What the Arabic word jihad means is crucial to the war on radical Islam. If it means (as one professor of Islamic studies puts it) "resisting apartheid or working for women's rights," we can all go back to sleep. But if it points to something more threatening (as I believe it does: "the legal, compulsory, communal effort to expand the territories ruled by Muslims at the expense of territories ruled by non-Muslims"), we must wake up.
Beyond this general political import, the definition of jihad also has specific legal consequences. I have already noted its role in passing in the trial of John Walker Lindh, the "American Taliban." But now jihad takes center stage in the trial of Sami Al-Arian in Tampa, Florida, reports Elaine Silvestrini in the Tampa Tribune. Al-Arian made repeated use of the term jihad when speaking at Islamic Jihad-related events in 1989-91. What did he mean by it? As Silvestrini asks, was he "just encouraging the struggle of Palestinians to recover their homeland or was he stoking a holy war?"
The government translator, Tahsim Ali, a contract linguist for the FBI, finessed this issue in his transcripts of Al-Arian's words, leaving the word in Arabic, on the grounds that they are commonly used in English. But during cross-examination at the trial yesterday, Al-Arian attorney's Linda Moreno pressed Ali for the word's meaning. Consulting a book, he replied that it means "striving," and is "used to mean both quest for holiness and waging a holy war." When prosecutor Cherie Krigsman asked how he judges the meaning, Ali said he goes by context. Krigsman then noted several contexts in which Al-Arian used the word, such, as "Thus is the way of jihad. Thus is the way of martyrdom. Thus is the way of blood, because this is the path to heaven."
Comment: (1) The context looks pretty obvious to me. (2) The conviction of Sami Al-Arian will help solidify jihad's correct understanding as a political term. (July 15, 2005)
May. 15, 2007 update: In the terrorism trial of Adham Amin Hassoun, his lawyers have advanced the cute notion that jihad means providing relief for Muslims facing "ethnic cleansing" or "genocide."