Psychologically, the difference between the way English speakers use and understand the words jihad and crusade makes sense. Our holy war is good, but their holy war is bad.

Linguistically, however, the words are very much the same. If we keep that in mind, it might make for better relations between Muslims and Christians.

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Posted by Diane Prange at July 18, 2008 1:34 PM
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