Literal and metaphorical hijackings

We have just been discussing some recent uses of the word “hijack” in a religious studies listserv I’m on, and this is an extended version of a post I made there today.


There seem to be several usages and issues here that need to be considered separately.

The word itself as applied metaphorically to contemporary, violent Islam may have been “close to the tip of the tongue” because its literal referent was in fact the method used in 9/11, viz the hijacking of commercial aircraft.

Rudi Giuliani implied as much when he said at the Republican Convention:

We stood face to face with those people and forces who hijacked not just airplanes but a religion and turned it into a creed of terrorism dedicated to eradicating us and our way of life.

quoted by Robert Spencer, Rudy Giuliani and the ‘hijacking’ of Islam, WorldNetDaily, September 02, 2004.

The “central” use is that in which alQ or the wider jihadist movement is described as “hijacking” Islam.

This motif of “hijacked Islam” is frequently used, it appears to myself and others, to suggest that “real Islam” isn’t “like that” — when from shortly after the Hijra, it has in fact included fighting (Badr, eg), as prescribed in the Qur’an. Indeed, both Yusuf Ali and Shakir translate Anfal 8.2 to indicate that God inspired angels fighting alongside Islamic forces by saying he would put “terror” (Pickthall has “fear”) into their enemies’ hearts — in retrospect, an interesting choice of words.

Qur’an, Anfal 8.12:

I will instil terror into the hearts of the Unbelievers…” (Yusuf Ali )
I will throw fear into the hearts of those who disbelieve. (Pickthall)
I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve. (Shakir)

That usage to describe jihadists as “hijacking Islam” does seem to make an assumption about what Islam is or should be, and whereas Muslims of various persuasions may find it fits their narratives, it seems a somewhat presumptuous and possibly misleading usage when somewhat casually uttered by non-Muslims as a catch-phrase.

Then there’s the (more accurate, I suspect) usage with which the BBC reports that “Extremists ‘hijack Islam’s image'” — emphasis here on the image:

The West’s image of Islam has been hijacked by extremists, delegates at the recent News Xchange broadcasting conference in Amsterdam heard.

Peter Feuilherade, Extremists ‘hijack Islam’s image’, BBC Monitoring, in Amsterdam, 15 November 2005

The term can also be used to refer to specific doctrines, such as suicide bombing — as in the case of the Ihsanic Intelligence monograph, The Hijacked Caravan: Refuting Suicide Bombings as Martyrdom Operations in Contemporary Jihad Strategy, which notes, relevantly:

… prior to 1989, the issue of suicide bombing was never debated amongst Sunni scholars due to the absolute illegitimacy of the acts …

Ihsanic Intelligence, The Hijacked Caravan, (July?) 2005

It seems to me that the issue of which specific doctrines are “mainstream”, which “arguable” and which “illegitimate” — from a variety of perspectives — is a topic we should be monitoring, along with the more general issue of the hijacking of Islam as a faith.

And speaking of faith, I also think it’s worth noting that Barack Obama has used the word in yet another and wider context. At the 50th UCC General Synod, as reported by Laurie Goodstein in the NYT,

Mr. Obama used his 45-minute speech to recall the church’s and many others’ proud history of involvement in the American Revolution and the abolition and civil rights movements. “But somehow, somewhere along the way, faith stopped being used to bring us together,” Mr. Obama said. “Faith started being used to drive us apart. Faith got hijacked.”

Laurie Goodstein, Faith Has Role in Politics, Obama Tells Church, New York Times, June 24, 2007
Senator Obama’s UCC General Synod speech


Each of us may “red flag” certain words that alert us to potential quibbles and hidden meanings. The DOD, for instance, recently flagged “jihad” and “jihadist”:

In dealing with Islamic extremists, the West may be giving them the advantage due to cultural ignorance, maintain Dr. Douglas E. Streusand and Army Lt. Col. Harry D. Tunnell IV. The men work at the National Defense University at Fort Lesley J. McNair in Washington, D.C.

The two believe the right words can help fight the global war on terror. “American leaders misuse language to such a degree that they unintentionally wind up promoting the ideology of the groups the United States is fighting,” the men wrote in an article titled “Choosing Words Carefully: Language to Help Fight Islamic Terrorism.”

A case in point is the term “jihadist.” Many leaders use the term jihadist or jihadi as a synonym for Islamic extremist. Jihad has been commonly adapted in English as meaning “holy war.” But to Muslims it means much more. In their article, Steusand and Tunnell said in Arabic – the language of the Koran – jihad “literally means striving and generally occurs as part of the expression ‘jihad fi sabil illah,’ striving in the path of God.”

This is a good thing for all Muslims. “Calling our enemies jihadis and their movement a global jihad thus indicates that we recognize their doctrines and actions as being in the path of God and, for Muslims, legitimate,” they wrote. By countering jihadis, the West and moderate Muslims are enemies of true Islam.

Jim Garamone, Loosely Interpreted Arabic Terms Can Promote Enemy Ideology, American Forces Press Service, June 22, 2006

I see the idea here, but don’t subscribe to it because terms of opprobrium are so often appropriated by groups under attack — Quaker, Shaker, Unitarian, Yankee, Tory, Whig and Queer being examples. In this case, the suggested alternative to “jihad”, “irhab” (unholy war, terrorism) has already been appropriated in this way by Younes Tsouli, the online jihadist / irhabist whose net nics included Irhabi007 — with a tip of the hat to Bond, James Bond, shaken not stirred.

So I don’t put much stock in outsiders triumphantly meddling with the way languages they don’t speak are used.

But “hijack” — that’s an American word, and this Limey feels close enough to the Cousins in spirit to red flag it, in non-literal use in discussing terrorism and Islam, as a word worth surveilling — erm, watching.


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