NYC Dept. of Ed. Disarming Children Against Jihad

By Raymond Ibrahim Published on March 22, 2024

One of the oldest apologias for Islam is making the rounds again. According to a Feb. 27, 2024 report,

New York City teachers were told that “jihad” means simply “struggle” — not holy war — in training sessions against “anti-Muslim bias” run by the Department of Education. Educators were even given the example that it could simply mean “my jihad to get fit” … ignoring its history of being used to justify violence, including terrorism by groups such as Hamas, al Qaeda and ISIS … “The literal meaning of Jihad is ‘struggle’ or ‘great effort’. Jihad is the Muslim concept of striving in the path of God,” the host said. Examples she gave included, “My jihad to never settle short”; “My jihad to not judge people”; “My jihad to build friendships”; and “My jihad is to stay fit despite my busy schedule.”

Some teachers naturally took umbrage with these claims:

One teacher said the webinar host ignored them when they messaged to say that the Encyclopedia Britannica definition of jihad included war. Another compared the way it redefined language as “straight from the Joseph Goebbels handbook,” while a third said it was a brazen attempt to use semantics to avoid discussing Islamic extremism.

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While all of these criticisms are accurate, truth be told, the claim that jihad literally means “struggle” — not “holy war” — is absolutely correct.

However, this only leads to an even more problematic irony: those who insist on translating jihad only as “struggle” do so thinking they are exonerating this notorious Arabic word from the extremism surrounding it. In reality, it is only when one understands that jihad literally means struggle that one truly comes to appreciate just how dangerous, multifaceted, and subversive it truly is.

Inherently Radical

Let us start with its etymology. Here is how the authoritative Hans-Wehr’s Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic translates the root j-h-d (whence the word jihad is derived):

to strive, endeavor, labor, take pains, and exhaust on behalf or for the sake of something [namely Islam].

Published in 1961—that is, before the current age of political correctness — the academically rigorous dictionary also makes it a point to place under the j-h-d entry the word “jihad,” which is translated as “fight, battle; jihad, holy war against the infidels, as a religious duty.”

There is a very good reason for this subcategorized entry. Historically, jihad always manifested itself as a “holy war against infidels.” It revolved around expanding and (occasionally) defending the borders of Islam.

Century after century, the only way for Muslim empires to expand into non-Muslim territory was through offensive warfare. Because pre-modern Europeans were still zealous over their faith and culture, and thus not about to submit to Islam without a struggle, force — Islamic invasion and conquest — was the only way to effectively practice jihad.

Massaging the Language

Times have changed. With the modern, meteoric rise of the West, a lax if not gullible attitude has come to prevail, allowing some Muslims to exercise the root meaning of jihad. If they can no longer subjugate the infidel through conventional war, they can at least, to quote from the aforementioned dictionary, “strive, endeavor, labor, take pains, and exhaust on behalf or for the sake of something” — namely, empowering Muslims over (and in) the West.

This striving (jihad) takes many forms. One of the most obvious is known in Arabic as jihad al-lissan — literally, “jihad of the tongue, or propaganda. This jihad takes the form of apologetics for Islam and polemics against the West — many of which consist of out-and-out lies. It emanates from Muslim academics, activists, journalists, politicians, and others.

Even the Islamic State, which embodies the concept of jihad as “holy war” more than any other organization in the modern era, regularly reminds its followers not to neglect the jihad of the tongue. According to a 2022 report,

The Islamist terrorist group Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISKP) has urged its supporters and recruits to emphasize media warfare in addition to military combat. “Fighting with the tongue is as important as fighting physically,” ISKP stated in a new issue of their magazine.

Breed Them Out

Another form of striving, recommended both in the Koran and Hadith, is known as jihad al-mal — the “money jihad.” Instead of physically participating in jihad, a Muslim supports it financially or materially.

This used to be the caliphate’s responsibility. Nowadays and in its absence, everyday Muslims — including those living in the West —finance the jihad with their zakat, or “alms.” For example, in 2001, the U.S. government designated the Holy Land Foundation (once the largest Islamic charity group in the United States) as a terrorist front dedicated to financing Hamas’s jihad/terrorism against Israel.

Yet another is the demographic jihad — the “baby-jihad” (jihad al-wilada). Muslim men “strive” to breed with as many women as possible in order to increase the ranks of Islam vis-à-vis increasingly sterile infidels. This is not just a lusty rationalization for illicit sex. Islamic clerics laud this “endeavor” as a legitimate jihad. Its success can be seen in Western Europe, where some of the capitals — including Amsterdam, Brussels, and Oslo — now have more newborn babies named “Muhammad” than traditional, European names. Muhammad is the most popular name in the UK.

Dumbed Down and Dangerous

In short, the word “jihad” does not simply indicate waging traditional “holy war” to empower Islam over infidels. It means any “endeavor,” any kind of “striving” or “labor” — in a word, any struggle — that empowers Islam over infidels. Citing this fact, as the apologists often do, should not create less but more apprehension concerning the jihad.

Yet here is the New York Department of Education doing everything to give jihad a Western — that is, soft and secular — veneer, so that its targets, including young and impressionable minds, let their guards down. As one Jewish teacher who attended the NYC training session put it,

They are trying to normalize jihad but we have to address the elephant in the room: that for many radical Muslims it means violence. It’s a form of subliminal messaging and brainwashing. By changing the terminology it becomes easier to say and repeat, especially for children. It’s like “genocide” doesn’t mean genocide anymore, and “terrorist” means “freedom fighter.” When someone hears a word like jihad, they now associate it with a struggle to go to the gym rather than violence. How will they be able to spot dangerous and violent ideologies? The Department of Education is promoting this twisting of terminology.


Raymond Ibrahim, author of Defenders of the West and Sword and Scimitar, is the Distinguished Senior Shillman Fellow at the Gatestone Institute and the Judith Rosen Friedman Fellow at the Middle East Forum.

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