If you want to explain jihad to non-Muslims, there are easy ways to do it that don’t involve distortion or sugar-coating.
American Muslims have been on a downward trajectory in their attempts to explain jihad. The first step was to take out the physicality by claiming that “true jihad is an internal struggle against one’s base urges for the sake of God.” A partial explanation at best.
The second step was to take out the focus on God such that now “true jihad is about struggling for self improvement.” Apparently struggling to sleep more and get more exercise are acts of jihad now according to some. And since jihad just means “to struggle,” even struggling to achieve impermissible things like “going out on more dates,” having more casual sex outside of marriage, etc., can also be a jihad.
In this way, jihad has been reduced to this completely secularized notion of self help so popular with the Western white bourgeois class.
Instead of repeating cliches about “internal struggles” and cheapening and distorting jihad as tony-robbins-esque positive psychology, simply point to common themes of self sacrifice so common in every culture and ethical system.
Do we not hear fellow Americans talking about the virtue of “dying for one’s country”? If they can understand that, they can understand jihad.
Do we not see Christians who base their entire religion on the sacrifice of Jesus? If they can understand that, they can understand jihad.
Do we not see liberal secularists praising the early revolutionaries in France and elsewhere, who risked their lives to fight for their idea of freedom? If they can understand that, they can understand jihad.
Self sacrifice and fighting for God and the highest truth at the risk of one’s physical body is a universal value. Unfortunately, Muslims think they are making themselves more relatable by hiding or denying that crucial part of Islam. In fact, they are doing the exact opposite.
And yes, there are those stupid Muslims who misuse the notion of jihad in committing criminal acts that have nothing to do with Islam. But we should not be cowed into abandoning a major component of our faith because of the few criminals.
The American military is constantly committing atrocities, but no one (not even American Muslims ironically) is abandoning the idea that “dying for one’s country” is virtuous. Some Christian groups have also committed atrocities, but the notion of self sacrifice has not waned in their theology and teachings. And liberal secularists have had the most bloody history and the worst tyrants within their folds, but they still proclaim such mantras as “Give me liberty or give me death.”
It’s only Muslims who have had to reduce their values to soft caricatures without meaning or significance.
If you want to know the meaning of jihad, all you have to do is read about Badr and how the enemies of Islam wanted to stamp out the light of God and what the believers had to say about that. I defy anyone to hear about this pivotal event and not recognize jihad as the pinnacle of righteousness and all that is good in this world.
Even those who don’t believe in Islam or might even hate Islam can recognize the importance of physical fight and physical struggle as the keystone of all ethics. Is that not the message of every superhero comic or film that we are showing our children and our families? Is this not the theme of every major movie blockbuster? Our secular world retains the form, the shell but abandons the core, the essence. This is our hollow modernity with no spiritual core. But some Muslims are somehow managing to lower the bar even from there.