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Who Are You Calling a Jihadist?

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Jihad, Jihadi, jihadist, even -- most ridiculous of all -- counter-jihadist. These labels are used by laypeople and journalists alike, often using jihad as a synonym for "any violence undertaken by Muslims." An extreme example is the ad campaign posted a few months ago on New York City buses, equating Muslims to savages and any opinion not supportive of Israel as "jihad." In fact, the ads -- the creation of Pamela Geller, who is the head of what has been deemed a hate group -- equate savagery with jihad, as well.

More recently, another set of bus ads have hit Chicago -- this time, trying to counter some of the hate. The first features a young family with the caption, "My jihad is to march on, despite losing my son. What's Yours?" On Twitter, too, check out the #MyJihad hashtag, where statements vary from the inspirational ("My jihad is to build friendships across the aisle") to the humorous ("My jihad is not to eat the whole box").

So what does jihad really mean, then? The media and anti-Islam manipulation of the word has so obscured the actual meaning that confusion is inevitable. I even encounter, alarmingly, a reluctance on the part of journalists and lay people to believe Muslims who try to explain their own religion and what jihad actually means.

Well, I'm a Muslim woman, an American, and a former corporate lawyer, and I know my religion pretty well, as I've not only been a practicing Muslim all my life, I have an additional degree in Islamic law. So let me explain what jihad, a specifically defined term of art, means in Islam.

The word itself means "effort" or "struggle." Generally speaking, jihad can be divided into two broad categories: the internal jihad and the external jihad. The internal jihad is the struggle to make oneself better -- more just, more fair, more compassionate. The external jihad is the struggle to make society better -- more just, more fair, more compassionate. Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam, who died in 632, once famously described the internal jihad as the "Greater Jihad" and the external jihad as the "Lesser Jihad." The most difficult struggle and the greatest, in other words, is the struggle to improve our own selves.

The external jihad can again be divided into further categories. How can we improve society? First, by "jihad by the word" which is using verbal persuasion to try to correct an injustice in society, such as letters to the editor or petitions. If that doesn't work, then Muslims may use "jihad by the hand," which is doing good works to correct an injustice in society, such as volunteering in a soup kitchen or homeless shelter. And the last resort is "jihad by the sword," which is taking up arms to correct an injustice in society.

But here's what vast majority of Islamic scholars, for centuries, have decreed when it comes to jihad by the sword: it can be exercised only to overthrow an oppressor or in self-defense. That's right: only in self-defense or to overthrow an oppressor.

Some scholars over the centuries have even contended that the jihad doctrine does not allow the overthrow of a mere run-of-the-mill oppressor, but only one who is actively preventing people from practicing their religion.

Other Islamic scholars, however, disagreed with this opinion; they said that invading a country and oppressing its people was sufficient reason to fight back (I suspect that's what Americans would do if we were invaded), and that no suppression of religious practice was necessary. But, even so, they confirmed, jihad must be exercised only in self-defense or to overthrow an oppressor.

What about al Qaeda's version of jihad? It's not jihad. Terrorism has never been allowed in Islam, not in 1,400 years of history, and in early Islam it was severely punished.

Using religion as justification for violence is not unique to any one religion. Religion was used to justify the Crusades, as well as the Spanish Inquisition, and the attendant killing of tens of thousands of Muslims and Jews. In modern times, the Serbs' genocide of Bosnian Muslims and the massacre of thousands of Muslims in Gujarat by Hindus also were at least partly, by some, justified by religion. But no religion condones murder or genocide.

To the Pamela Gellers of the world, a Muslim living in the U.S., going about his or her business and living everyday life as an American, is practicing jihad. But if that means that Muslims are trying to make themselves better people, then that's a good thing. If that means that Muslims are trying to make their societies better by working within the law to correct injustices, then that's a good thing. And it's no different from what most of us are trying to do, regardless of our religions.