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  • Shahrany Hassan

Ask Me Anything: Jihad

Deep into the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, a time of peace and prayer, about 50 people gathered in a room near Geylang Serai to talk about Jihad.

Jihad is popularly interpreted - or misinterpreted - as a Muslim holy war. The participants, a mix of Muslims and non-Muslims, in the room wanted to get to the root of it. What was Jihad really?

The session, organised by community development NGO The Whitehatters, was titled: Ask Me Anything about Jihad.

It was a safe space for everyone in the room to ask questions that may be seen as too sensitive or politically incorrect anywhere else said Shahrany Hassan, co-founder of the NGO.

There were three speakers: Inter-faith activist Muhammad Imran Taib, Ustazah (religious teacher) Lina Salim, and Nazhath Faheema of Hashpeace, a groundup initiative which advocates for peace and multiculturalism.

The trio were addressing frequently asked questions that participants had submitted when they registered for the event. One popular question was on whether Jihad is really about violence.

The “greater jihad” is about pursuing justice, helping the poor, supporting education and things like that said Lina. The word Jihad itself is an Arabic term for “struggle or striving”, she added. So a person who struggles to advance herself is engaging Jihad. Likewise doing well in school, working hard, and putting food on the table for the family is Jihad.

That said, there is no denying that jihad can also refer to violent struggles. However it must be seen in context. One popular verse on Jihad from the second surah (chapter) for example is cherry picked by extremists like Osama Bin Laden to show supposed justification for war, said Imran.

But if one were to look at the verses before and after that verse, it would be clear that violence was only acceptable if someone attacks you first. In other words, a defensive war. Therefore to argue that Islam is intrinsically flawed and violent is wrong, added Imran.

As an example, Imran referred to Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), one of the largest Muslim organisations in the world. In the early 1920s, NU declared a defensive war against Indonesia’s colonial masters who had basically invaded their lands. But once the colonialists left and the country was freed, the NU declared jihad on eradicating poverty.

The panel ended just in time for the evening prayers which indicated the end of the day’s fast for Muslims. The azan, which is the call for prayer, was made. Both Muslims and non-Muslims ate dried date fruits, which was the Muslim traditional food to break one’s fast with.

Dinner followed and before long the next segment started with facilitators Suraj Upadhiah and Shahril Hassan taking the lead.

As a warm up activity, participants were asked what colour came to mind when they heard the word Jihad, especially since they have had some of their burning questions addressed in the opening panel.

Some said green, as it was a colour they associated with Islam. A few said red, but not because of violence. Rather it was the colour of passion, and energy and struggle.

Someone else associated jihad with the colour amber, like in the traffic lights. Because now that he knew that jihad was not primarily about violence but about striving, he thought of it as a signal to make a “conscientious pause” to stop and think before embarking on what one should strive for.

For the main activity participants were given fist-sized cardboard bricks that worked like lego. Everyone sat in groups of about eight to ten and they were tasked to build something which represented Jihad to them.

Participants were to take note of questions that were provoked in the process and they would be posed to the speakers in the closing panel.

One group built a mountain, because “jihad was not easy” they said. Initially they planted a flag on top but decided to take it down because “jihad doesn’t have an end point”, and a flag implied a sense of finality.

Another group built a pyramid and said that the summit represented the “inner jihad” like fighting with one’s pride and arrogance and conquering the self. It was harder to reach but that was the pinnacle of jihad in their opinion.

A maze was what jihad seemed like to members of another group. Because to strive for something better is an “endless, constant struggle”.

While the above groups focused on what jihad might look like, another group focused on how to interpret jihad. They built a simple pyramid with words like culture, language, identity and so on at the base and the word jihad at the very top. Facing this pyramid was a sword.

That group shared that everyone sees jihad but as a concept it should be broken down to see how other factors shape the understanding of jihad in different societies. And the sword was a metaphorical tool to break it down.

Of the questions that came up within the groups during the activity, the most interesting one was on how non-Muslims could contribute to fighting extremism and ensuring that jihad was properly understood by others.

Nazhath shared that rather than keeping questions and doubts within for fear of ‘offending others’, it would be good to clarify them with Muslim friends in a safe space.

That said, she added that it can get tiring for a Muslim to keep answering the same questions to different people and so it is ok to take a step back and not feel perpetually obligated to address queries.

Imran added that the strategy of Muslim extremists was to bomb a place and turn the non-Muslims against the Muslims, making them feel isolated and victimised and causing social fault lines.

It’s important for everyone to understand what extremists are trying to do and so both non-Muslims and Muslims must work towards building trust with each other, and creating a resilient society - that’s our jihad.

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