A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

a multi-faceted look at the middle east, and the middle west

the origins of jihad, New Yorker edition

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on October 23, 2009

I’m on a media kick these days – and totally addicted to online newspaper and magazine archives. One thing that interests me is the way that certain terms come into vogue, and how the meanings that attach to them change over time.

So today I took a peek at the New Yorker‘s archives, curious to see when the word “jihad” first appeared, and in what context.

The New Yorker‘s archives stretch back to 1925, but the first mention of the word “jihad” does not appear until 1985, in the July 8 edition of John Newhouse’s “Diplomatic Round”. Titled “A Freemasonry of Terrorism”, the multi-page article uses the word “jihad” four times – but only as part of the group name “Islamic Jihad”, and not as a religious concept or a political strategy.

Terms that today might be associated with jihad, such as “martyrdom”, are used, but there is nothing in this article about terrorists “advocating jihad” or “espousing jihad” or “belief in jihad”.

The next article to use the term is Jane Kramer’s April 14, 1986 “Letter from Europe”. Kramer also uses “jihad” only as part of “Islamic Jihad”. (After introducing the group, she refers to them as “the jihad” in a way that reminds me of how some journalists today talk about “the hizb”. I find this approach bizarre, but what do I know?) Nor does this start much of a trend: the word “jihad” does not appear again until a July 1990 piece on Egypt, where it is again used as the name of a group (“Jihad”).

However, by November 1995, the situation appeared to be changing. A piece by Mary Anne Weaver on “The Annals of Covert Action”, titled “The Stranger”, used the term as follows:

“… the C.I.A.-sponsored “jihad”, or holy war, against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan …”.

In other words, “jihad” now appeared as a term of its own, but required a definitional gloss for readers.

By July 1998, the word had become detached not only from group names, but also from the need for definition: a feature on the failure Prince Charles’ campaign for traditional building styles described him as on “a jihad against modern architecture”.

I don’t have any sweeping conclusions to offer about this – I just find it interesting. Next up: “jihad” in the New York Times, where its use as noun and metaphor has a much longer history.

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