U.S. Muslims Wage Jihad Against Misperceptions of ‘Jihad’

Angie Emara, a 35-year-old Chicago mother, acknowledges that the term “jihad” for some means taking up arms in a “holy war.”

But for her, jihad is dealing with the loss of one son, Adam, to Hunter’s Syndrome — a rare disease requiring a risky stem cell transplant operation, one that Adam didn’t survive. Her jihad continues in caring for her three children, including her 5-year-old son Aiman,who has also been diagnosed with the same incurable genetic disorder.

“Jihad is not just suicide bombs,” she said. “It’s also accepting fate, accepting outcomes and being patient.”

Emara’s story was one of the first to be shared as part of the #MyJihad campaign that recently launched in three cities across the United States to battle both “Muslim and anti-Muslim extremists alike,” according to the campaign’s website.

The campaign began in December 2012 by Chicago activist Ahmed Rehab, who also serves as the executive chair of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. It is an independent effort operating as #MyJihad, Inc., though the Council now serves as a sponsor.

Jihad “was a term that was very misunderstood and I wanted to clarify its true meaning in our lives,” Rehab said. “By reclaiming that jihad means ‘struggle to get to a better place,’ we’re pulling the carpet from under the feet of two groups who need each other to survive. They’re using each other to beat the drums of confrontation while the rest of us in the middle are coexisting and living in tolerance.”

The effort to “reclaim Islam” is being carried out on bus ads, benches and subway stations in Chicago, San Francisco and most recently, Washington, D.C.

The ads depict pictures of Muslims – some in headscarves called hijabs, others not – pictured with a representation of their personal jihad. In one billboard that appeared on the side of a San Francisco MUNI bus, a young girl holds a weight beside the words, “My Jihad is to stay fit despite my busy schedule.”

The campaign is designed to be the inverse of activist Pamela Geller’s controversial bus and subway ads from September 2012.  “In any war between the civilized man and the savage,” the controversial poster read, “support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.”

The #MyJihad Inc. group has five lead organizers and about 50 volunteers throughout the country. Funded through private donations with a total budget of $20,000, the campaign requires $6,500 per city for bus and train ads.

The #MyJihad  campaign is also being waged online, with people posting their personal struggles on Twitter and Facebook:

“#MyJihad is to fight bigotry,” tweeted @Rania_Reyad on Dec. 27.

Just as the transit campaign was designed to counter Geller’s efforts, the cyberspace component is rooted in the backlash to a Newsweek’s September 2012 cover story titled “Muslim Rage.” Though the magazine’s “#MuslimRage” hashtag was originally tweeted to promote the featured essay by anti-Islam activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali assailing violence in Islam, Twitter users across the world began to protest the hashtag via satire: “Lost your kid Jihad at the airport. Can’t yell for him. #MuslimRage.”

The #MyJihad hashtag has been tweeted 162,052 times since December, nearing that of the #MuslimRage hashtag, which has been tweeted nearly 180,000 times since September,  primarily in the nine days after the original Newsweek tweet.

The campaign is resonating across the country. The Mid-Hudson Islamic Association in Wappingers Falls, N.Y., made “#MyJihad” the theme of their annual youth conference. At Washington University in St. Louis, the Muslim Students Association localized the campaign with a campus photo session, with students’ struggles written on a chalkboard behind them.

Daniel Tutt, a fellow with Washington, D.C.-based think tank Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, said the campaign is different from other social media campaigns by American Muslims because it is was not started by any single organization, and because it is self-critical about radicalization within Islam.

“Often the American-Muslim campaigns tend to be very concentrated on combating Islamophobia without any analysis or confrontation with these things that Muslims themselves do that perpetuate some of these fears and stereotypes,” he said. “#MyJihad represents a more strategic shift in how to change the discourse using the terms and the vocabulary of the Islamic tradition.”

Meanwhile, Emara’s inaugural role in the campaign and her struggles as a mother inspired her to step up as an organizer for the campaign — coordinating social media, ad production, networking with other groups and setting up speaking engagements.

The long-term goal is to change not just how people think of Islam, but what some do in the name of it, Emara said.

“For the Muslim extremists, we want to get them to think perhaps the violent approach to things is not the correct way, according to Islam.”

Of course, the hashtag is open to those who take issue with #MyJihad, including Pamela Geller, who called it “a cynical and deceptive campaign designed to reinforce Americans’ ignorance and complacency regarding the true nature and magnitude of the jihad threat.”

Geller agrees that the literal meaning of the word “jihad” is “struggle” and acknowledges its purely spiritual connotations, but maintains that jihad’s paramount meaning in Islamic theology and law is “warfare against infidels and their subjugation as inferiors under the rule of sharia.”

In response, Geller has tweeted the following:

“#MyJihad in New Jersey: Muslim Beheads, Cuts Off Hands of Two Coptic Christians: the ritual killing is religious.”

Emara adds: “Twitter’s the space where we have the least control of what happens, but in a way, we think it’s still a success.”

Tutt agreed that the use of the hashtag by anti-Islam activists as opposed to an original counter-hashtag is a sign of its impact.

Emara says the group is not attempting to redefine the word jihad, or to “whitewash.”

“We acknowledge that jihad can be an armed struggle.” she said.  “It is a reality. But we’re trying to shed light on the other types of jihad that are the greater forms of jihad.”