The ads that recently appeared to the sides of buses in several American major cities declare: "#MyJihad is to march on despite losing my son," "#MyJihad: Modesty is not a weakness," "#MyJihad is to build bridges through friendship," and "#MyJihad is to not take the simple things in life for granted." The ads are part of a public education campaign sponsored by the Chicago Council of American-Islamic Relations. They remind me of a noble moment during President George W. Bush's presidency when, on Sept 17, 2001, while the ruins of the Twin Towers were still billowing smoke and many of the bodies had not yet been pulled out, he stated that, "The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That's not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace." It was a magnanimous and even courageous statement to make -- although not a particularly accurate one.
Those behind the #MyJihad campaign argue that the term "jihad," which is defined as "struggling in the way of God," has been misrepresented by extreme Islamists and Islamophobes alike. Countering common associations of jihad with violence, terrorism, and religious extremism, the #MyJihad campaign presents jihad as, "a concerted and noble effort against injustice, hate, misunderstanding, war, violence, poverty, hunger, abuse or whatever challenge big or small we face in daily life, with the purpose of getting to a better place."
Actually, an intensive study of Muslim texts and preaching that we conducted leaves little doubt that Jihad can be understood in two different ways. For some, jihad is a holy war waged against the infidels while others see it as a spiritual struggle for moral self-improvement. Regarding the former, textual support can be found in Quranic verses urging Muslims to "Slay the idolaters wheresoever you find them," (9:5) or the Hadith's statement that "the Messenger of Allah declared: I have been directed to fight against people so long as they do not say: There is no god but Allah."
A rather different interpretation of jihad, associated with the Sufis, is that it refers primarily to the internal spiritual struggle against immorality rather than an outward battle against one's enemies. Thus, Sufis attribute to Muhammad the statement "The greater jihad is the struggle against the self." And as the twelfth-century Sufi master Abd al-Qdier al-Jilani explained, "[There are] two types of jihad: the outer and the inner. The inner is the jihad of the soul, the passion, the nature, and Satan. The outer is the jihad of the infidels who resist Him and His Messenger." When a pollster asked 10,004 adults in predominantly Muslim countries "what jihad means to you," he found that the majority of responses spoke of jihad as a "duty toward God," a "divine duty," or a "worship of god" -- "with no explicit militaristic connotation at all."
Further, one can find both strands in all religions. For example, Christian beliefs that are understood to legitimate violence draw on passages from the Old Testament, such as those commanding that the community stone to death anyone who blasphemes (Leviticus 24:14) and from the New Testament in which, Jesus declares, "Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword."
Similarly, groups of extremist Jews have drawn inspiration from bellicose sections of the old testament. For example, members of Gush Emunim (the Bloc of the Faithful) take literally God's promise to the people of Israel in Exodus 21:31: "I will establish your borders from the Red Sea to the Sea of the Philistines [the Mediterranean], and from the desert to the River [the Euphrates]." And, according to the scholar James Hunter, "Some within the movement view Arabs (including women and children civilians) as Amalekites or Canaanites that contemporary Jews, in the tradition of Joshua from biblical times, have a duty to destroy." The Old Testament can even be read as calling for revenge, as in "An eye for an eye." However, through the ages, rabbis have interpreted the same passage as referring merely to monetary compensation. And Jews invoke pacifistic passages, such as "Nation shall not lift sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore." (Isaiah 2:4; c.f. Micah 4:3)
I realize that there is not much room on the side of the bus. However, those who seek for us to better understand Islam would do better if they acknowledged that it is open to both kinds of interpretations -- both those that legitimize violence and those that abhor it. And that in this matter Islam is not different from other major religions. MyJihad is to embrace the spiritual journey and reject the use of force -- despite the fact that Islam can be read to embrace both.
Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor at The George Washington University and author of Hot Spots: American Foreign Policy in a Post-Human Rights World, published by Transaction.