Chicago Muslims aim to reclaim meaning of ‘jihad’ from extremists

New ad campaign on Chicago buses, launched Friday, aims to raise awareness of how most Muslims experience 'jihad' – as personal struggle, not 'holy war.'

By MARK GUARINO | The Christian Science Monitor

posted December 14, 2012 at 6:51 pm EST

An Islamic American advocacy group is trying to reclaim the word “jihad,” one city bus at a time.

Starting Friday, 25 Chicago buses will carry exterior signs that promote a more positive interpretation of jihad, as expressed by moderate Muslims who say the term has been widely misrepresented by both Muslim extremists and anti-Muslim critics.

“We are taking ownership of our faith and taking it back from Muslim and anti-Muslim extremists, which both have hijacked the conversation, one through bloody actions and the other with extreme rhetoric,” says Ahmed Rehab, executive director of the Chicago chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).

The ads feature photographs of young Muslims alongside personal testimonials – “My Jihad is to stay fit, despite my busy schedule,” “My Jihad is to not judge people by their cover,” "My Jihad is to march on despite losing my son,” and “My Jihad is to build friendships across the aisle” – that positions the meaning of jihad as a personal, internal struggle and not a “holy war,” an interpretation that is widely used by terrorists and related media coverage.

The statements were culled from a social media experiment Mr. Rehab created about two months ago, after asking his Facebook followers about how jihad personally related to their lives. When answers started posting on his page, he then created a hashtag on Twitter (#MyJihad) and asked his followers to submit their answers there.

Thousands of responses followed and Rehab realized he could shape them into a campaign to raise awareness about how the majority of Muslims experience jihad and also to empower Muslims who may have felt demoralized during the past decade, as their faith became increasingly linked to terrorist acts.

“It seems like people were yearning for something like this, where they can express themselves, because those on the extreme are often looked on as representative of everybody,” he said.

One of the people his outreach attracted was Sadaf Syed, a Chicago photojournalist whose book, “iCover,” documenting the everyday lives of Muslim women living in the United States, prompted an invitation from the White House in 2010 for an interfaith gathering.

Ms. Syed volunteered her time to take studio photographs of the participants, all of whom she said had stories that were universally relatable.

“Our hope is when people do see these images, they can see themselves in them, too, and can understand the word is not a scary word, although it may be a 'Arabic' word. The definition of it is so close to home,” she says. “What we wanted to do is truly celebrate that word because it’s a beautiful word.”

Through a branded website (, Rehab solicited donations to raise money for the public advertising. To date, he has raised $6,000, which covers five different ads over 25 buses. He says future campaigns are being scheduled in New York City, Washington, San Francisco, Houston, and Seattle.

The campaign can be seen to counteract a similar effort by conservative activist Pamela Geller and her group, the American Freedom Defense Initiative, which has purchased advertising on subway platforms in New York, Chicago, and Washington that equates Muslims and Palestinians with terrorism.

One ad posted this week, according to The Associated Press, reads, “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.” Another depicts the twin towers in New York City engulfed in flames, with the message: “Soon shall we

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