In the two and half decades since the end of the Cold War, media pundits and politicians alike have routinely cited Jihad and Jihadists as the greatest threat to America's interests and national security at home and abroad. Since the September 11th attacks and the launch of the War on Terror, barely a day has gone by without warnings of the dangers posed by radical Islam traveling through the halls of Congress or over the airwaves--damaging rhetoric that has only increased with the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIL) last summer. But these words of caution have done more harm than good, not only because they--often intentionally-- misrepresent Islam but also because they squander what may be the only chance to defeat extremists once for all by waging a Jihad against them.
Traditional Islamic jurisprudence defines Jihad as a struggle or resistance; for many, the struggle is an internal one to resist temptation, achieve a continuous state of spiritual progression, and emulate Allah. Notably, early practitioners of Jihad throughout the Islamic history made laudable and invaluable achievements in the fields of art, literature, science, medicine, and philosophy among many others.
However, the term "Jihadists" never appears in the Quran. Instead, it is a new word employed only by those in the West who seek to ostracize and castigate Muslims; likewise, the translation of "Jihad" as 'Holy War' also proves controversial. Rather, one who engages in this noble struggle towards self-improvement is referred to as a mujahid (plural: mujahideen), and nearly every one of the world's 1.6 billion Muslims defines Jihad only in these terms.
In fact, the term Mujahid did not possess its current connotation until the 1980s, when thousands of guerrilla fighters known as the Afghan Mujahideen united forces to resist the invading forces of the atheist Soviet Union with neo-colonial aspirations. Fostered by the United States with additional contributions from Pakistan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia -- all of which encouraged their citizens to join the Afghan cause in order to distract them from the socioeconomic ails of autocratic rule at home --the USSR abandoned its war in Afghanistan after a decade of fighting as its empire collapsed.
Erroneously using the term "Jihadists" to refer to those who commit acts of terrorism and violent extremism to advance its political objectives, has only made the situation worse: the word "Jihadists" does nothing to alienate thousands of would-be extremists seeking to join terrorist organizations; instead, it grants these groups legitimacy and prestige, and enhances these networks' ability to recruit angry and disaffected youths.
Ironically enough, Osama bin Laden became a primary benefactor the spread of the term Mujahideen, his network of fighters the recipient of millions in aid from the US, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Pakistan just as he was poised to found al-Qaeda in 1988. Turning his sights towards the US, a string of successful al-Qaeda operations against American interests throughout the 1990s culminated in the devastating September 11th Attacks in New York and Washington, D.C. Although US efforts to confront and combat al-Qaeda since 2001 have yielded a less centralized organization, they have also allowed the terror network to expand and become more dangerous. Today, al-Qaeda affiliates, couching their heretical barbarity in the name of Islam, have emerged and claimed the thousands of lives in Yemen and the Gulf under the banner of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP); in North Africa by the name of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM); and through various incarnations in Iraq and later Syria leading to (ISIL) of the present day.
Despite the number of countries allied against it -- at present, more than 60 nations have joined the fight in some capacity -- defeating ISIL and other like-minded extremist groups that falsely claim themselves as the vanguards of Islam demands so much more than a military solution. Though the faulty "Jihadists" terminology will remain prominent in the West for the time being, its affect can be counteracted by a rhetorical and political strategy that wages a Jihad of its own. From a linguistic standpoint, pundits and politicians should follow the lead of President Obama's refusal to describe the members of ISIL in particular, and supporters of al-Qaeda-inspired ideology more broadly, only as "violent extremists" who are not in any way Muslim or Islamic; such a strategy not only diminishes the impact of ISIL and al-Qaeda's holy war-espousing rhetoric, it correctly acknowledges the fact that these "extremists are not Jihadists" and they do not practice real Islam and never will be recognized as Muslims by a vast, vast majority of the faith's 1.6 billion adherents.
Policies implemented by the West and Greater Muslim Ummah (community) specifically designed to confront, combat, and ultimately defeat extremists ideologies that are but bastardizations of a faith that preaches peace, and community above all else will prove even more effective at discrediting and disarming "extremists." Such enterprises, some of which are already under way, must include broad-based education and cultural exchange programs that teach Muslims and non-Muslims alike the true meaning and intent of Islam. For these approaches to take hold, governments across the Arab and Islamic world must incorporate reforms that promote good-governance and empower an increasingly young and restless citizenry as equal participants in rather than exploited subjects of top-down political processes. Make no doubt about it: waging Jihad against the "extremists" will certainly be a struggle. Yet, in the truest and most faithful sense of the word, it represents a Jihad that the West and the Muslim World can finally unite behind.
*Mohamed Elmenshawy is Washington Bureau Chief for Alaraby Television Network, and a columnist for the Egyptian Daily Alshorouk. He can be reach on twitter @ElMenshawyM or email firstname.lastname@example.org