Recently I took part in a seminar that touched on Islam and Arabs, and the subject came up of how the US views the word “crusader” and the Arab world views the word “jihad.”
(Mujahid, which I use in the title of this post, is the same, but more Arabic word, as Jihadist).
Just as “crusader” is seen as a positive thing in the US, “jihad” is seen as universally positive in the Arab world.
Jihad (Arabic: جهاد IPA: [ʤɪhæːd]), an Islamic term, is a religious duty of Muslims. In Arabic, the word jihad is a noun meaning “the struggle” Jihad appears frequently in the Qur’an and common usage as the idiomatic expression “striving in the way of Allah (al-jihad fi sabil Allah)”. A person engaged in jihad is called a mujahid, the plural is mujahideen.
In Modern Standard Arabic, jihad is one of the correct terms for a struggle for any cause, violent or not, religious or secular (though كفاح kifāḥ is also used). For instance, Mahatma Gandhi’s struggle for Indian independence is called a “jihad” in Modern Standard Arabic (as well as many other dialects of Arabic); the terminology is applied to the fight for women’s liberation.
So while several decades of the US media have used “jihad” exclusively to mean “violent killing of innocent people by bloodthirsty savages,” that is not what it means and certainly not how it is seen in the Arab and Muslim worlds. (Which overlap, but aren’t the same thing).
In the US, we think of “crusader” as a wholly positive thing. I believe that most Americans don’t even think about The Crusades when they hear the word “crusader.” They think of Batman, the Caped Crusader, or some local citizen who is “on a crusade against illiteracy.”
The word “crusade” is also used vernacularly to signify any struggle for a worthy cause, a meaning that is extruded from the memory of the historical Crusades as seen from the perspective of the Christian partisans.
Meanwhile, the Arab world sees “crusader” much the way we see “jihad.” Crusaders were filthy, violent barbarians who came from abroad and killed and plundered and destroyed, just like Huns or Mongols. And that explains why Arabs and Muslims were horrified to hear Bush talk about a crusade against terrorism, especially as his administration was already implying that Islam equals terrorism.
1950 cartoon “Crusader Rabbit.”
I find that if I switch “mujahid” for “crusader” and vice versa, they pretty much mean the same thing in the popular psyche. If Batman had been “the Caped Mujahid,” instead of “the Caped Crusader,” we would feel the same way about the word “jihad” that the Arab world does. And if Bush had said “this is a jihad against terrorism,” it would have gone over better.