On September 11, 2001, Islamic extremists killed 2,977 innocent people on American soil. Among the dead were two of my classmates’ fathers who worked in the Twin Towers. We were in seventh grade at the time, just old enough to understand what happened, but too young to understand why.
Over the next decade, I became obsessed with understanding the ideology behind these attacks. How could humans harbor so much hate? To this day, it’s still hard for me to comprehend. But what I learned over the years is that the 19 al-Qaeda terrorists who committed those atrocious attacks were inspired by “jihad.” Since then, many more have followed in their footsteps.
So last week when I heard Muslim-American activist Linda Sarsour call for “jihad” against President Donald Trump, I was “triggered,” to say the least. To be clear, Sarsour did not call for violent jihad against Trump. Anyone who suggests otherwise is intellectually dishonest. For context, Sarsour said in her original speech (which can also be viewed in full here):
“I hope, that when we stand up to those who oppress our communities, that Allah accepts from us that as a form of jihad. We are struggling against tyrants and rulers not only abroad in the Middle East but here in the United States of America, where you have fascists and white supremacists and Islamophobes reigning in the White House.”
What’s also intellectually dishonest, however, is Sarsour’s assertion that those criticizing her for evoking jihad against the Trump administration is doing so because she’s “their worst nightmare.” You are not my worst nightmare, Sarsour. In fact, I respect you for having the strength to speak out about your beliefs. What is my worst nightmare, however, is another radical extremist waging jihad against people I know and love.
We’re Not Ignorant About the Meaning of Jihad
Since giving her speech at the Islamic Society of North American convention, Sarsour has faced an onslaught of criticism. She says those attacking her are taking the term “jihad” out of context. In The Washington Post, Sarsour responded:
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 majority of Muslims and according to religious scholars means ‘struggle’ or ‘to strive for.’ This term has been hijacked by Muslim extremists and right-wing extremists alike, leaving ordinary Muslims to defend our faith and in some cases silenced. It sets a dangerous precedent when people of faith are policed and when practicing their religion peacefully comes with consequences.
Here, Sarsour suggests that anyone who has a problem with her use of “jihad” is peddling and promoting a false definition of the term for the sole purpose of defaming her. She furthermore implies that it’s the fault of our own ignorance that the term “jihad” is so profoundly misunderstood. (What the true meaning ultimately is, I’ll leave to Muslim scholars to decide.)
But if Sarsour really cared about reclaiming this word from the terrorists who so obviously “hijacked” it, she might first consider educating news outlets of its meaning prior to evoking it as a “peaceful” form of protest. Among those news outlets that could use her wisdom are The Washington Post and The New York Times. Certainly, headlines like, “Fifteen Years After 9/11, the Jihadist Threat Looms Larger Than Ever Across the Globe” (The Washington Post) and “The Origins of Jihadist-Inspired Attackers In the U.S.” (The New York Times) suggest a fundamental “misunderstanding” of the term.
Don’t Blame Us For Offense At Deliberate Provocation
In wake of the backlash she received from this speech, Sarsour wrote in The Washington Post, “It saddens me deeply that my three children are frightened.” She added, “It angers me that I have to think about securing my physical safety even while walking through the neighborhoods of Brooklyn.”
Well, Sarsour, it saddens me that Islamic extremists justified the slaughter of my classmates’ fathers with “jihad” when they were only in the seventh grade. It saddens me that every day after that, I felt compelled to pray that my father would make it home after he boarded his train for New York City. It also angers me that when I graduated college and moved to New York City, I, too, had to fear for my physical safety, worried that someone might justify an attack against me in the name of jihad.
If you want to have a theological debate about the true meaning of jihad, you’re blessed with the platform to start it. But in using the term during your speech, that’s not what you were doing. A smart, educated activist, you knew calling for jihad against our president would be inflammatory. Then you went one step further—you blamed us for being offended.
I pray that when I raise children of my own, they’ll have to know only about the peaceful side of “jihad” of which you so fondly speak. But in a day and age where terror attacks happen so regularly, we have no choice but to view jihad as an ugly, violent, and painful part of our personal experience. In the least, I would hope you can respect that.