One Muslim’s Jihad, is Another Muslim’s Hirabah


Language has the power to define and shape perception. It is a weapon in itself. While visiting Amy Proctor’s blog, she wrote about the value in distinguishing the difference between "jihad" and "hirabah", and to help make that distinction mainstream.

we do a disservice [to] the war on terrorism when we refer to acts of terrorism as Jihad. It is not and in order to isolate the terrorists, we need to refer to what it is: Hirabah.

Amy defines the two terms this way:

Jihad means to make an effort to overcome difficulty or to struggle. It includes an internal or personal, social and institutional struggle for justice and against oppression and sin. Jihad can not be used to force people to convert or kill non-Muslims. This is contrary to Islamic law.

Hirabah on the other hand is rebellion and terrorism, considered heresy within Islam. Acts of hirabah are capital crimes in Islam. It contains the principle of Jihad but carries out acts of “persuasion” to meet its objective.

Guy Raz of NPR exploring the political lexicon of the post-9/11 world we find ourselves in,

To most non-Muslim Westerners, a jihadist would be defined as an Islamic extremist who uses violence for religious reasons. Indeed, built into the 7th century notion of jihad is the idea of warfare. But it’s not so simple, because Islam treats violent jihad as a regulated endeavor, governed by very strict laws of conduct.

Then there’s the other problem: Jihad has a multiplicity of meanings — so many layers, in fact, that its meaning lies largely in the mouths of those who use it.

Professor Douglas Streusand says that’s why U.S. officials should stop using the term altogether. Streusand is an Arabic and Farsi speaker with a doctorate from the University of Chicago. He teaches Islamic history at the Marine Corps Staff College in Quantico, Va. In a paper written for and circulated among top military brass in the Pentagon, Streusand argues that describing Islamist militants and insurgents in Iraq as "jihadists" is hurting U.S. policy.

Why? Because according to Streusand, "for a Muslim, jihad is a good thing. It literally means striving in the path of God." By describing insurgents or terrorists as "jihadists," he argues, we imply we are fighting meritorious Muslims. To make the point clearer, he says it would be as if al-Qaida called its enemies "freedom."

His suggestion? Use Islamic legal language. The term he suggests is "hirabah" — literally, an unjust form of warfare.

Not everyone agrees with Streusand’s argument. And clearly, U.S. policymakers, including President Bush, use the word "jihadists." Yet Streusand says that changing the language ever so slightly may have a beneficial impact on public opinion in the Islamic world.

It’s been deeply frustrating to feel that so many outspoken Muslims have acted as apologists and enablers for their more violent "brethren"- the hirabahists who perceive themselves as jihadists. When President Bush makes reference to the label, "Islamo-fascists", or when Michael Medved coined the term "Islamo-Nazis" to describe radical Islamic extremists, I certainly understood who they were referring to; and it wasn’t to the many peaceful, decent Muslims in the world. It was a reference to religious assholes wedded to violence.

Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., writes:

What names should we use that will accurately define and designate the cause? Calling things by their right names is the first requirement of reality; refusing to do so, the first cause of confusion, if not defeat. At first, we were told that the war is against something called "terrorism." Its perpetrators were logically called "terrorists." It was considered "hate-language" to call them anything else.

Unfortunately, terms like "Islamic fascism" gets misinterpreted, and we find ourselves creating unnecessary adversaries:

By now it is treated as established fact in much of the Middle East that President Bush said that Islam is fascist, but it isn’t so.

In Al-Jazeera, Laith Saud wrote recently:

George Bush, the president of the United States, continually links Islam with fascism…

Of course Bush did not do anything of the kind. What doesn’t Saud understand about "Whatever it’s called, this ideology is very different from the religion of Islam."?

"Islamic Fascism" does not imply that all Muslims are fascists, any more than "Jewish Philosophy" implies that all Jews are philosophers or "Christian Democrats" could be understood to mean that all Christians are Democrats.

At list one Muslim understood this very well. In Asharq al Awsat of August 14, 2006, Abdul Rahman Al-Rashed wrote:

When US President George W. Bush described those who plotted to kill thousands of passengers in ten airliners as Muslim fascists, protests from a number of Islamic societies in the west and the east were voiced against this description.

What is wrong with using a bad adjective to describe a terrorist as long as he is willing to personally call himself an Islamist; declares his stance, schemes, and aims; while his supporters publicly call for killing of those whom they consider infidels, or disagree with them religiously or politically.

The strange thing is that the protesting groups, which held a press conference, would better have held it to denounce the deeds of those affiliated to Islam, who harmed all Muslims and Islam.

Bush did not say that the Muslims were fascists; he said that the Muslim fascists were the problem, i.e. he distinguished between an extremist group and the general innocent peaceful Muslims. Yes, fascism is a word that has bad connotations, and is used here to approximate the meaning to the listeners…."

More from Guy Raz:

Khaled Abou el Fadl, who teaches Islamic law at UCLA, believes this term is a linguistic red flag. In his view, the word combines Islam and fascism — in effect, marking all Muslims as "the enemy." Even if there are elements common to al-Qaida and the traditional fascist movements of the 1920s and ’30s, he argues that that the term "Islamofascism" is too broad to make that point. He would prefer something more specific, such as "fascist-like al-Qaida extremists" — a term he thinks most Muslims would accept. Such a change in language, he says, might make it easier for Muslims to see U.S. policy not as an attack on Islam, but as a struggle against a common enemy.

Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri identify themselves as the "true" Islamists. They read the same holy book that the other "true" Islamists- the ones who do not engage in mass murdering of innocents- read and study. They have just as much "legitimacy" to claim doing things in the name of Allah and His Prophet as do their non-violent brethren. So what’s wrong with identifying the militant extremists accurately, by including "Islamic" or "Muslim" in any reference to these killers? Why then do so many Muslims take it personally, and feel that they themselves and Islam in general are being attacked? I think, in part, it’s because some of us do not care to make the distinction, and do as a matter of course, routinely attack Islam as a whole. This results in a further sense of alienation and persecution; and perhaps closer identification to the militant Islamists rather than estrangement from them.

There is also the problem that many Muslims have shared grievances as it relates to the West, American foreign policy, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is a matter of propagandized perception and indoctrination (stay tuned to a future post on why it is not American foreign policy that drives the "jihad" movement of Islamic hirabahist militants).

I do think that Muslims would be much healthier mentally and spiritually if they did not live in denial of the fact that their religion does have an inherent "defect"; one that enables the kind of around-the-world violence against innocent civilians that we see today.

I think Amy Proctor has it right, when she says that we give legitimacy to the terrorists when they refer to themselves as "Jihadi" and we don’t argue the term; something that nonviolent Muslims have been trying to do. We have been good at "counter-propagandizing" such things as "Islam" more accurately meaning "the religion of submission" and not "the religion of peace"; but not so good in helping Muslims understand that it is not their religion we are attacking (of course, many of us do, unapologetically and unmercifully, attack and criticize their religion).

Muslims certainly do their communities no favor when they act as sympathizers, apologists, and enablers for violent extremists living amongst them. Those who do so, become party to the hijacking of Islam’s "good name", and how it will be perceived and defined by the rest of the world at large.

That being said, there have been attempts by moderate, decent Muslims to take back the name of Islam and jihad to mean something other than what the militant extremists have come to characterize it as (let’s leave the historical debate aside, at the moment, please) meaning. Not all Muslims subscribe to the salafi and wahabi puritanical extremes of Islam. Especially the kind that advocates for intolerance and violence as the answer to creating a more "peaceful" and loving, Allah-filled world. If Islam is to have an extreme makeover in its image, it won’t be by making excuses on behalf of the inherent problems within their communities and within their holy book. Islamists have to come to grips with the realities of Islam. In the process, we can help encourage reformation of a religion practiced by 1.2 billion of the world’s population by (here it comes- brace yourselves!) being a bit more sensitive and understanding to the feelings of Muslims.

Phew! That was difficult to come out. But I think it’s an important one to say.

There’s a time to use strong "you’re either with us or with the terrorist/bring ’em on/wanted dead-or-alive" kind of rhetoric; and then there’s a time to exercise moderation and restraint; diplomacy and the "winning of hearts and minds", so that we are all on the same page and on the same side against a common threat to civilization and to humanity: the threat of Islamic Jihadists hirabahists. If we are to win "the war on terror", it will help if we get the greater Muslim community on board, to engage in jihad against the hirabahists.

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I’m glad to see the word “hirabah” finally getting a tiny bit more traction.

I don’t know Arabic, but I understand that another good word is “mufsidun” meaning “evildoer.”

I have to wonder if the demarcation is that black and white. I think we try too hard to excuse the passive Muslims majority. We assume they are moderate which may be true. But I’d like to see a little more effort to suppress their radical brothers and their sponsors.

I mean I’m not really sure of the relationship between the passive majority and the radicals. For some, it could be like the parents of teenagers who egg’ed the family down the street that is disliked. They dislike & are embarrassed by the behavior and are above it themselves, but on some level they enjoy that it happened and only wristslap their kids.

I think passive = moderate is a bad assumption. But perhaps labeling this “hirabah” and not “jihad” is what is needed to pressure those that don’t have a problem with the radicals’ goals but do have one with their methods.

Great post. I use the term Jihadist all the time and agree, using the correct term to describe these fanatics would help push the debate that much further.

Last thing I want to do is use a term that our enemy enjoys being labeled.

How is this term “hirabah” pronounced by the way?

Aitch wrote:

I don’t know Arabic, but I understand that another good word is “mufsidun” meaning “evildoer.”

Another potentially useful word I found: baghy which means “rebellion”, as hirabah might equate to terrorism, perhaps baghy is appropriate for the insurgency. But I really don’t know, as I don’t speak Arabic or Farsi.

jpm wrote:

I have to wonder if the demarcation is that black and white. I think we try too hard to excuse the passive Muslims majority.

I thought I included some of the nuances, and didn’t try to make it black and white. Just food for thought. And I feel like, at least in the right blogosphere, we do all too much to demonize Islam and have been all too eager to point out the problems we see in it. Mohammed might have been wed to a child, but to denigrate their revered Prophet as a pedophile isn’t exactly going to win us “hearts and minds”.

Curt wrote:

Great post. I use the term Jihadist all the time and agree, using the correct term to describe these fanatics would help push the debate that much further.

Last thing I want to do is use a term that our enemy enjoys being labeled.

Curt, I’ve been using Jihad a lot too. It even sounds kinda cool. I’ll still use it, in certain context; but I am also going to start using “hirabah” more often in serious posts.

I think we should do what we can to strip al-Qaeda and their fellow Islamic militants of religious legitimacy. Something Muslims should have been doing (in some cases, have been trying to do) more vigorously.

I think Streusand makes a great case when he says “for a Muslim, jihad is a good thing. It literally means striving in the path of God.” By describing insurgents or terrorists as “jihadists,” he argues, we imply we are fighting meritorious Muslims.

The delusional grandeur of Islamic militants should not be given validation. They should be treated as killers and thugs, and lowlife scum. Not holy warriors. Not martyrs. Those who engage in violent terrorist jihad- hirabah- should be made to feel that they will not achieve glory or honor or martyrdom. That the greater Islamic community will not revere their “sacrifice” but will spit on their graves instead. That they will die an ignoble death, in defiance of the will of Allah and his Prophet. I think this approach should be a part of the counter-terrorism strategy.

Of course, ultimately, it is the Islamic world that needs to reject the radicals, openly and vociferously, so that their voice makes a louder noise than the voice of the Zawahiris and the Ahmadinejads.

How is this term “hirabah” pronounced by the way?

Beats the hell out of me…

I keep wanting to refer to Islamic terrorists as “hirabahadists”. It feels like it would flow off the tongue a lot smoother than “hirabahists”. But that’s because I’m so used to “jihad”.

We need to start winning the war of propaganda and ideas and words.

Great commentary on my post, wordsmith! Thanks for giving this more traction.

I used to say “Jihad”. In fact, when I used to counterprotest the hippies outside my military post and Cindy Sheehan my friend carried a sign that read, “Defeat Jihadists”. My husband, active duty Army, would cringe.

He’s in the chaplain’s corps and in Operation Iraqi Freedom, aside from convoys and raids, his job was to meet with and fasciliate meetings with imams, clerics and sheiks in Baghdad. That was the beginning of a learning process for the both of us, in deciphering the enemy. It wasn’t the good Iraq Muslims, it was the extremists, apostates, wahabbists, practicing hirabah, NOT jihad.

The risk of saying we’re fighting jihadist was that we risked alienating a moderate population who understand the difference between jihad and hirabah. They were actually more likely to side with hirabah than coalition forces because jihad was good and an intimate part of their religion. If we fought jihad, right or wrong, they had almost no choice but to fight against us.

That said, what we see going on now in al-Anbar Province, which includes Fallujah and Ramadi, is a winning of hearts and minds. Local sheiks saw that U.S. forces met them on their religious terms with an additional soldier to sit on a particular side in a particular manner according to their customs, and they began to accept that we are NOT their enemy no matter what propaganda they’d been fed by extremist wackos like al-Qaeda. Now they’ve turned against wahabbists (al-Qaeda), hirabah, and toward the coalition to build a better country for themselves. And they are actually growing quite fond of us in some of these areas. Imagine that!

The Army took a while to come around to the fact that this is a RELIGIOUS WAR cloaked in false theology and all that was up to us to do, aside from maintaining a military presence, was to note this differnce and “win hearts and minds” respecting the good in their religion. Iraqis are people just like us and whatever bad behavior they’ve become accustomed to, they can unlearn. This is true for all human nature.

We’re so close to winning this it isn’t funny. We are literally in the final stretch. I personally hope to visit Iraq’s religious historical sites some day as a tourist. Babylon, the Garden of Eden, Ninevah of Jonah and the Whale fame, etc., etc., etc., all all in Iraq. This country has a ton of potential and I just hope Democrats don’t have a chance to screw it up.

ps… and if hirabahists is too clumsy, just call them what they are: apostates and terrorists.

Terrorist assholes? Go to