Many in the U.S. believe that we are locked in a clash of civilizations with the Islamic world, meaning that the American (Western) and Islamic conceptions of the world are so fundamentally different that conflict between us is inevitable. There are obvious differences between the Islamic world and the U.S.—linguistic and cultural differences (although it is hard to say exactly which cultural differences doom us to conflict). Perhaps the greatest perceived difference, from an American perspective, is the Islamic belief in jihad. “Jihad” is a very scary word in America. It is widely believed that jihad is a call for Muslims to wage holy war against infidels, and it is quickly associated with terrorism.
Unfortunately jihad is pitifully misunderstood in the U.S.. The widespread belief that jihad sanctions terrorism is completely false. I remember when I was in Marine Corps boot camp my drill instructors told us that we were fighting terrorists because Islam taught them (“terrorist” was nearly synonymous with “Muslim”) that if they killed an American they would go directly to heaven when they died and receive 72 virgins. For a while I believed it. I believed it all the way to Fallujah, where my command told us that Fallujah had been taken over by terrorists and we were going to “liberate” the city by killing everyone who picked up arms against us. Evidence of their acts of terrorism was lacking (and attacking U.S. troops when we were clearly the aggressors was not an act of terrorism), but the fact that they believed in jihad and fought back against us was enough to condemn them.
Jihad is a broad and complex topic in Islamic theology. It literally means “struggle” or “effort”, and it is a duty for all Muslims. Jihad usually takes on three forms: an internal struggle to refrain from sin and be the best Muslim one can be (which is often referred to as Jihad Al Akbar, the greater jihad); an external struggle for justice and to build a good Islamic society; and a holy war, which most Islamic scholars today agree can only be a war of self-defense and cannot harm civilians. Most Americans would be surprised to learn that jihad shares many values with our concept of patriotism, and that it is a religious analogue to Western just war theory. There are considerations of jus ad bellum (just cause for war) and jus in bello (just conduct in war) in jihad, as well as the notion of a duty to defend one’s community when it is under attack.
"Patriotism” is an equally broad word that gives rise to intellectual debates about its ideal meaning, use, and virtues. Such debates usually define patriotism as love or devotion for one’s country, and generally hold that patriotism is not a duty, nor does it consist of duties. However, in the popular use of the term, duty is an integral part of what average Americans mean when they use the term “patriotism.” To love one’s country is an internal state that requires no outward behavior. And what is “devotion” if it is never manifested in behavior? Most Americans would not deem a closet patriot to be a patriot at all. Most expect love and devotion for one’s country to be manifested outwardly for it to be considered patriotic. Most Americans use the term “patriotism” to refer to behavior, not internal states. So to be patriotic is to do things or make statements that demonstrate one’s love or devotion to their country. Some demonstrate their love for their country by putting up flags in front of their house, by teaching their children about the American forefathers, or by supporting the troops with either care packages or moral support. Others demonstrate their devotion to their country by enlisting in the military and being willing to die in the name of national defense.
Professor Andrew Bacevich wrote that “patriotism,” up until the Vietnam War “implied, even required, deference to the state, shown most clearly in the willingness of individuals to accept the government’s authority to mandate military service. GI’s, the vast majority of the them draftees, were the embodiment of American patriotism, risking life and limb to defend the country.” But the Vietnam War caused many Americans to question the conventional meaning of “patriotism”, and led some to try to redefine it as opposition to state policies that are “misguided, illegal, or immoral.” This debate has continued into the current War on Terror. Anti-war figures like Howard Zinn, who said, “dissent is the highest form of patriotism,” have harshly criticized our government for committing war crimes in Iraq. Yet their advocacy for international law and human rights has been called “unpatriotic” by the more militaristic segments of American society.
There are very obvious differences between the concepts of “jihad” and “patriotism” and these differences should not be ignored, because they tell us important things about each community’s conception of authority and how morality is justified. However, three common values shine through these differences: devotion, duty, and self-defense. Devotion to a certain set of values and teachings (neither of which exclude the Ten Commandments and the teachings of Jesus Christ), duty to one’s community, and the right and virtue of defending oneself or community when under attack. Furthermore, “jihad” is no less reflective about the moral issues surrounding war than our own tradition of just war theory.
Certainly there are some crazies out there who have twisted the notion of jihad to condone terrorism against Muslims and non-Muslims alike—Al Qaeda immediately comes to mind. Yet jihad under it’s most extreme and violent interpretation seems no worse than patriotism under it’s most extreme and violent interpretation, which requires obedience even when we are committing war crimes and human rights violations.
All of these considerations raise the question, “what is so scary about jihad?” I don’t believe that we have asked this question seriously as a society. Our collective misunderstanding of this concept has led us to nearly equate it with terrorism, and the War on Terror in reality has been a war on jihad. It is of the most bitter irony that those who have responded to our aggression by shouting “jihad” in the name of self-defense were condemned as our enemies and were met with more aggression. The circularity of our justifications for our aggression and the Islamic justification for self-defense has spun us into a bloodbath that has shown little sign of abetting. The recent sentencing of Tarek Mehanna has brought us to an even scarier phase of the War on Terror, because jihad is closer than ever to becoming a criminal idea in the United States. And Islam is now actually under attack.
Whether or not we will be able to sensibly remove ourselves from the vicious cycle of violence that has been the War on Terror remains to be foreseen. Nevertheless, anyone still clinging to the analysis that the War on Terror is a clash of civilizations is going to have to contend with the possibility that we may not be so different after all. It appears to be just the foreignness of the word “jihad” that scares Americans, and not the concepts it invokes.