What does "jihad" mean?
It can mean armed struggle, the meaning the prosecutors prefer, an Islamic studies expert testified yesterday at the trial of a Yemeni sheik charged with financing terrorist groups.
But it can also mean, as the defense prefers, the struggle for self-perfection and charitable work. "Anything that basically furthers the cause of Islam and is understood to be doing good," said the witness, Bernard Haykel, an associate professor of Islamic studies at New York University.
In Federal District Court in Brooklyn yesterday, that linguistic argument was at the center of the most ambitious effort yet by the defense to present an alternative way of viewing the prosecution's evidence against the sheik, Mohammed Ali Hassan al-Moayad, who is charged with providing material support to Al Qaeda and the Palestinian militant group Hamas.
Bolstered by hours of secretly recorded tapes in which the sheik referred to jihad countless times, the prosecution's central argument at the monthlong trial has needed little amplification: look at the tapes.
Yesterday, aided by Dr. Haykel, who has written about and lived in Yemen, the defense put forth an alternative way of considering those tapes. He described the sheik's world in Yemen as a place remote from the lives of the New York jurors, where words and gestures may have different meanings.
Under questioning from a defense lawyer, William H. Goodman, Dr. Haykel described a grindingly poor country, divided over terrorism, where there is wide support for Palestinians and great skepticism of America.
For every sinister implication from the prosecutors, he gave the defense another way of explaining things. Young men at a mass wedding held by the sheik had appeared militant by carrying swords, in a videotape shown to the jurors. But such swords, he said, were common ceremonial accessories in Yemeni weddings.
A prosecution document had suggested malicious intent, describing a book the sheik had been reading with a title translated as "How to Evade Plots." Dr. Haykel testified that it was actually a quirky Yemeni history with a much tamer title, including the words "Proper Governance," which was published about 1,000 years ago.
Dr. Haykel took a swipe, too, at the prosecutors' accusation that the sheik's friendly ties to Hamas were incriminating. "There are a billion plus Muslims in the Arab world, 90 percent of whom support Hamas," he testified. "If they were all terrorists, we would be in dire trouble."
Mr. Goodman made his purpose clear. His questions suggested that the sheik, arrested in Germany and extradited to Brooklyn, is far from his native Yemen, where people might understand him differently.
"Why," Mr. Goodman said, referring to the exotic picture of Yemen that emerged from the wedding videotape, "does this look so different and unusual to us?"
A prosecutor, Jeffrey H. Knox, objected, and Judge Sterling Johnson Jr. ruled that the question should not be answered.
Mr. Knox wanted to paint a different picture of Yemen. Yes, Dr. Haykel said in response to his questions, "quite a few books" there have argued that the Sept. 11 attack was really a Jewish conspiracy. And, yes, "there are some elements in Yemeni society who consider Al Qaeda to be a force for good."
Mr. Knox brought the subject back to the definition of jihad. In answer to a question, Dr. Haykel conceded that whatever people in Yemen may think of Hamas, it is a group that kills civilians and says there is no room for compromise with Israel.
"Now jihad, " Mr. Knox said, "in that context means 'war'?"
"Correct," Dr. Haykel said.