A new semiosis (social circulation of meaning is inhibiting the use of the term jihad in the daily discourse of Muslims even in the Western countries where there are laws protecting free speech. The Muslims who use the term frequently in their talks are described or perceived as "radicals" and "extremists," while those described or perceived "moderates" are economical in its use.
In Islam, jihad is the holistic--spiritual and physical struggle against evil. It is a divine calling--a noble, ethical duty for all Muslims. From the frontier of the inner battle against ignorance and arrogance to that of the outer battle against oppression and aggression, Muslims must fulfill this obligation by the heart, by the tongue, by the hand, and by the 'sword' if necessary. In essence, jihad represents a continuum of human struggle against injustice and oppression, with one frontline in the domain of the mind and the other in the world of the senses. For Muslims, the jihad of the heart is a great jihad and its ultimate expression is in the fight against aggression, in the defense of truth and justice, of innocent human lives and properties including their own.
However, this is not how most Western discourse professionals understand or define jihad. In fact, they have redefined jihad in their own terms as the Muslim counterpart of the medieval "Crusade," stripping the concept of its original, Islamic meanings.
Consider the sheer number of books, not journal articles and newspapers/ magazine commentaries, written to demonize the concept of jihad. In a social science database search, I found about 80 books dealing with jihad, Islam and terrorism. I read reviews of many of these books and browsed the texts of some others. The message I found in these books is that Islam is a religion that pathologically fosters a spirit of violence and terrorism under the rubric of jihad. If there was anything good in Islam and the concept of jihad, that has been hijacked by the so-called extremist discourse in the Muslim community.
Here are some of the book titles that in themselves should give you an idea of their content: Sacred rage: the crusade of Islam, Islamic terror and the west: a question of priorities, Jihad: no excuse for terrorism, The jihad ultimatum: a novel, Modern jihad: the terrorism of Beirut & Iraq, Sacred rage: the wrath of militant Islam, Holy war: Islam fights, Holy hatred: militant Islam's war against the West, Triumph of disorder: Islamic fundamentalism, the new face of war, Holy terror: inside the world of Islamic terrorism, and Jihad: the origin of holy war in Islam. These titles do not include the diatribes of Steven Emerson, Daniel Pipes, Yossef Bodansky, and Graham Fuller.
With the exception of the works by Edward Said and John Esposito and his colleagues, few books I found present fair or cogent scholarly analyses, let alone sympathetic critiques of Muslims in view of their historical and sociopolitical problematics. The works of orientalists like Bernard Lewis have the depths of scholarship but reflect a mission to defame Islam. Noteworthy works by Muslim social science and humanities scholars against the barrage of onslaughts against jihad are almost nonexistent.
It matters little how cogent or objective the accusations and analyses presented in the books mentioned above are. The fact is that they have saturated the universe of American or Western discourse on Islam, and they are capable of influencing the innocent minds of a mass society of readers--readers who do not background knowledge of Islam. According to the cultural critic Stuart Hall, people have three choices in reading a text--agree, negotiate, or disagree. If a book tells you that the Bangladeshis eat snakes for meat, you will most likely take it for granted if you have no knowledge of Bangladesh, reject it outright if you know that this is a false statement, and negotiate its meaning if you are not sure. The same meaning dynamics affect the Western or American people's understanding of Islam and Muslims.
Muslims must reclaim the meanings of jihad in order to feel "free" in American society. They must use the term in their daily discourse without feeling that they will be perceived as extremists for the same reason. The reclamation of the term, however, is no longer theological. It has not been a theological problem, nor will it ever be. It has now moved beyond the theological realm into the sociological, the politico-cultural domain. Individual Muslims interacting with Americans at large must use the term to give meanings to their experiences.
But to enable Muslims to reclaim jihad as a cultural icon, social science and humanities scholars must come forward to re-saturate the meaning environment with articulation of the rightful meanings of jihad. In addition to exposing of myths of those who seek to demonize jihad, they must interpret the diurnal jihad--the daily lived and living struggle of American Muslims for fairness in media, politics, and matters of justice. Muslims themselves must engage in and encourage or sponsor this scholarship this kind of scholarship.