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The language of Islam has been hijacked Add to ...

The Miss World pageant has mercifully ended its annual debacle.

The organizers were duly chastised for planning a swimsuit spectacle during the month of Ramadan in a country with a sizable Muslim majority; weaknesses of the Nigerian government were exposed for failing to anticipate and contain deep-seated religious tensions between Muslims and Christians; ThisDay columnist Isioma Daniel and her editors were criticized for making light of Muslim protests with insensitive comments about the Prophet Mohammed; and the mob violence initiated by a segment of Nigerian Muslims was rightly condemned.

But then, just as the situation calmed, the deputy governor of Zamfara state issued a fatwa (religious edict) calling for the death of Ms. Daniel. At this point, what had been a responsible media treatment froze, as if hypnotized by "that" word, leaving a North American public largely ill-informed about the criticism of that fatwa by Muslims, and about its eventual revocation.

Never mind that religious authorities in Egypt and Saudi Arabia immediately condemned the fatwa as having no sound basis in Islamic jurisprudence, and that Nigeria's supreme Islamic body ordered Muslims to ignore the edict, noting that the state had no religious authority in the first place. For many in the West, a fatwa remains synonymous with murderous zealotry.

In this case, as in others before it, media focus gave undue credibility to unqualified authorities, while legitimate voices, trained in the rigours of Islamic law, were ignored.

Chronic abuse of Islamic terminology can only contribute to the widening gulf between the "West" and the Muslim world. Whereas Muslims attach a rich, historical legacy to words such as fatwa or jihad,current discourse insists on their interpretation on Western terms.

Consider Ken Wiwa's thoughtful essay on the Nigerian strife in these pages. Unfortunately titled "Jihad versus Miss World" -- a play on Benjamin Barber's 1992 essay Jihad vs. McWorld -- the use of "jihad" was meant to capture the anger of Nigeria's Muslims.

As Mr. Barber himself acknowledged, jihad "is a rich word whose generic meaning is 'struggle' -- usually the struggle of the soul to avert evil" and that "strictly applied to religious war, it is used only in reference to battles where the faith is under assault." Ironically, Mr. Barber insisted on using his own interpretation, however inaccurate, arguing, "My use here is rhetorical, but does follow both journalistic practice and history." This approach was echoed in his 2001 essay Ballots vs. Bullets, in which jihad is understood not as part of Islam but as "disintegrative tribalism and reactionary fundamentalism."

In 1999, then chief justice Antonio Lamer of the Supreme Court of Canada issued a public rebuke of those demanding more severe sentences and tougher laws for violent crimes, referring to these concerns as a "jihad" against justice, apparently oblivious to his own antonymic use of the term.

But misuse of Islamic terminology is not confined to the West. Osama bin Laden has sanctified mass murder by his use of such terms as fatwa and jihad and by deviously manipulating the rich legacy of these concepts.

Such misappropriation of Islamic terms requires Muslims to step forward and reclaim the authenticity of their own language. The nihilism of Osama bin Laden is not jihad but hirabah,the most loathsome of crimes, in that it involves killing with terrorism and intimidation.

That is how six of the most respected Muslim scholars described the attacks of Sept. 11 in a fatwa: "These terrorists' acts, considered by Islamic law [constitute]the crime of hirabah." And it's how a prominent Islamic jurist described the Bali bombing: "Total barbarism . . . or hirabah; a crime in Islam for which severe punishment is specified."

Ironically, most Islamic scholars say the principal reason for legislating a jihad is in cases of hirabah -- that jihad is meant to be a defence against the senseless harm and targeting of innocents.

This is the language that people in the West should hear more about.

The Koran refers to the power of language: A good word is analogous to a tree, with firm roots in the ground, spreading its branches to the heavens, providing fruit and shelter to many. A harmful word is akin to a sickly plant, with shallow roots, yielding bitter fruit.

We can continue to use superficial, injurious terminology to the detriment of many. Or we can insist on using accurate language, firmly rooted in universal concepts that nourish the desire for fair and frank debate. Sheema Khan is chair of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Canada.

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