Robert Spencer of the invaluable site Jihad Watch followed my post yesterday to the New York Times op-ed piece by P.W. Singer and Elina Noor recommending that the West stop using the term jihad. After a day of travel, Robert responds to Singer and Noor, reasserting his arguments about the State Department directive. While Singer and Noor predicate their belief that the term has been hijacked by radicals, Robert argues that the radical use is exactly how jihad has always been interpreted in Islam:

Here is the fundamental assumption of the new State Department guidelines, as well as of Singer and Noor: that the jihadists are twisting the meaning of jihad within Islam, appropriating for their own purposes what is in traditional Islam a spiritual struggle or a struggle for justice. Singer and Noor appear unaware that the term jihad fi sabeel Allah in the Qur’an and Islamic tradition refers specifically to warfare. They also probably do not realize that in Islamic theology justice is equated with Sharia, such that an “external fight for justice” is a fight to impose Islamic law, with its denial of the freedom of conscience and institutionalized discrimination against women and non-Muslims.

Al-Qaeda and other contemporary jihadists did not originate this definition of jihad from Ibn Arafa, a scholar of the Maliki school of Islamic jurisprudence, who explains that jihad is “fighting by a Muslim against a kaafir [unbeliever] (who does not have a treaty with the Muslims) to make the word of Allah the highest.” Nor did they originate the Shafi’i manual of Islamic law that was certified in 1991 by the clerics at Al-Azhar University, one of the leading authorities in the Islamic world, as a reliable guide to Sunni orthodoxy, which stipulates that “the caliph makes war upon Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians…until they become Muslim or pay the non-Muslim poll tax.”

Osama bin Laden did not whisper into the ear of Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406), the pioneering historian and sociologist, the idea that “in the Muslim community, the holy war is a religious duty, because of the universalism of the Muslim mission and (the obligation to) convert everybody to Islam either by persuasion or by force.” In Islam, the person in charge of religious affairs is concerned with “power politics,” because Islam is “under obligation to gain power over other nations.”

It wasn’t al-Zawahri who inspired the great medieval Islamic theorist Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328) to teach that “since lawful warfare is essentially jihad and since its aim is that the religion is God’s entirely and God’s word is uppermost, therefore according to all Muslims, those who stand in the way of this aim must be fought.”

And to those who will inevitably say, “Spencer is saying the jihadists are right!,” let me remind you that I didn’t originate this material either.

As usual, Robert makes a compelling argument. We aren’t going to change their minds about the meaning of the term jihad on the basis of a State Department memo or an American ad campaign, either. If they see the term jihad as meaning holy war against infidels, then our moral-relativist approach won’t convince them that it means “internal struggle for holiness”, or pretending that the terrorists don’t believe their quest to be holy.

Fair enough. But I still see what Singer and Noor mean as well. If we use jihad to describe these acts, it sounds as if we’re recognizing those attacks as part of a holy war, or put another way, that we accept the construct of the terrorists. Perhaps it would be more helpful to argue that we don’t accept that any war is holy, especially when people target non-combatants (in our estimation, at least). Regardless of how we define jihad, the terrorists and their sympathizers hear us essentially endorsing the holy nature of their fight.

In the end, it won’t make much difference whether we stop using the term or not. It’s an interesting academic exercise. Instead, as Robert implores, State should be focusing on more important steps they can take against radical Islam:

Instead, State could be sponsoring positive presentations of the freedom of conscience, freedom of speech, equality of rights of all people, and other principles that many Muslims accept today, but which are denied by Sharia. State could, in other words, be offering an alternative to Sharia — not by way of a verbal frontal assault, but by attacking the elements of Sharia that many Muslims as well as non-Musims reject. Instead, it is reinforcing Sharia by pretending that there is a positive jihad that is not threatening to unbelievers.

In fact, that might be a good way to confront Iran as well — by establishing communication to the Iranian people in ways that allow them to hear and see information that their government denies them.