Dongxiang minority student discussing a math problem in China.
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Dongxiang minority student discussing a math problem in China.
Last updated: November 17, 2013

The Jihad blog - an introduction

Banner Icon This is the first part in a new series discovering the concept of Jihad. Charlie Cooper explores.

Jihad: without a doubt, the most notorious and misunderstood of Islamic terms. Given its unparalleled infamy in today’s world, you’d have thought that it would be easy – courtesy of the internet – to come to a decent and impartial understanding of what jihad really is, to learn what it means within Islam and the basics of its political history.

Think again.

Just as with much of the discussion surrounding the quagmire that political Islam presents, any analysis on the topic usually falls into one of two categories:

The first is populated by pseudo-militant rightists who exaggerate beyond measure – sometimes even fabricate – uncomfortable facts about jihad and Islam to non-Muslims. Ironically, just like many militant jihadists, these writers thrive off a Manichean conception of the world in which Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilisations thesis reigns supreme.

"The polarised discussion needs to be set aside"

The other grouping of literature is that of those people seeking to play down the times when violence has been waged under the banner of jihad. While this shortcoming is easier to forgive – more often than not these writers are just attempting to improve the social standing of Muslims and reputation of Islam – they are shortcomings nevertheless.

The fact of the matter is that both of these groups are promoting inaccuracies. The curious reader should steer clear of relying on either for a half-decent understanding of jihad. Blogs like Robert Spencer’s Jihad Watch are flagrantly anti-Muslim, more useful as a means of promoting and selling inflammatory books than anything else. In the same vein, though, apologist explanations of jihad understate and obscure the fact that violence has often been – and will most likely continue to be – waged under its banner.

In the current global context, it is imperative that the term is brought even more into the limelight and better discussed. It must be shown, unambiguously, that Islamist violence is based on misinterpretation of religion and not religion itself, as those at either end of the extremist spectrum, the Ayman al-Zawahiris and Pamela Gellers of the world, would have us believe.

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Whether we like it or not, jihad has become a regular fixture in today’s media. There remains, however, an immense deficit in understanding it. It refers to a category of practice rather than a single mode of action, of the same relevance whether used in reference to Hizbullah’s post-Lebanese civil war rebuilding projects, regarding the seizure of Nairobi’s Westgate mall by al-Shabaab, or even to describe the lengths that some Muslim women (allegedly) go to in order to help the anti-Assad Islamist opposition in Syria. I could go on indefinitely; whatever the case, though, the political salience of jihad seems unfaltering, so it is about time that people understood it, and not just superficially.  

Over the next few weeks, I am going to try to right this imbalance and disrupt the binary nature of the debate on jihad. The polarised discussion needs to be set aside for something non-partisan and unbiased, neither conciliatory nor inflammatory. Sure, this kind of thing could be found in academia, but what about those that don’t want to spend their days forehead deep in scholarship. Here, the hard work has been done for you.

Drawing on Islamic texts as well as historical and political documents, each post will consider a different phase in the history of jihad. To make things simple, after a preliminary definition for jihad is introduced in the next post, the series will progress century by century since Mohammed’s first revelation in 610 CE until the present day. Needless to say, this cannot – and will not – be a comprehensive guide to jihad, there will have to be some historical picking and choosing throughout. What it will be, though, is a first step towards solving the dilemma that we are currently presented with, a path to cut through the middle of the most skewed (unfortunately, the most accessible, too) analyses of jihad.

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Charlie Cooper
Charlie is a London-based researcher of Middle Eastern politics and Islamist movements. He is currently based at the Quilliam Foundation and regularly contributes to the Next Century Foundation's Iran blog. He holds an MA in Middle Eastern Studies from KCL and a BA in Arabic from Edinburgh University. Opinions are his own.
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