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Jihad. The word inspires fear in Western minds. Jihad means extremist Muslims blowing themselves up in crowded markets in order to kill as many infidels as possible. Jihad means attacks like 9/11, USS Cole, Madrid, London, Beirut, and so many more. Jihad means grainy videos of masked men beheading journalists followed by even grainier videos of bearded men in dirty white robes reading demands and calling America the devil. Jihad cannot possibly be something good, right? Wrong.
Do not let the extremists fool you. What they are doing has very little connection with right Islam or true jihad. First and foremost, greater jihad is about a personal and life-long struggle for righteousness and to become a worthy servant of God (Jihad an-nafs: Jihad against oneself). Only a distant second to this idea of personal struggle is the lesser jihad of waging war to defend the faith (Jihad bil-sayf: Jihad by the sword). In cases where this physical defense becomes necessary, the Qur'an lays out very clear rules about how to engage in warfare. No harming of innocents, women, children, or the elderly. No mistreatment of prisoners. Not even the use of fire to destroy nature. In short, a very intentional, limited warfare. True jihad must be conducted in a godly manner.
Islamic scholars the world over have condemned the violent, extremist acts committed in the name of Islam, yet the negative connotation of "jihad" will not go away. In addition to reading all of the fatwas and scholarly writings against unholy jihadists, we should look to an example worth emulating: Emir Abd el-Kader. With the exception of the Iowa town named in his honor, few Westerners have heard of him. Yet there was a time when his name was celebrated internationally by Muslims and non-Muslims alike, drawing accolades from the likes of President Lincoln, Queen Victoria, and Pope Pius IX. He won the respect of the French nation despite being their enemy in war for fifteen years. When he died in 1883, the New York Times proclaimed him "one of the few great men of the century."
Abd el-Kader was raised as a Sufi scholar but was transformed by the French invasion of Algiers in 1830 into a warrior saint. For fifteen years, he battled the French occupation, earning a reputation for chivalry and compassion. Ultimately acknowledging the futility of his struggle, he surrendered, spending five years in French prisons before retiring to exile in Damascus. While in Damascus, he and his men saved the lives of ten thousand Christians during a Turkish-led pogrom, earning him international humanitarian recognition. The praise which the emir cherished most came from Mohammed Shamil, the Muslim hero of Chechnya: "You have put into practice the words of the Prophet... and set yourself apart from those who reject his example."
Abd el-Kader put greater jihad first. Muslims and non-Muslims alike should emulate his lifelong jihad for personal righteousness and control over destructive passions. For Muslims, Abd el-Kader reminds them that true jihad, or "holy exertion," lies not in the zeal of bitterly fighting whatever the cost, but in living righteously in peace and war. During a life of struggle with foreign occupation, with despair in prison and exile in a foreign land, he never allowed the demons of hatred and revenge to gain the upper hand. His timely story is one of struggle, of restraint and self control harnessed to Islamic law, as befits a man whose name means "servant of God." Those who commit crimes, call it "jihad," and call themselves "Muslims" would do well to reflect on the emir's life.
In fact, they already are. Madrasa leaders in Pakistan have requested Urdu translations of "Commander of the Faithful: The Life and Times of Emir Abd el-Kader" (Monkfish Books, 2008). After a recent presentation of the emir's story, a number of Taliban sympathizers admitted needing to reexamine their previous understanding and teaching of jihad. "Neither the fighting in Kashmir nor in Afghanistan is true jihad," declared Abdul Qadir Khamosh, a leading religious scholar in Pakistan and champion of new thinking about jihad in madrasas.
So jihad is not a bad word, but a word used badly. We in the West should take the emir's example to heart as well. We can embrace and encourage the many righteous Muslims who advocate true jihad, supporting them as they struggle against those who wrongly use their religion for perverted ends. Just as the emir battled those Christians who fought against him yet later rescued Christians who had done no harm, we too must make the elementary distinction between the many good, faithful Muslims and those few violent men who know no limit to their anger. If we are ever going to win this struggle against extremist terrorism, we must also realize that real grievances fuel this violence, including our self-righteous and misbegotten belief that we have all the answers. Perhaps a little true jihad is needed here in the West, too.
John W. Kiser has written two books on Algeria. The most recent is "Commander of the Faithful: The Life and Times of Emir Abd el-Kader." His earlier book, "The Monks of Tibhirine: Faith, Love and Terror in Algeria" won the French Siloe Prize. Kiser is on the board of the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy, where he has been active in Pakistan and madrasa reform.Michael L. Owens is Special Assistant to the Cumbie Chair of the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University.