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8 p. 162Jihad and Its Perceptions in the Westlocked

8 p. 162Jihad and Its Perceptions in the Westlocked

  • Asma Afsaruddin

Harvard senior Zayed Yasin, an American Muslim, was invited by a special committee to deliver an address during the university’s 2002 commencement ceremony. Yasin accepted and titled his speech “My American Jihad,” which was announced to the public. No one was prepared for the uproar that followed the announcement. Some students at Harvard voiced outrage over the word “jihad,” which was associated in their minds with violent religious militancy. Yasin responded that he was using the word in its general meaning of a moral and spiritual struggle and had not intended to cause any controversy. He had his share of supporters: The administration backed his right to carry on as planned, as did some students. Some major US newspapers considered the event worthy of note and published breathless accounts of the kerfuffle. A last-minute compromise was reached: The title was dropped from the program, and Yasin delivered his original, prepared speech on commencement day. The Harvard Crimson, the university’s student newspaper, reported the next day that Yasin’s speech was warmly received. With the title removed, the speech appeared little different from a traditional, inspirational commencement address. Yasin had wished to protest the annexation of the term “jihad” by religious extremists to describe their violent deeds, but his detractors could not see beyond the widespread “newspaper” usage of the word.

p. 163This incident highlights the sharp disconnect between the way most Muslims continue to understand jihad today and the way many non-Muslim Westerners reflexively react to the word. Some Muslims may stress that they use the term “jihad” in a highly personal way to describe their struggle to achieve academic and professional fulfillment in their lives. Others may use it to describe their activism to address certain kinds of social and political injustices—some Muslim feminists, for example, describe their struggle against gender inequality as a jihad.

These personalized meanings were brought into sharp relief in Chicago in 2013. In that year, Ahmed Rehab, the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) there, started a project called MyJihad to document what the word means to ordinary American Muslims. He took out advertisements that ran on Chicago buses which explained jihad in different ways: one cited the struggle of a Muslim Chicagoan to lose weight; another referred to an Iraqi refugee’s effort to start a new life in America as a single mother; while a third described the struggle waged by some Muslim children against bullying classmates.

The 2002 Harvard commencement flap is a somber reminder that jihad had entered Western vocabularies already in the medieval period as a violent military term. This was due to the sometimes bloody conflicts between the worlds of Christianity and Islam in the premodern period as well as in the modern colonial period. Conflicts have continued through the postcolonial period from the first half of the twentieth century until the present time. Jihad is usually imagined by Westerners as the Islamic counterpart of “crusade” and therefore (mis)translated as “holy war.” This meaning has solidified in the post-September 11 period. Literature and rhetoric produced by contemporary militant groups in and from Muslim-majority societies tend to underscore this meaning. Western media that gives prominent coverage to the violent p. 164acts carried out by Islamist militant groups continue to reinforce these perceptions.

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Is there a Western equivalent of the military jihad?

The Western Christian concept of “just war” (in Latin bellum justum) comes closest to the Islamic concept of the military jihad, with some differences. Augustine, the fifth-century bishop of Hippo (d. 430), is credited with being the first to formulate a Christian conception of just war, in which he was influenced by the work of the Roman statesman Cicero (d. 43 BCE). Augustine maintained that a just war could be launched to avenge a real injury perpetrated by an external enemy and that it must be proclaimed by the legitimate authority who alone determines the justness of the cause. As for just conduct during warfare, he allowed the killing of noncombatants if that was necessary. In the twelfth century, the Italian Catholic priest and philosopher Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274) would build on Augustine’s ideas. Aquinas defined just war as one that met the following conditions: (1) It was fought under the right authority; (2) had a just cause; and (3) was undertaken with right intention. He made no distinction between defensive and offensive wars, and, like Augustine before him, was not concerned with the protection of civilians during war.

Concern for establishing the rules of just conduct during hostilities (in Latin jus in bello) would arise much later. Such rules were articulated in the writings of the seventeenth-century Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius (d. 1645), who is regarded in the West as the founder of modern international law. Jus in bello considerations require just war adherents to respect the principles of proportionality and discrimination; the latter principle protects the rights of noncombatants during warfare. Grotius incorporated these principles of just conduct in his work the Law of War and Peace (in Latin De Jure Belli ac Pacis), which provided the basis for a modern law of nations in the West.

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p. 165Is there an Islamic influence on the development of modern international law?

The additional regulations in Western international law for the protection of civilians do bear a striking resemblance to the Islamic requirements for just conduct in the waging of war. These similarities strongly suggest that these classical Islamic regulations during armed combat, already well established in the early centuries of Islam, influenced the development of jus in bello requirements in the modern Western law of nations. It is significant that three jurists whose thought influenced Grotius were from Spain, considerable parts of which had until the fifteenth century been under Muslim rule. In the medieval period, Islamic law was taught in Spain as well as in southern Italy, which were culturally within the Islamic orbit. These three Spanish jurists were Francisco de Vitoria in the sixteenth century and Bartolome de Las Casas and Francisco Suarez in the seventeenth century. They were part of the influential School of Salamanca in Spain that made major contributions to the development of international law in Europe.

In his legal work, Vitoria explicitly identified those who should be considered noncombatants and given protection during military combat: women and children, agricultural laborers, travelers, and the civilian population in general. Las Casas similarly emphasized the need to protect women and children, religious functionaries, serfs, and other noncombatants during war. The requirement that these categories of noncombatants should be protected during armed combat was already well entrenched within the Islamic law of nations or international law (known as siyar in Arabic) by the eighth century. The legal philosophy of Suarez, the third jurist, also emphasized that there must be humane rules to order relations with other communities and external polities.

These legal stipulations mirror foundational principles within the Islamic ethical and legal tradition that were already articulated in the writings of the eighth-century p. 166jurist Muhammad al-Shaybani (d. 805), who is regarded as the founder of the Islamic law of nations. After al-Shaybani, generations of Muslim jurists would expand on these principles and continue to uphold the requirements of just conduct during military campaigns, with a particular focus on the protection of civilians from harm.

Grotius himself refers fleetingly to Islamic law in his works, but it was not customary in his period to cite one’s sources, as it is now for responsible academics. In Western discussions of jus in bello, the Spanish contributions to the development of this concept is readily acknowledged; its probable earlier Islamic genealogy has, however, only occasionally been suggested. The topic of Islamic influence on the development of certain aspects of modern international law is/will be fiercely resisted by those who are ideologically and emotionally opposed to the very idea. Nevertheless, it invites further academic research and inquiry.

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Is classical Islamic international law compatible with modern international law?

A number of prominent modern Muslim jurists, who work from a comparative perspective, have highlighted the compatibility of classical Islamic international law with modern international law on key issues concerning war and peace among nations.

The well-known Syrian jurist Wahba al-Zuhayli (d. 2015), for example, identified three specific types of legitimate war in the Islamic context: (1) War against those who prevent the preaching of Islam or against those who create internal disorder and strife; (2) War in defense of individuals and communities who are persecuted; and (3) War to repel a physical attack against one’s country. Al-Zuhayli points out that types 2 and 3 are fully compatible with principles of modern international law that allow for self-defense against prior aggression and humanitarian intervention in conflict-ridden regions. These p. 167principles governing legitimate warfare within the Islamic legal tradition have parallels in Article 51, which refers to the principle of self-defense and in Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter, which has been recently interpreted by some to potentially allow for humanitarian intervention. Type 1, however, has no clear parallel in international law since it is more of a moral instrument to ensure religious freedom and contain social instability in general.

Like many premodern scholars and jurists, al-Zuhayli underscores that, among its many humanitarian provisions, Islamic law stipulates that noncombatants must not be targeted or harmed during a war. Wanton destruction of property, killing livestock, and laying waste to towns and villages are also prohibited. Humanitarian treatment of prisoners of war is required, and mutilation of corpses is strictly forbidden. Such just rules of conduct during warfare were incorporated late into modern international law. They are included in the 1949 Geneva Conventions and their 1977 Additional Protocols, which form the core of international humanitarian law, as well as in the Nuremberg Charter of 1945, which deals with war crimes.

At the same time, modern scholars of Islamic law have been highly critical of certain rulings within classical siyar. The idea espoused by a number of premodern Muslim jurists that the Muslim ruler can wage preemptive, offensive military campaigns against non-Muslim polities is rejected by modern mainstream Muslim jurists. There is more or less a legal consensus today that Muslims are required to be peaceful toward those who are peaceful toward them and only fight those who fight them. This represents a significant departure from the classical juridical view that the Muslim ruler was obligated to carry out a military expedition once a year as expansionist jihad to expand the boundaries of Islamic territories. Mainstream Muslim jurists today reject this view as insupportable for three reasons. First, it violates the Quran’s prohibition against fighting except in self-defense. Second, this ruling was p. 168the result of a legal accommodation to a premodern world characterized by non-Muslim hostility to Muslims. Third, war was assumed to be the default situation between nations in the premodern period. There is, therefore, a great need to revisit the classical Islamic rules of war and peace in a vastly altered world in which mutually binding international treaties exist to promote peaceful relations among nations. As many now argue, this revisitation is called for in a spirit of greater faithfulness to Quranic ethics of war and peacemaking.

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Are there modern Muslim critics of the concepts of the Abodes of War and Peace?

This binary division of the world had already become quite obsolete by the twelfth century because such a division did not map onto the political realities of the time. Muslim rulers often forged alliances with non-Muslim rulers against a common enemy. There was a constant exchange of merchants, diplomats, and other kinds of visitors between Muslim and non-Muslim lands. Three prominent Egyptian scholars from between the late nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century—Muhammad Abduh, Rashid Rida, and Mahmud Shaltut—characterized these designations as defunct in the modern period and urged for international relations to be based on mutual respect and peaceful coexistence.

A more recent critic of these concepts was another Egyptian thinker and prolific author Jamal al-Banna (d. 2013), who, unlike his older brother Hasan al-Banna, was known for his socially liberal views. In his 1984 refutation of The Lapsed Duty by Abd al-Salam Faraj, al-Banna tackled the concept of Dar al-Harb, or the “House of War.” This abode, he says, is composed of nations that are hostile to Islam, aggress Muslims, and violently prevent the propagation of Islam. Under such circumstances, Muslims have the right to retaliate and defend themselves. Non-Muslim nations that neither initiate hostilities against Muslims nor prevent the peaceful dissemination of p. 169Islam may not be fought against; instead, Muslims are required to establish friendly relations with them. Quran 5:51, which counsels Muslims not to take the People of the Book as “allies” (awliya), must be understood in this historical vein. Extremist Muslims, as well as anti-Islam Western polemicists, like to cite this verse as a general prohibition against forging peaceful and fraternal relationships with non-Muslims. Al-Banna argues against this interpretation and says the verse only referred to those Jews and Christians who had conspired against Muslims and intended them harm in the seventh century. A blanket denunciation of the People of the Book does not make sense, he continues, in view of the fact that the Quran allows Muslim men to marry Jewish and Christian women and live with them in harmony. These opposing viewpoints constitute a fundamental difference between what al-Banna depicts as the supremacist, violent manifesto of the extremists and the historically-contextualized and scripturally-based arguments of mainstream scholars like himself.

Another modern Egyptian scholar of Islamic international law, Mohammad Talaat al-Ghunaimi, has similarly criticized the concept of the Abode of Islam pitted against the Abode of War as being hopelessly obsolete in the modern world. He recognized the utility of this model during the Abbasid period (from after the mid-eighth century) when, from a medieval realist perspective, such a division of the world made practical sense. In the premodern era, those who were not from one’s own world (and particularly from one’s own religious community) could reasonably be assumed to be foes rather than friends. States had to remain militarily vigilant against potential aggression from other states that did not share their religious and political allegiances. In our vastly altered historical circumstances, such a bipolar vision can no longer be deemed valid.

It is also argued that Muslim-majority states are now members of the United Nations and are signatories to various international treaties that govern relations between themselves p. 170and other nation-states, regardless of religious commitments. The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), which has fifty-seven members, out of which forty-nine are Muslimmajority countries, explicitly states in its Charter that member nations will conduct relations with other states on the basis of equality and reciprocity. The relevant clause in the OIC Charter states, “We the Member States of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, are determined to … uphold the objectives and principles of the present Charter, the Charter of the United Nations and international law as well as international humanitarian law.”

The strong points of agreement between Islamic and Western international law outlined here allow both to coexist as parallel and complementary legal systems. Their overlap on significant features facilitates the productive exchange of ideas between Muslim and non-Muslim jurists.

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How does the Western media portray jihad?

“Jihad” is more often than not translated as “holy war” in the Western media. This immediately conveys the impression that jihad by definition is war waged for religious reasons, particularly to forcibly replace all other religions with Islam. This understanding is a fundamental distortion of the purposes of the military jihad. A few news outlets and journalists exercise greater responsibility: They take care to translate “jihad” as “struggle” or “effort” and occasionally mention the different ways in which this human struggle is carried out during one’s earthly existence.

Specific political and historical circumstances determine what sort of spin the military jihad and its (supposed) practitioners receive in the Western media. Between 1979 and 1989 under a program known as Operation Cyclone, the US government actively supported the group known as the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan who were fighting the Soviet occupation forces there. “Those who carry out jihad” (this p. 171is what “Mujahedeen” means in Arabic) were portrayed favorably in the American and European press at that time because they were assumed to be fighting on the right side—that is to say, against the dark forces of communism—and thus serving the interests of Western nations. A James Bond movie titled The Living Daylights celebrated the heroic exploits of the Mujahedeen, led by a swashbuckling, Oxford-educated Afghan, who fought shoulder-to-shoulder with British allies against the communist invaders. The Hollywood movie Rambo III similarly portrayed the Mujahedeen in a highly favorable light. Jihad carried out at the instigation of Western governments was considered a noble activity. The Western media (and the movie industry) accordingly played along.

Not too long after the Russians were successfully expelled from Afghanistan, some of the Mujahedeen of Afghanistan morphed into the Taliban, the Afghan militia who initiated a reign of austerity, puritanism, and fear in the 1990s. The Taliban promoted the idea of militancy under the rubric of jihad against all those who opposed their brutal policies. “Jihad” now began to be used in the Western media as a reference to the activity of Muslim religious fanatics, opposed to democratic forms of government and intent on destroying Western civilization.

Since the deadly September 11 attacks, the predominant understanding of jihad has become “terrorism” in many quarters in the United States. The word “terrorist” is used almost reflexively in the Western media in connection with acts of violence perpetrated by actors from Muslim backgrounds. In contrast, there is a general reluctance to use the term when the perpetrators are from non-Muslim backgrounds. When the Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City was bombed in 1995, media pundits were quick to say that it had all the hallmarks of “Islamic terrorism” and the ready assumption was that the perpetrators must be “Muslim terrorists.” When it was ultimately revealed that the violent act had been carried out by Timothy McVeigh, a homegrown terrorist from a Christian background and a member of the American Patriot p. 172Movement, the public hysteria subsided quite a bit and the word “terrorist” dropped out of media accounts of the event.

This situation bears comparison to the media coverage of the January 6, 2021, mob attack on the US Capitol in Washington, DC, as a response to the 2020 presidential elections that resulted in the victory of Joe Biden. Other than some commentators on liberal outlets like the cable television channel MSNBC, most journalists and “talking heads” covering the insurrection largely refrained from using the term “terrorists,” or more specifically “domestic terrorists,” to refer to the attackers. In the months following the attack, some Republican members of Congress went so far to paint the mob, whose political allegiances they share, as “peaceful patriots”—these were the exact words of Arizona representative Paul Gozar. Another congressman, Andrew Clyde from Georgia, described the mob attack as a “normal tourist visit!” This was despite that many of these insurrectionists, motivated by their extremist political views, had resorted to unprovoked violence with the express intention of creating an atmosphere of terror for these very same members of Congress. The erection of a gallows on the Capitol grounds, the open calls for the murder of Vice President Mike Pence, and the vicious beating of police officer Michael Fanone left no doubt about their intent to do harm with extreme malice. These acts of militancy and intimidation aimed at a civilian population meet the basic definition of terrorism. The ingrained reluctance on the part of the media and beyond to apply the term “terrorist” to other than militants from a Muslim background points to the ideological motivations behind the selective application of this pejorative term in American public discourses.

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Does the American media cover violent acts carried out by Muslims differently than those carried out by non-Muslims?

Academic research has confirmed that the American media spends far more time covering militant acts carried out by p. 173perpetrators with Muslim-sounding names than those carried out by non-Muslim perpetrators. This conclusion was reached by researchers at Georgia State University in a study published in 2019 titled “Why Do Some Terrorist Attacks Receive More Media Attention Than Others?” The study provides compelling evidence that terror attacks carried out by Muslims receive more than five times as much media coverage as those carried out by non-Muslims in the United States. Analysis of coverage of all terrorist attacks in the United States between 2011 and 2015 led to the discovery that there was a 449 percent increase in media attention when the attacker was a Muslim. Muslims committed just 12.4 percent of attacks during the period under consideration but received 41.4 percent of the news coverage.

The researchers who conducted the survey studied US newspaper coverage of every terrorist attack on American soil and counted the total number of articles dedicated to each attack. They found that the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, carried out by Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, two Chechen Muslim attackers originally from Kyrgyzstan (in Central Asia), and where three people were killed, received almost 20 percent of all coverage related to US terror attacks in the five-year period. In contrast, reporting of a 2012 massacre at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin that left six people dead and was carried out by Wade Michael Page—a Caucasian man from a Christian background—received just 3.8 percent of coverage. Dylann Roof, who is also white and Christian, shot to death nine people at an African American church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015 but received only 7.4 percent of media coverage. Similarly, a 2014 attack by Frazier Glenn Miller, a Euro-American, on a Kansas synagogue that left three dead in its wake accounted for just 3.3 percent of reports.

All of these attacks meet widely-used definitions of terrorism, according to these researchers. Such findings clearly suggest that the media helps make people disproportionately fearful of Muslims as terrorists. Overreporting of terrorist attacks carried out by perpetrators from Muslim backgrounds p. 174contributes to popular perceptions that Muslims are inherently violent. The frequent framing of such violent acts as religiously motivated further contributes to the perception that Islamic teachings condone arbitrary acts of terror under the cover of jihad.

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How does Hollywood portray jihad and Muslims?

An illuminating book by Jack Shaheen, Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People, provides plenty of documentation that, wittingly or unwittingly, a considerable number of Hollywood producers continue to perpetuate the stereotype that Muslims, especially men, are violent and pose a danger to American society unless restrained by the non-Muslim Euro-American hero. The Muslim anti-hero is often portrayed as “brandishing an automatic weapon, crazy hate in his eyes, Allah on his lips,” as Shaheen remarked.

Shaheen meticulously catalogued and examined several popular Hollywood action films and discovered that most of them conformed to such caricatures of Muslim men. They also tended to dehumanize Muslim women and children. Even a children’s film like Aladdin portrays the Arab world as “barbaric.” (The 2019 remake of this film removed some of the more offensive stereotypes in response to the criticism it received for the earlier version, particularly from Arab-American groups like the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.) As Shaheen phrased it, “The celluloid Arab is the cultural ‘other.’” This was brought home dramatically after the release of the movie Rules of Engagement in 2000. Toward the conclusion of the movie, there is a scene in which US Marines in Yemen fire on a group of civilians that include women and children. When this scene played in movie theaters across the United States, audiences are reported to have cheered this senseless massacre. Hollywood had so frequently dehumanized Arabs and Muslims that generations of American moviegoers had p. 175learned to view them as enemies who deserve to be indiscriminately mowed down.

For its painstaking documentation and level-headed treatment of a highly sensitive topic, Shaheen’s work has become a classic. This particular problem—the stereotypical unflattering, often hostile, depictions of Arabs and Muslims in Hollywood films—has by no means disappeared. Shaheen’s work remains invaluable for the light it sheds on how the film industry, both overtly and subliminally, affects how a broad segment of the American population views Muslims and understands jihad.

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How does the internet affect public perceptions of jihad in the West?

There are many unreliable websites whose sole function is to spread inaccurate and inflammatory information about Islam in general and jihad in particular. These websites are maintained by groups or individuals who are often described as “Islamophobes”—that is to say, they fear and hate Islam and Muslims. These groups and individuals have a vested interest in portraying Islam and Muslims in the worst possible light. Jihad is depicted by them as an unrelenting violent religious obligation that requires Muslims to militarily wipe out or subjugate non-Muslims. Jihad understood in this way is presented by these Islamophobic groups and individuals as the one activity that characterizes Muslims and renders them incapable of peacefully coexisting with other groups of people. Muslims as Muslims are innately dangerous, and some go so far as to say that Muslim populations themselves especially in the West, should be wiped out on account of the threat they are assumed to represent. These Islamophobes are in many ways the mirror image of al-Qaeda and ISIS ideologues, who similarly portray (non-Muslim) Westerners as the unrelenting enemy of Muslims everywhere and thus an inherent threat that needs to be eliminated. These two groups feed off each other’s feverish p. 176rhetoric and confrontational worldview; each needs the other to justify its existence.

One Islamophobic website explains the reason for its existence in the following manner:

Why Jihad Watch? Because non-Muslims in the West, as well as in India, China, Russia, and the world over, are facing a concerted effort by Islamic jihadists, the motives and goals of whom are largely ignored by the Western media, to destroy their societies and impose Islamic law upon them—and to commit violence to that end even while their overall goal remains out of reach. That effort goes under the general rubric of jihad.

If one knew nothing else about jihad and/or about Muslims in general, one might find such language convincing and frightening to the core. Flooding the website with such sinister depictions of jihad has become the tool of choice for these purveyors of hate. They thus seek to intimidate and disenfranchise Western Muslim citizens and cast a malignant light over all Muslims everywhere.

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Are there Western militants who are influenced by Islamophobic rhetoric on jihad?

There are indeed. One individual who found such rhetoric convincing and chose to act on it was a thirty-two-year-old Norwegian man by the name of Anders Breivik. On July 22, 2011, he planted a bomb in an Oslo government building that caused eight fatalities—apparently inspired by Timothy McVeigh’s bombing of the Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City sixteen years earlier. A few hours later, Breivik shot and killed sixty-eight people, mostly teenagers, at a Labor Party youth camp on Utoya Island outside Oslo. As happened with McVeigh’s act of terrorism, most mainstream p. 177media outlets, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, and The Atlantic, immediately jumped to the conclusion that Muslim “jihadists” were behind the attacks, which supposedly bore the imprint of al-Qaeda operatives. By the next day, however, these media outlets were forced to acknowledge that a Nordic-looking man who identified as a Christian conservative had carried out these terrorist attacks.

At his arraignment a few days later in Oslo, Breivik admitted to his crimes and declared that his violence was motivated by a desire to rid Europe of Muslims and destroy what he claimed was an “ongoing Islamic colonization of Europe.” The purpose of the attack was to make the Norwegian Labor Party “pay the price” for apparently facilitating a Muslim takeover of Norway. He said he was influenced by the inflammatory rhetoric of the extremist Dutch politician Geert Wilders, who regularly rails against the Muslim presence in Europe, and by the books of the American journalist Bruce Bawer, who lives in Norway and pens hatemongering tracts against Muslims. One of these tracts by Bawer is titled While Europe Slept: How Radical Islam Is Destroying the West from Within. In his 1,500-page manifesto, Breivik also liberally provided citations from the blogs of certain American Islamophobic “stars,” which routinely proclaim that Islam is waging violent jihad against the West and that Muslims cannot help but be religious fanatics on account of their dangerous beliefs.

Prominent among the bloggers mentioned by Breivik was Robert Spencer, who runs the website titled Jihad Watch (mentioned earlier). Spencer won the dubious distinction of having been mentioned by Breivik the most—162 times—followed by Spencer’s collaborator Pamela Geller, who was mentioned about a dozen times. Together they run an outfit called Stop Islamization of America (also known as the American Freedom Defense Initiative), which circulates baseless conspiracy theories about Western Muslims while claiming to fight radicalism. Breivik’s frequent references to these individuals and their toxic prose establishes without doubt p. 178that the web of misinformation created by these provocateurs had led him to engage in the senseless murderous attacks on innocent civilians in Oslo. Although their blogs had not explicitly called for violence against Muslims, the American Islamophobes referenced by the Norwegian terrorist had created “the infrastructure from which Breivik emerged,” as former CIA officer Marc Sageman phrased it in a New York Times article published shortly after the shooting.

Anti-Islamic hatemongering is also the province of certain “think tanks,” such as the Center for Security Policy, the Middle East Forum, and the Investigative Project on Terrorism, which were also named by Breivik in his manifesto as sources of inspiration. Typically these organizations traffic in sensationalist rhetoric about Islam and Muslims, attempting to whip up public paranoia about “creeping Sharia” and about an assumed worldwide Muslim conspiracy to take over the West through the instrument of militant jihad. As of the writing of this book, rhetoric of this sort has helped to galvanize nativist and xenophobic political opposition to Western Muslims and brought Islamophobic politicians and political parties to power in a number of Western countries, including the United States.

Such rhetoric is not about to go away—the US organizations mentioned earlier are bankrolled by powerful donors, like the Donors Capital Fund, the Russell Berrie Foundation, Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, among others. These foundations contribute millions of dollars to Islamophobic organizations. Thanks to their “largesse,” such organizations have mounted a very effective campaign against Muslims, agitating against their presence and relentlessly vilifying their religion as one that promotes endless violence in the name of jihad. Some of their hate-mongering rhetoric has been adopted by right-wing Christian and Jewish groups and infiltrated the media—not just Fox News and the Washington Times, as might be expected, but also the editorial pages of the Wall Street p. 179Journal, for example. What were once dismissed as fringe, extremist views have seeped into the American mainstream and gained a certain legitimacy, especially after the 2016 presidential elections. Peddling hatred against Muslims has become a powerful and profitable industry in contemporary America and Europe.

Words have consequences. Inflammatory rhetoric circulating on the internet and popular media and increasingly adopted by government officials and members of the US Congress have led to a spike in violence against American Muslims. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks extremism in the United States, the number of hate groups active in the United States rose for the second year in a row in 2016, propelled in part by the mainstreaming of farright rhetoric by the Trump presidency, particularly on topics like immigration and Islam. The number of anti-Muslim groups grew the most, almost tripling to 101 in 2016 from thirty-four in 2015. In its annual report, the center said that there were 917 known hate groups operating in the United States in 2016, an increase from 892 in 2015 and 784 in 2014. In the first ten days after Trump’s election, the center documented 867 bias incidents, including more than three hundred that targeted immigrants or Muslims.

Mosques remain a tempting target for hate crimes. A report prepared by the American Civil Liberties Union in May 2020 documented eleven or more attacks on mosques in seven states since 2005. Another fourteen states reported between five and ten attacks; the remaining states witnessed between one and four anti-mosque incidents during this period.

A detailed account of prominent Islamophobes and Islamophobic organizations is provided by the Center for American Progress in their 2011 report Fear, Inc.: The Roots of the Islamophobic Industry in America; also available at their website (

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p. 180How can one challenge anti-Islamic discourses that distort the meanings of jihad?

There are a number of academic units, think tanks, and advocacy groups that are proactively seeking to engage and challenge the growing tide of Islamophobia and its poisonous consequences. The obvious way to undermine the organized, well-heeled campaigns of disinformation spearheaded by anti-Islamic groups in the United States is to provide accurate, well-researched, and well-documented information in its stead and make such information as accessible as possible to a wide audience.

One of the newest and most effective initiatives in this regard has been launched by the Prince Waleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. Called the Bridge Initiative, its mission statement reads in part as follows:

It is our view that in order to safeguard our national security and uphold America’s core values, we must return to a fact-based civil discourse regarding the challenges we face as a nation and world…. A first step toward the goal of honest, civil discourse is to expose—and marginalize—the influence of the individuals and groups who make up the Islamophobia network in America by actively working to divide Americans against one another through misinformation.

Launched in 2015, this Initiative in its short life span has attracted the attention of those seeking alternatives to the usual media outlets for balanced and non-sensational, factual reporting about Muslims in the United States and elsewhere. A survey of the Bridge Initiative’s website reveals that they constantly monitor popular media outlets and provide regular updates on Islamophobic incidents globally. As part of their efforts to counter prevailing stereotypes of Muslims as p. 181intrinsically violent and dangerous, the Initiative has compiled fact sheets and reports focused on historical and scholarly understandings of jihad. They have also documented the various ways American Muslims and others are challenging radical understandings of politics and religion that are attributed to them by anti-Islamic activists.

In the United States, American Muslim civil rights and advocacy groups are at the forefront of efforts to push back against Islamophobia and allow Muslims to represent themselves in all their diversity. Among such organizations are the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the Muslim Public Action Committee (MPAC), the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), and the Islamic Council of North America (ICNA), which regularly hold conferences, workshops, and information sessions to challenge Islamophobia; provide representation for Muslim citizens in the political and civil spheres; and advocate for the civil and human rights of American Muslims when they are violated. A number of these organizations provide internships for undergraduate and graduate students so that they may learn critical political and lobbying skills to make them more effective citizens. They also engage in outreach to other religious communities and participate in interfaith activities to promote religious and political freedom and combat bigotry. They liaise with members of churches, synagogues, temples, and other houses of worship and have established broad coalitions with ethnic and special interest groups representing, for example, Americans of Japanese, Sikh, and Hindu backgrounds—all of whom have similarly encountered cultural ostracism, racism, and violence. American Muslim groups also work hand in hand with secular civil rights and legal advocacy groups, such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Southern Poverty Law Center, the American Bar Association, and others to defend their rights as American citizens. CAIR, in particular, keeps track of incidents of discrimination and violence directed at American Muslims and provides much-needed p. 182counsel to those seeking legal redress against employers, for example, who discriminate against Muslims. These American Muslim organizations have been attacked and defamed by Islamophobic activists, who regularly misrepresent them as a front for what they describe as “a global Muslim Brotherhood” that is intent on launching militant jihad against the West.

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Can educational institutions play a role in providing balanced information about jihad?

They certainly can. As educators, mentors, and advisors, schoolteachers and college and university professors can train and are training the next generation of scholars, policymakers, politicians, journalists, social activists, and responsible citizens to develop good habits of critical reading, listening, and reflection. Such habits will help them navigate the barrage of information that confronts them daily and will help them distinguish facts from manufactured news. Students come into classrooms mostly with open minds and an eagerness to learn through critical inquiry and engagement.

You know you are making headway when students learn to thoughtfully analyze and deconstruct what they hear and read in less respectable media outlets and/or on the internet. Recently, one of my students at Indiana University wrote this in her final essay:

If more people, especially those who don’t believe the negative things said but don’t know enough to make a difference, made an effort to learn about Islam, then I think things might be different. Maybe the bigoted voices wouldn’t sound so loud, and maybe the stereotypes would be referred to less. If people made an effort to understand, rather than just repeat the same negative things that they hear, then maybe the world would be a less hateful place.

p. 183Academics can also bring their expertise to bear on hot-button issues in the public sphere—such as jihad—challenging uninformed and reflexive views, and encouraging people to rely on evidence-based, factual information. They can publish accessible books for nonspecialist readers who are sometimes skeptical of what they hear and watch on popular media and are anxious for reliable and credible information about Islam and Muslims without fearmongering. A number of academics write op-ed pieces in newspapers and blogs that can be widely distributed on the internet and through social media. Some of them take the time (and should take the time) to cultivate friendships with journalists who are frequently eager to work with them and help get their viewpoints out to the broader public. Others participate in television and radio talk shows, upload YouTube videos of relevant public lectures, and contribute to public fora of many kinds. Such public activities showcase the issues that are at stake today for Muslims as a global community, the overwhelming majority of whom seek to coexist peacefully with the rest of humanity.

One may consider these attempts as part of a collective, nondenominational struggle—that is to say, jihad—against misinformation and to promote better understanding in its place through responsible, engaged scholarship.p. 184