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Muslim activists aim to reclaim the word 'jihad' with ad campaign

By Jonathan Helman and Athena Jones
February 5, 2013 -- Updated 1636 GMT (0036 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Muslim group wants to reclaim true meaning of the word "jihad"
  • Jihad "does not mean to commit harm against other people," group says
  • Activists plan to add TV, radio to social media and public transportation campaigns

(CNN) -- A Muslim activist group has launched a new ad campaign to reclaim a word they say has been abused and distorted by Muslim extremists and by anti-Muslim groups.

The MyJihad ad campaign is using print ads and social media to educate the public about what they say is the true meaning of the word "jihad."

The Merriam Webster dictionary defines the term as "1: a holy war waged on behalf of Islam as a religious duty; also: a personal struggle in devotion to Islam especially involving spiritual discipline" and "2: a crusade for a principle or belief."

But some religious activists dispute the emphasis on "holy war." They say the word is often misunderstood and has been co-opted and "misapplied" by radical Muslims who use it to justify terrorist acts and by anti-Muslim groups who use the word to foment fear in non-Muslims.

"The word 'jihad' literally means struggle, struggle for a good cause," said Nihad Awad, national executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

"It is a concept, a noble concept, within Islam that emphasizes a personal struggle within yourself to be a better person, a better husband, better wife, better worker, better neighbor," he explained. "It is not aggression, and it does not mean to commit harm against other people. If people commit harm against innocent people, it will be in violation of the spirit of Islam and a violation of the concept of jihad."

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The campaign is the brainchild of Ahmed Rehab, an activist who is also the executive director of CAIR in Chicago. He launched the effort in December with a small group of activists.

They began running ads on 25 city buses in Chicago and later expanded to buses in San Francisco. The ads began running at four metro stations in Washington in late January. They depict Muslims and non-Muslims sharing how they define their personal struggles. One shows a white Jewish man and a black Muslim man standing side by side, with the slogan "#MyJihad is to build bridges across the aisle." Another shows a young female photographer wearing a headscarf and holding a camera. The slogan reads "#MyJihad is to capture the truth even when it's unpopular."

Rehab said the donor-funded campaign is about making sure Muslim children can grow up in a world where they're judged on their own merits and not according to radical stereotypes.

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"I don't wake up in the morning looking for my Kalashnikov or AK-47," he said, highlighting one such stereotype.

The group has also taken its campaign to social media, asking supporters to post on their Facebook pages and use #MyJihad on Twitter to share their personal struggles. Rehab said they have received tens of thousands of encouraging tweets, Facebook messages, letters and e-mails.

The campaign has also attracted skeptics, especially online.

A user with the Twitter handle @Shaqton wrote: "Al-Qaeda: #MyJihad is carrying 'earth-shattering, shocking and terrifying' attacks against 'heart of the land of non-belief' -- U.S. and Europe."

Another user, with the handle @PeterTownsend7,wrote: "Claiming that critics read the Quran 'out of context' is another way of saying that you wish it did not say what it plainly does #myjihad."

Awad said the organizers of the campaign should expect to face resistance to their message but believes they will be successful in starting a conversation about this important tenet of Islam.

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"It's an uphill battle, because you are trying to dismantle preconceived ideas about the concept of jihad, because traditionally people have seen stereotypes and they have seen actions by some Muslims, and the majority of Muslims did not step in to say, 'No, this is our faith, and we are going to claim it,'" he said. "It is going to be an uphill battle, because you are trying to undo accumulation of misperception and mispractice -- misperception by non-Muslims and mispractice by some Muslims, and I think it's important for us to take this initiative."

The group hopes to place ads in more cities in the United States and around the world and to expand to other media such as radio and television.

"The message is global. The goal is anti-radicalization," Rehab said.

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