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Calling terrorists jihadis helps them


30 May 2013 updated 7 January 2014

There is an increasing tendency to refer to terrorists or rebels who are Muslims as jihadis or jihadists. The word has been used quite often to describe rebels in north African countries such as Mali, and to describe the religiously motivated violence being seen in countries such as Pakistan, or in London with the murder of Drummer Leed Rigby in Woolwich.

I regard it as completely incorrect from an Islamic perspective to refer to such people as being engaged in jihad. Furthermore it is seriously counter-productive, as it legitimises them in the eyes of some Muslims. Looking even more closely at this usage of jihadi, I realised that it feeds a narrative of the West being fundamentally hostile to Islam.

Yesterday I explained my views in a comment piece on Conservative Home which is reproduced below. Below that is an Appendix summarising a Twitter conversation in January 2014 with Maajid Nawaz, Director of Quilliam.

Mohammed Amin: Calling terrorists jihadis helps them

Mohammed Amin is Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Muslim Forum. He is writing in a personal capacity. Follow Mohammed on Twitter.

We all like conciseness. The ideal is a short name such as "Higgs boson" that specifies exactly what you mean, and which conveys that precise meaning to everyone who hears the name. However in politics names are rarely as precise and the same words can mean very different things to different listeners. Accordingly some words can be very damaging to use.

I want to explain why we should never call people such as the Woolwich killers or the insurgents in Mali "jihadis" or "jihadists".

Some words are inherently good

In the English language, calling someone a "cleric" tells you their role, but does not specify their character. He or she may be a virtuous cleric or an evil cleric. However if you call someone a "saint", then you are specifying their character as virtuous. There are no "evil saints"; the phrase is an oxymoron.

"Crusade" is another such word. Regardless of how much we learn about the actual conduct of the Crusaders, in English a crusade is always a virtuous activity. That is why after 9/11 President George W Bush found it is entirely natural to refer to his personal mission to combat Al Qaeda as his crusade. He never repeated the word because his advisers pointed out that Crusaders are seen differently by Middle East Muslims!

Similarly "freedom fighters" are always good people. That is why our government has never once referred to the IRA as freedom fighters.


The Arabic word jihad means struggle or striving. It has two meanings in Islam.

  1. The inner struggle to resist temptation and to live your life in accordance with God's teachings.
  2. Military struggle to defend the Muslim community against aggression. There are various rules within Islam regarding when such a jihad can be declared.

In Islam, both forms of jihad are inherently good things. Accordingly to a Muslim the phrases "evil jihadi" or “evil jihadist” are oxymorons.

Against this background there are two good reasons why insurgents such as those in Mali should not be referred to be referred to as jihadis.

(1) It legitimises them

The Mali insurgents, the Woolwich killers, and others engaged in similar activities see themselves as "doing God's work" by engaging in what they claim is jihad. For us to reinforce their self-image by calling them jihadis merely strengthens their self-esteem and their determination to continue their activities. It is as silly as the UK government calling the Provisional IRA "freedom fighters."

One also needs to consider the effect on other Muslims.

If I were stupid enough to believe that the Mali insurgents were engaged in jihad, I would regard it as my duty to give them whatever moral or material support I could manage. Very few Muslims are likely to have their views changed by the description UK politicians and the media use for the Mali insurgents, but why take the risk when other words are available that do not confer approbation.

(2) It feeds a narrative of Western conflict with Islam

For the press or politicians to refer to the Mali insurgents, or even worse the Woolwich killers, as jihadis conveys the implication that the government and media regard jihad as a "bad thing." To say that jihad is a bad thing is an inherently anti-Islamic statement. It is conceptually no different to saying that "Muslim pilgrimage" or "Muslim prayer" is a bad thing.

It is equally damaging to use phrases such as "jihadist violence."

Such use of language, even though it arises from lack of clear thinking rather than anti-Muslim malevolence is simply foolish. The last thing that the Government should do is to use language that implies it is opposed to a fundamental concept within Britain's second largest religion. It is also completely unnecessary when there are many alternative words available to describe people such as the Mali insurgents or the Woolwich killers.

All one needs is a good thesaurus.

Appendix: An exchange with Maajid Nawaz, Director of Quilliam

At the beginning of January 2014, I had an exchange on Twitter with Maajid Nawaz, Director of Quilliam. (For more background on Maajid, read my review of his autobiography.)

The conversation arose as a result of my response below to a tweet from someone else:

@KhanmailG @TellMamaUK @marksonofwil Calling terrorists "Jihadis" is seriously misguided. I explain why at the link.

— Mohammed Amin (@Mohammed_Amin) January 2, 2014

Maajid who is one of my Twitter followers must have seen my tweet and responded to it. We had an interesting conversation which I think can be summarised as follows.

Maajid's perspective

Maajid considers that there is a clear linguistic distinction between jihad and jihadism, just as there is between Islam and islamism. (Although I have not focused on it before, the political ideology islamism should logically be spelt with a lowercase "i", as are other political ideologies, while the religion Islam is spelt with a capital "I" due to combination of respect and it being a proper noun.)

Maajid's views can be summarised as follows:

The religion

  1. The name of the religion = Islam
  2. Military struggle to defend the practioners of the religion from military attack = jihad
  3. One who is engaged in that activity = mujahid (singular) or mujahideen (plural)

The political ideology

  1. The name of the ideological belief that Islam lays down a political system = islamism
  2. Military struggle on behalf of the ideology, whether defensive or aggressive = jihadism
  3. One who is engaged in that activity = jihadist (singular) or jihadists (plural)

My response

I believe that Maajid's logic is impeccable, and I have no reason to disagree with his analysis of the Arabic grammar.

However, I also believe that the distinction between "jihad" and "jihadism" that he draws is futile, for two reasons.


Most citizens have difficulty coping with fine distinctions. While most political commentators do understand the distinction between "Islam" and "islamism", even today many ordinary Muslims do not understand that when a politician attacks islamism, he is not attacking Islam. That is one of the reasons I try to avoid using the word islamism, the other being its elasticity. My views on this are explained in the piece "Time to retire Islamism."


The English language is continually expanding by absorbing new words. However it generally does not import foreign grammatical approaches.

In English, the natural word for a person who is engaged in jihad is to call him a jihadi or a jihadist. The word mujhahid for one engaged in jihad is never going to catch on in English, which means that the distinction Maajid draws is never going to get widely established in the English language.

My conclusion

Using jihadist to refer to persons engaged in the bad activity of jihadism, in order to distinguish them from mujahideen engaged in the good activity of jihad is not feasible in the real world, and will simply confuse. Accordingly the approach I recommend above, of never using jihadist to refer to people engaged in terrorism which they justify by reference to Islam remains valid in my view.

The full Twitter conversation

It is always possible that I have misunderstood or oversimplified Maajid Nawaz's views. Accordingly I have copied the Twitter conversation in full below so readers can make their own mind up.

Maajid Nawaz and Mohammed Amin Twitter conversation


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