Why I hold a jihad at the White House

(Anup Kaphle/the Washington Post)
  Enlarge Photo     Buy Photo
By Mohammad Ali Salih
Saturday, January 16, 2010

The five Muslim Americans who were arrested in Pakistan last month for terrorism recently told a Pakistani court that they were not members of al-Qaeda, didn't want to harm Pakistan and were on their way to Afghanistan to wage jihad against Western forces there. One of them declared: "We are not terrorists. We are jihadists, and jihad is not terrorism." Their lawyer added that they only wanted to "help the helpless Muslims."

This sparked me to resume my own jihad -- in front of the White House.

During the last days of the Bush administration, I started standing in front of the White House on weekends, silently holding a banner that asks on one side "What is Terrorism?" and, on the other side, "What is Islam?"

I have lived and worked in Washington since 1980 as a correspondent for Arabic newspapers and magazines in the Middle East. Since Sept. 11, 2001, I have felt sadness, anger and frustration because of what I had come to believe were President George W. Bush's subtle wars on Muslims. Because I had no outlet for this opinion in U.S. newspapers, I launched my one-man campaign.

I wasn't a stereotypical demonstrator. No shouting, arguing and marching. I wasn't wearing jeans and raising handwritten slogans; nor did I camp in front of the White House or chain myself to the fence. Believing that my conduct was part of my message, I dressed in dark suits, refused to engage in discussions, and only briefly and quietly answered questions.

In small print at the bottom of my sign, I wrote: "I will be here until I die." My plan was to get enough media attention and to collect enough donations online that I could quit my job and start a daily vigil. That would have disrupted my wife's plan for us to retire in Florida, but I figured I could take off winters and, being self-employed, could set my own schedule. When I became older and perhaps couldn't stand, I thought, I would use a wheelchair. I actually envisioned myself dying in front of the White House holding my banner.

But I stopped planning and ended my vigil when Barack Obama became president.

I believed in his campaign promises to end Bush's militaristic and antagonistic foreign policies, to change the tense political atmosphere in Washington, and to soothe the American people and give them some hope. When Obama went to Cairo last summer, he extended a peaceful hand to the Muslim world and called on Israel to stop its expansionist policies. He was even reported to have ordered government officials not to use the term "war on terrorism."

But after watching Obama in the White House for a year, I have come to believe that he is a typical politician who makes promises in order to be elected and, once elected, starts planning to be reelected. This may explain why he doesn't seem to have the courage to peacefully engage the Muslim world or to end the injustice the United States inflicts on Muslims in the name of its "war on terrorism."

I recognize that not all Muslims support Obama or want to work with him; some continue to resist U.S. occupation of two Muslim countries (Afghanistan and Iraq), resent U.S. bombardment of two Muslim countries (Pakistan and Somalia), resent U.S. threats to bombard two Muslim countries (Syria and Iran) and resent U.S. military intervention in another Muslim country (Yemen).

I believe Obama's basic problem with the Muslim world is his inability to understand -- or perhaps his denial -- that the Koran tells Muslims to stand up against injustice, particularly if they are treated unfairly by non-Muslims, which stands out in the form of blatant military occupations.

This brings me back to the five Muslim Americans who wanted to "help the helpless Muslims." I am not arguing about whether they are "jihadists" or "terrorists," "would-be martyrs" or "traitors," or whether they should stand in front of a civil or a military court when they return to the United States.

But I believe, as they do, that jihad is not terrorism. As the sign I held in front of the White House implies, "terrorism" hasn't been clearly defined. Even the United Nations hasn't agreed on a definition. And the Koran, which says a faithful Muslim is closer to God than a non-devout one, clearly asks the faithful to sacrifice their time, money, family and/or life to end injustice.

I am not faithful enough to sacrifice with my money (I barely make ends meet), with my family (I want them to be near me) or my life (I don't think I have enough left). So this weekend I will resume my jihad in front of the White House -- peacefully, silently and alone.

The writer, a journalist in Washington, is a correspondent for Arabic newspapers and magazines in the Middle East. His e-mail address is contact@mohammadalisalih.com.


© 2010 The Washington Post Company