President Obama does not see the terrorism challenge as a fight against "jihadists" because that conveys an undeserved religious legitimacy and risks reinforcing the view that the U.S. is at war with Islam, his counterterrorism adviser said Thursday.
"Describing terrorists in this way, using the legitimate term 'jihad' – which means to purify oneself or to wage a holy struggle for a moral goal – risks giving these murderers the religious legitimacy they desperately seek but in no way deserve," John Brennan said in a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
In a broad address on the administration's counterterrorism vision, Brennan also noted that Obama does not describe the battle as a "war on terrorism."
And in another swipe at the Bush administration, Brennan said, "Rather than looking at allies and other nations through the narrow prism of terrorism – whether they are with us or against us – the administration is now engaging other countries and peoples across a broader range of areas."
In a challenge to governments around the world, President Bush famously said during a press conference with his French counterpart two months after 9/11, "You're either with us or you're against us in the fight against terror."
(Brennan did indirectly compliment the previous administration: "After years of U.S. counterterrorism operations and in partnership with other nations, al-Qaeda has been seriously damaged and forced to replace many of its top-tier leadership with less-experienced and less capable individuals," he said.)
Experts on Islam questioned the repudiation of the term "jihadist."
"The unspoken assumption is that the United States has the power or prestige in the Islamic world to confer or deny Islamic legitimacy," said Robert Spencer, director of Jihad Watch. "This is, however, sheer fantasy."
Mideast specialist Walid Phares of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies called the shift the "mother of strategic mistakes."
"The secular government of the United States has no business declaring what term is legitimate and what term is not in religious affairs," he told the conservative Radio America network.
Phares said the new lexicon would discourage forces of democracy in the Islamic world who were struggling against jihadists.
"There are Muslims fighting the jihadists in several countries," he said. "These are our allies, this is our hope. We're not going to be able to win that war of ideas within the Muslim world – only the anti-jihadist movement can do it. They've done so, and we've seen in on the street of Iran, of Algerian, and Iraq, and Darfur in Sudan and Lebanon."
Phares said by supporting such Muslims the U.S. would be fighting for freedom in the Islamic world.
"But if the U.S. will start saying 'jihad is legitimate' what will be the argument for these Muslims – who are with us – to fight with?"
Muslim scholars continue to debate interpretations of jihad.
Georgetown University Islamic studies Prof. John Esposito speaks about jihad being a struggle within one's soul, also known as the "greater" jihad.
"Jihad as struggle pertains to the difficulty and complexity of living a good life: struggling against the evil in oneself – to be virtuous and moral, making a serious effort to do good works and help to reform society," he wrote in What everyone needs to know about Islam in 2002.
The "lesser" jihad is a fight against oppression, to defend one's land or religion, through preaching or, if necessary, violence.
While some argue – as Brennan appeared to do Thursday – that jihad's main thrust is a spiritual rather than militant struggle, others dispute this.
In his book Understanding Jihad, published by University of California Press in 2005, Rice University scholar David Cook wrote that Muslim literature offered negligible evidence supporting the idea that "spiritual" jihad was the primary expression of jihad.
"Today it is certain that no Muslim, writing in a non-Western language (such as Arabic, Persian, Urdu), would ever make claims that jihad is primarily nonviolent or has been superseded by the spiritual jihad," Cook contended.
"Such claims are made solely by Western scholars, primarily those who study Sufism and/or work in interfaith dialogue, and by Muslim apologists who are trying to present Islam in the most innocuous manner possible," he said.
"Presentations along these lines are ideological in tone and should be discounted for their bias and deliberate ignorance of the Muslim sources and attitudes towards the subject," Cook said.
Newspapers in the Islamic world freely and regularly use the term "jihadist" (or, in South Asia, "jihadi") in their news reporting and editorializing – and without suggesting necessarily that the term has been misappropriated. A search through newspapers' online editions finds the word used frequently in outlets in Indonesia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and other Muslim countries.