On the 23rd of September, #MyJihad’s Project Manager Angie Emara, Social Media Coordinator Olfat Sakr, and Human Rights Lawyer Farrah Qazi had an engaging and thought-provoking discussion with students from Saint Louis University as part of a class titled “Jihad: Striving in God’s Way” taught by Assistant Professor Luke Yarbrough. Angie gave a brief introduction about the organization before moving on to the Q&A part of the discussion. Questions prepared by the students- who are majors in History, Middle Eastern Studies, Communications as well as Political Science- revolved around the history, mission and goals of #MyJihad, the media representation of “jihad” as well as the different American and Egyptian perspectives on the receptiveness as well as the resistance faced by #MyJihad from both Muslims and non-Muslims.
The team began by explaining the history of #MyJihad which officially started in 2012 as a response to the dialect that was taking place regarding the word jihad particularly in ads that were running misusing the word. Ahmed Rehab, the founder, came up with the idea to reclaim the meaning of jihad from extremists -Muslim and anti-Muslim. Angie then passionately joined campaign by sharing her own personal struggle. Donations were used to fund ads placed on buses. It started in Chicago then branched out to other states until it eventually received a push back. People from all walks of life, backgrounds and religions (or lack thereof) joined the campaign. Pamela Gellar and Robert Spencer tried smearing the campaign as part of multibillion dollar business by copying the logo and ads. The campaign eventually spread to other countries like Brazil, and there are currently talks to spread the campaign to Germany, Australia and Thailand. Although the main idea of the campaign is public education, #MyJihad also supports good causes while staying away from political agendas. An example is a collaboration with Project Sakinah by spreading awareness of domestic violence on our social media platforms. Olfat then shares how she heard of the campaign all the way in Egypt. She noticed some of her friends sharing their pictures with their personal jihads, then came across a YouTube video of an interfaith event between a church and mosque in Egypt which #MyJihad was a part of. She then became a part of the campaign after signing up for a summer internship. Many Egyptians are enthusiastic about the campaign, and she hopes that eventually #MyJihad can launch in Egypt.
The following are questions that were asked by the students:
What was your conception of jihad before becoming involved with #MyJihad? How has it changed since then?
Olfat: Friends were shocked when I told them that I volunteered with the campaign. I would then go on to explain what jihad really means to them. It is interesting that even Muslims are unaware of what the word means. Even Muslims are influenced by how the media changed the meaning of the word.
Angie: Bentley Patterson, a “recovering Islamophobe”, has become one of our biggest supporters.
What is the relationship between CAIR and #MyJihad and how has it evolved?
#MyJihad is a grassroots effort. Ahmed Rehab, the founder, is the executive director of CAIR. However, there are no official ties with them. Although we have received support from CAIR, who spoke on our behalf and carried our campaign to different states, we are not funded by it.
Since you are a self-described public education campaign, how do you open the discussion to the public beyond just sharing information with them? Do you think it is necessary to have a conversation within the public domain, and if so how do you facilitate this beyond visual information?
The ads are not our whole campaign. We run different campaigns from time to time, we are active on our social media platforms, we invite schools and universities to hold talks so we could present to them as well as in libraries with different religious groups. Jewish organizations reached out to us asking if they could do presentations on #MyJihad. We also were involved in different charity events like the Hurricane Relief, the Bike the Drive to raise money for water wells in other countries, etc. Those are the different ways to expose and show what jihad really is. We also provide content that news outlets previously did not have access to. We have received responses from the public. Some were negative, like Islamophobes who used the hashtag to spread hate on Twitter. Others, however, were positive. They engaged in dialogue by sharing how they misunderstood what jihad really meant and what terrorist organizations like ISIS are all about.
How do you relate current events (like Ahmed Mohamed) to the greater discussion of defining jihad?
What he went through is an example of a struggle. Struggles are a human concept, and those can easily be tied into anything that happens.
In 2013, after your organization ran bus ads that promoted a better understand of what jihad means to Muslims, Pamela Geller of the pro-Israel American Freedom Defense Initiative attempted to negate your efforts with ads featuring extremist figures such as Osama Bin Laden, and commentary from a Hamas television station which said “Killing Jews is worship that draws us closer to Allah” and then read “That’s his jihad. What’s yours?’” How do you plan to fight the uphill battle of changing public opinion when advertisements such as this reinforce what is already a prevalent perception of Islam and Jihad?
We registered the #MyJihad logo so now it is a trademark. She had to change colors of the logo in her ads because she could not use ours anymore. The fact that she was trying to do that is a good sign that what we are doing is working. We had the support of buses in different states. In Chicago, they gave us 10 free buses. In some states, her ads were rejected. She is well funded, so she took the case to court and won by using free speech as an excuse. Legally is one way of fighting. However, we do not believe it is the only way. If you put a glass of clean water and a glass of dirty water next to each other, leave them, and let people choose, the glasses speak for themselves. We are also reminded by the prophet, peace be upon him, who faced all kinds of attacks. He was patient and persevered. We remind ourselves of that and continue doing what we do ignoring the hate and the threats we receive.
As a group that endeavors to remove the stigma placed upon the term jihad by extremists, how do you go about engaging an audience that includes both non-Muslims who know little to nothing of the term jihad apart from what they see in the media and Muslims who incorrectly use the term? How do you tailor your message to appeal to both these different groups?
Angie: Anti-Muslims are easier to engage with and more positive outcomes result from those conversations. They start off hating, then some change. Muslim side is the more difficult part. We have extremists who will come and tell us that we are non-believers, kafirs, that we are changing the truth and facts, that we are apologists.
Olfat: From my experience in Egypt, some Muslims are resistant to listening to opinions that are different than what they grew up listening to. I feel that many of us must unlearn what we have learned. We need to educate ourselves on the correct teachings of our faiths so that we can resist the incorrect narratives in the media.
Why do you think you can represent the vast majority of Muslims who live in Middle East while you do not share kind of life they live?
Angie: A lot of Palestinians told us that we are not dealing with what they have to deal with which is true. They claim that jihad is picking up arms and defending themselves. We did not say it cannot be a physical struggle. However, people always ask when every terrorist act occurs: Where are the mainstream Muslims? We are asked to condemn every act that occurs. We are asked to speak up. This campaign is us speaking up and sharing who we are and what we do. We provide a platform for people to speak up, to reclaim the meaning, provide awareness, and exchange dialogue and so on.
Farrah: It is an issue of semantics. The word is used, misused, abused, and taken out of context. Until several years ago, I did not know what it meant. I sat there and thought: what are they talking about? The first time I heard this word was in Western Media. I had to go ask my father and the elders in the family on what the word meant and why we are fighting jihad. Then I realized that it is taken out of context to become something that is unrecognizable. Jihad does not have to have negative connotation. Jihad could be something mundane as putting food on table, or trying to overthrow a dictator. Jihad is personal to each one of us, to our cultures, to our experiences, to our families. Someone born here has a different jihad than someone in Palestine or Pakistan. We cannot speak for all Muslims but we are being asked to.
Perceiving Jihad as an inherently violent concept can be utilized to justify the righteousness of certain US policies, and the antagonism between the West, if not the whole world, and extremist organizations like Al Qaeda. Such a perception can also contribute to the formation of certain essentially discriminatory US regional policies. How do you overcome this immense inertia and make understanding Jihad as something peaceful seem to be a beneficial thing to the public audience?
There are well funded and well organized organizations with agendas. However, we try to fight them by putting ourselves out there and letting the media come to us. We constantly ask people to join us with whatever perspective and talents they have. There is a huge force against us and we can only go so far. But social media is a whole other world, and we can reach a lot of people through a single tweet.