We are all “jihadists”

Misuse of Islamic terms in the media does more to scare than inform


Last week, I talked about building character and used the international response to the Paris attacks as an example of us looking out for one another in times of crisis. I also talked about some of the attacks on local Muslims that took place in the wake of the Paris attacks and mentioned that while they showed there is a great deal of ignorance in our country, there is still a lot of good that exists in people, like those who stepped forward to help the affected communities.

Afterward, I was asked why it was that some Canadians responded to the Paris attacks by attacking Muslims and the mosques in our own country. What do people have to fear in Canada?

I’m not sure there’s a simple answer to that question, but there are a couple of factors that have come to mind this past week.

While flipping through The Toronto Star a few days ago, I noticed a headline that read “France mourns victims of jihadists”. The story was, of course, about the victims of the Paris attacks.

Just from reading the headline, I felt uncomfortable. The word “jihadist” brought about a fear of some monstrous entity that I knew was a dangerous mass, even willing to kill innocent people to get what they want. And maybe it wouldn’t have seemed so frightening if their attacks were limited to far away countries where crimes like this took place more frequently.

But no—they attacked Paris. And that’s what’s scary: if they could do that to France where there are laws and people to enforce them, what’s stopping them from doing the same thing here?

And this is all from a quick glance at the headline.

When I got past my instinctive reaction and really thought about it though, it came to mind that “jihadist” is a total buzzword in the media today, far removed of its original meaning. Simply the use of the word in our society is enough to evoke fearsome images of foreign bombers without even having to think about what the word means.

Jihad is a complex term. As you will read in the article on Islamophobia this week, it refers to a “struggle”. And the biggest struggle in the life of a Muslim—indeed, in the lives of many people in general—is the struggle to overcome one’s own weaknesses and become a better human being. Obviously, if ISIS were real jihadists, their actions would be the opposite that they are now.

But the fact that terrorists—when executing their attacks in the name of Islam—are so often referred to as jihadist, Islamist, even sometimes Islamic, in the media makes it easy for people to associate their actions with Islam. Heck, even I felt uncomfortable reading the headline—and I’m Muslim.

And that fear, when it spreads across society as a whole, also impacts the Muslims living in Western countries.

Take, for example, a second recent feature in The Toronto Star about Muslim women who at some point or another decided to stop wearing the hijab, even if temporarily. The timing of the piece was interesting to say the least, considering how some hijab-wearing women were assaulted in Canada in the aftermath of the Paris attacks.

Sure enough, at least one of the reasons cited for a woman’s decision to stop wearing the hijab was because of safety reasons.

A second Muslim woman featured in the piece was from our very own campus. The third-year student explained that while wearing the hijab, she felt judged by Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

And yet another woman said she decided to stop wearing the hijab because she felt that people assumed everything she said or did was related to her faith.

In other words, living in a western country where your faith is often misunderstood, it’s not always easy to do things knowing that they’ll seem strange, offensive, or even oppressive in the eyes of others. It’s another great example of jihad.

So then, what do we do about all the fear?

Well, let’s start with understanding that beneath the headcoverings are people who fear the same things you do. The difference is that our jihad is often about keeping up our faith in spite of the fear and misconceptions of those around us. Perhaps society’s jihad is to learn more about it.