Jihadists vs. Extremists ... When Language Matters

Following the San Bernardino attacks, and like after all major terrorism attacks, debates erupt discussing relationships between Islam and violence and whether the terrifying acts of so called Islamic State -- known as ISIL -- is Islamic. Yet, the vocabulary and language used in such debates start with a problematic notion that does not distinguish between "Jihad and Jihadists" from one side, and "Terrorism and Violent Extremists" from the other side.

Media pundits, experts and politicians alike have routinely cited Jihad and Jihadists as the greatest threat to America's national security at home and abroad. But these words of caution have done more harm than good, not only because they misrepresent Islam but also because they squander what maybe a decent chance to defeat terrorism by waging a Jihad against extremists.

Erroneously using the term "Jihadists" to refer to those who commit acts of terrorism 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 disillusioned youth.

Traditional Islamic jurisprudence defines Jihad as 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. For some others, Jihad is a just war for the faith against unbelievers, and historically both meaning have a moral sense for Muslims. However, the term "Jihadists" never appeared in the Quran, instead, it is a new word employed wrongly. 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 Soviet Union. 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.

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 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 ISIL, with more than 60 nations have joined the fight in some capacity, defeating ISIL and other like-minded extremist, 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 as anything but "violent extremists" or "terrorists" who are not in any way Muslim or Islamic; such an approach not only diminishes the impact of ISIL'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 the vast majority of the faith's 1.6 billion adherents.

Western policies designed to confront, combat, and ultimately defeat radical ideologies could be effective at discrediting and disarming "extremists" if they are better crafted. "Jihad' ought to be used to defeat "extremism," which requires incorporating broad-based education programs that teach non-Muslims the true meaning and intent of Jihad. Using Jihad to defeat extremists is a unique opportunity that the West and the Muslims can finally unite behind. Yet make no doubt about it: waging Jihad against the extremists will certainly be a struggle.

*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 mensh70@gmail.com