Jihadi or Jihadist Defined

Jihadi or Jihadist Defined

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Jihadi, or jihadist, refers to a person who believes that an Islamic state governing the entire community of Muslims must be created and that this necessity justifies violent conflict with those who stand in its way.

Although jihad is a concept that can be found in the Quran, the terms jihadi, jihadi ideology and jihadi movement are modern concepts related to the rise of political Islam in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Jihadi History

Jihadis are a narrow group made up of adherents who interpret Islam, and the concept of jihad, to mean that war must be waged against states and groups who in their eyes have corrupted the ideals of Islamic governance. Saudi Arabia is high on this list because it claims to be ruling according to the precepts of Islam, and it is the home of Mecca and Medina, two of Islam's holiest sites.

The name that was once most visibly associated with jihadi ideology was the late Al Qaeda leader, Osama bin Laden. As a youth in Saudi Arabia, bin Laden was highly influenced by Arab Muslim teachers and others who were radicalized in the 1960s and 1970s by the combination of:

  • The Arab defeat in the 1967 war with Israel
  • Oppressive and corrupt Arab governments
  • Rapidly urbanizing and modernizing society

Dying a Marty's Death

Some saw jihad, a violent overthrow of all that was wrong with society, as a necessary means to create a properly Islamic, and more orderly, world. They idealized martyrdom, which also has a meaning in Islamic history, as a way to fulfill a religious duty. Newly converted jihadis found great appeal in the romantic vision of dying a martyr's death.

When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, Arab Muslim adherents of jihad took up the Afghan cause as the first step in creating an Islamic state. In the early 1980s, bin Laden worked with the mujahideen fighting a self-proclaimed holy war to oust the Soviets from Afghanistan. Later, in 1996, bin Laden signed and issued the "Declaration of Jihad Against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Mosques," meaning Saudi Arabia.

A Jihadi's Work Is Never Done

Lawrence Wright's recent book, "The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11," offers an account of this period as a formative moment of jihadi belief:

"Under the spell of the Afghan struggle, many radical Islamists came to believe that jihad never ends. For them, the war against the Soviet occupation was only a skirmish in an eternal war. They called themselves jihadis, indicating the centrality of war to their religious understanding."

Those Who Strive

In recent years, the word jihad has become synonymous in many minds with a form of religious extremism that causes a great deal of fear and suspicion. It is commonly thought to mean "holy war," and especially to represent efforts of Islam extremist groups against others. Yet, the current modern definition of jihad is contrary to the linguistic meaning of the word, and also contrary to the beliefs held by most Muslims.

The word jihad stems from the Arabic root word J-H-D, which means "strive." Jihadis, then, would literally translate as "those who strive." Other words derived from this root include "effort," "labor," and "fatigue." Thus, jihadis are those who attempt to practice religion in the face of oppression and persecution.

The effort may come in the form of fighting the evil in their own hearts, or in standing up to a dictator. Military effort is included as an option, but Muslims view this as a last resort, and it in no way is meant to mean "to spread Islam by the sword," as the stereotype now suggests.

Jihadi or Jihadist

In the Western press, there is a serious debate about whether the term should be "jihadi" or "jihadist." The Associated Press, whose newsfeed is seen by more than half the world's population every day via AP newspaper stories, television news, and even the internet, is very specific about what jihad means and which term to use, noting that jihad is an:

"Arabic noun used to refer to the Islamic concept of the struggle to do good. In particular situations, that can include holy war, the meaning extremist Muslims commonly use. Use jihadi and jihadis. Do not use jihadist."

Yet, Merriam-Webster, the dictionary AP generally relies on for definitions, says either term-jihadi or jihadist-is acceptable, and even defines "jihadist" as "a Muslim who advocates or participates in a jihad." The respected dictionary also defines the term jihad as:

"… a holy war waged on behalf of Islam as a religious duty; also: a personal struggle in devotion to Islam especially involving spiritual discipline."

So, either "jihadi" or "jihadist" is acceptable unless you work for the AP, and the term can mean either one who wages holy war on behalf of Islam or one who is undergoing a personal, spiritual, and internal struggle to achieve supreme devotion to Islam. As with many politically or religiously charged words, the correct word and interpretation depend on your viewpoint and worldview.

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