Should we use "jihadist" to describe the Islamic State?

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Using the term "jihadist" to describe the Islamic State could lead to misunderstandings of Islam and even help the Islamic State recruit

Everyone, from Cameron to the news media, have adopted the term “jihadists” to refer to those who commit atrocities and justify it in terms of Islam, these include many groups from al-Qaeda to the Taliban to new groups such as the Islamic State. However, this term is misleading and could not only encourage the belief that Islam is somehow inherently violent, or incompatible with international law, but also help these groups by implying that their actions are within the realms of the Islamic definition of jihad – which they are not.

The Islamic State claim to represent “true” and “pure” Islam and plan to be recreate the “Islamic State” in which only Sharia law would be applied. The group’s leaders have framed their atrocities and flagrant disregard for domestic and international law in terms of their religious stance. This is based on a radical form of Islam, spread by many neo-classical Muslims, which claims the Islamic world is inherent at war with the non-Muslim world. These scholars believe the “past speaks directly to the present” and purport a perpetual state of war between the Islamic and non-Islamic world. This can be seen through the Islamic States many crimes against non-Muslim groups – especially Christians and Yazidi. Further, many have been forced to convert. Thus, in this view, the jihad is an expansionary war “justified for the purpose of spreading Islam” (March and Modirzadeh, 2013: 371). They reject “Infidel ideologies”, especially democracy government of men by men rather than by Allah.

They represent themselves – and thus their religious beliefs – as the antipathy of international norms of standards. For example, when an interviewer from news agency “Vice”, asked a member of the Sharia courts (set up by the Islamic State in the declared capital of its caliphate, Raqqa) asked if the courts fit with international standards the militant claimed “we aim to satisfy God that’s why we don’t care about international standards”.

However, the Islamic State does not represent the vast majority of Islam. That is why of the 1.6 billion Muslims in the world around only 31 500 are fighting for the Islamic State. As the, the Queen of Jordan recently said, the Islamic State are “a minority of irreligious extremists is using social media to re-write our narrative and rebrand us”. While more generally, “Abdul Hamid” Abu Sulayman said, in response to those who see the jihad as an all-out war against unbelievers: “[t]hey took the Qur’anic verses out of contest”. Under Islamic law the atrocities of the Islamic State are forbidden. The Qu’ran bans ethnic cleansing and says “let there be no compulsion in religion”. Thus forcing Yazidi and Christians to convert to Islam is not allowed and neither is the systematic killing of religious groups – reported by the UN. Further, most modern scholars believe the parts of the Qu’ran regarding the inherent war between the Muslim and non-Muslim world is best seen in the context of the persecution of the first generation of Muslims by the pagan Arabs – rather than something that should be applied the contemporary wold.

Most importantly, the term jihad is not, for most Muslims, an offensive military doctrine. The term actually means “struggle”. Islamic jurists have distinguished four ways in which the jihadist obligation can be achieved: by his heart, his tongue, his hand and by his sword. Thus, it can be the struggle within oneself to reach a higher spiritual plane (which the Prophet Mohammad referred to as the “superior jihad), the purely missionary effort to establish Islam and physical defence of the Islamic homeland. None of these are being undertaken by the Islamic State. While the term is not necessary wrong, the term originates not from the Qu’ran but from the Afghanistan war and those who 'do' jihad (in its various forms) are usually called mujahedeen.

However, we should not use the word to describe those that commit such atrocities. Not just because it is inaccurate but because it may help the group recruit. As M Cherif Bassiouni notes, “Jihad is a powerful word in Muslim psyche – it evokes the legitimate self-defence struggle of the Prophet and his followers in the glorious days of early Islam”. The Islamic state is not fighting a comparable struggle and there should be no confusion on the matter.