My Name is Jihad by Esther Nelson


Recently, my local newspaper (yes, I still get a paper delivered to my “newspaper box” every morning!) carried a short article that caused me to stop and reflect.

The headline read, “Use of ‘Jihad’ on school test assailed.”  A local, elementary school principal had pulled a math problem from the school’s resource pool when some parents and other community members objected to the use of “Jihad” as a name for one of the characters in the math exercise.  In the exercise, Roberto, Kwame, and Nika (along with Jihad) collected leaves for a science project.  The elementary school students’ assignment involved drawing bar graphs, showing how many leaves each character collected.

A local resident brought what he termed an “inappropriate name” (Jihad) to the attention of the School Board.  He said, “I believe this [using Jihad as a character name] is a very subtle desensitization of impressionable young minds,” citing Webster’s College Dictionary’s definition of jihad as “a war by Muslims against unbelievers or enemies of Islam, carried out as a religious duty.”

Another local resident posted the math problem on his blog saying, “The use of the name Jihad indicates a push in the…schools toward a ‘pro-Muslim’ agenda” especially since “Jihad collected the most leaves.”

The article included a couple of statements from a religious studies professor who teaches at a local, public university.  He said, “…jihad is not commonly used as a Muslim name and…is a widely misused and misunderstood concept.”  He further explained that jihad means to “struggle” as one lives out his/her faith, noting that Muslim extremists use the word to justify the use of violence.  He added, “…only a small percentage of Muslims share the extremists’ understanding of the word jihad…[and Muslims] primarily understand the concept as a spiritual, personal struggle.”

The individual who thought young minds could easily become desensitized by using Jihad as a character name in a math problem said that he did not think parents could explain the concept of jihad to their elementary school-aged children.  Which brings me to my point–America is a religiously illiterate country.

Every so often, the subject of mandating the teaching of religion in public schools gets coverage in the news.  People debate the issue–both in structured settings (TV, radio, and blogs in social media) as well as in less structured places (coffee shops, grocery stores, and the bleachers where children play soccer).  People for and against such instruction have strong opinions.  Soon enough, the subject dies down, the people who are against teaching religion in public schools “win,” but before long the subject surfaces again.

I wonder.  If teaching religion in public schools were part of the regular high school curriculum, would the article I’m using to make my point (Americans, for the most part, are religiously illiterate) even be news?  If the local resident is correct in his assessment that parents are not able to explain the concept of jihad to their children (and I believe he is), I need to ask why is that the case?  Why can’t parents explain a basic concept from a major world religion to their children?

People often shy away from accepting religion as a subject–no different from history, philosophy, psychology, chemistry, and math–to be taught in public schools.  How often do we hear the phrase, “separation of church and state,” articulated as a shield  to keep the subject of religion out of the public school system.  The constitutional amendment often cited as “evidence” to not teach religion in public schools forbids the establishment of a religion by the state.  Teaching ABOUT religion does not violate that amendment.  Studying ABOUT religion looks at the various ways people within their societies have “done” religion throughout time.  It’s no different than looking at how people have contextualized themselves within politics, literature, and language throughout time.

Another concern people have regarding teaching religion in public schools is the fear that children will be swayed into accepting a religion different from the one parents want to inculcate in their offspring.  But, teaching ABOUT religion is not the same thing as proselytizing.

I think it’s important to understand the huge difference between studying ABOUT religion and studying religion devotionally.  The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision (McCollum v. Board of Education, 1948) barred religious instruction in public schools. The ruling came about as a result of  Jim McCollum, an elementary school student, who (along with his family) was persecuted for not participating in religious classes.  The Supreme Court’s ruling a few years later (Abington v. Schempp, 1963) barred Bible reading and the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer.  Both of these cases, I believe, came about because the majority religion at that time (Christianity) was used as a devotional exercise.  The intention of the rulings was never to make religion a subject “non grata.”  Justice Thomas Clark said, “It might well be said that one’s education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion….”

When I presented the article that featured Jihad as a character name in an elementary school math problem to my first-year (for the most part) university students along with the community’s response, they were unsure how to respond.  When the class realized that Jihad is a person’s name as well as a Muslim’s personal, spiritual struggle, one brave soul said, “I had no idea that jihad meant anything other than holy war.”

According to Stephen Prothero, the chair of the religion department at Boston University and author of Religious Literacy What Every American Needs to Know–and Doesn’t, writes, “Americans are both deeply religious and profoundly ignorant about religion.”  He adds, “Religious literacy refers to the ability to understand and use the religious terms, symbols, images, beliefs, practices, scriptures, heroes, themes, and stories that are employed in American public life.”

The superintendent of the local school system with the “problematic” math exercise supported the principal’s decision to pull the question from the teachers’ resource pool saying, “It was divisive.”  Subsequently, I’ve not heard any talk about educating students regarding the term “jihad.”  Do people really need to wait until they take an elective religion class in college to understand a basic term from a major world religion?

Esther Nelson is an adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Va.  She has taught courses on Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Christian-Muslim Relations, and Religions of the World, but focuses on her favorite course, Women in Islam.  She is the co-author (with Nasr Abu Zaid) of VOICE OF AN EXILE  REFLECTIONS ON ISLAM and the co-author (with Kristen Swenson) of WHAT IS RELIGIOUS STUDIES? A JOURNEY OF INQUIRY.

Categories: General, In the News, Islam

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12 replies

  1. Sigh. Without education about religions, Americans and others will not be able to distinguish between the Wahabi ultraorthodox Puritanical sect of Islam and Islam as a whole or between terrorists who appeal to Islam to justify their acts and the vast majority of Muslims.


  2. As regards whether the practice of various religions can successfully be taught in public schools —Mahatma Gandhi once said: “Truth is one, paths are many.” I’m almost certain that’s exactly what in the end would be learned by the students, and how glorious an outcome!!


    • Truth may be one, but some paths include many errors, just for a start, about women.


    • What’s in a name? Would people have objected if he had been named Mohammed? What about the common Spanish name Jesus? Would anyone have noticed the cultural bias if they had been called Tom, Dick, Harry and Jim?
      How many people can explain the linguistic origin and story of their own names?
      Would the math problem have been ok if Jihad had lost?
      Interesting piece. Thanks. I am very grateful that I was taught Great World Religions in Sunday School beginning in Grade 5.


  3. Very interesting post. Would it help if an elementary or high school class teaching ABOUT religion were called “comparative religion”? I sort of doubt it. Ambrose Bierce, Mark Twain, and H.L. Mencken all held a low opinion of the collective intellect of what Mencken (in the 1920s) called the American Booboisie. A hundred years later, what’s changed? People still don’t know anything about religions, not even their own. I, too, am grateful that I took comparative religion courses in school.

    But of course our political leaders (at all levels) keep reducing funding for education. People are proud to be ignorant. Sigh.

    At least the people who blog here and nearly all the people who comment are smart. Hooray!


  4. My son’s World History teacher (high school) has to give a short introduction to world religions because otherwise it is impossible to teach the kids about the Reformation and the Renaissance.

    In Germany, junior high and high school students take a religion class of their family religion (Catholic, Protestant, or in some areas Muslim, Buddhist, Judaism) or if they are atheists they take a humanism class which emphasizes ethics. In all classes, they get an overview of the belief systems.


    • In the UK they teach religions in the schools. It is a long time now that classes in Christianity or one’s own religions have been replaced with classes in the diversity of religions. I have seen some of the books and they are really good.

      In Greece, Orthodox Christianity is taught without respect to the diversity of religions or historical criticism.

      Hmm did anybody notice that in the question diversity wins, but so does sexism, 3 male names to one female name, which may not be clearly understood to be female, or are the authors bending over backwards to suggest that boys like to do soft things like collecting leaves too?


  5. Thanks Esther.

    I like this point very much.

    For one thing, there are also an unfortunate few who could TEACH religion (in the schools, high school or elementary school for that matter) BECAUSE too many have gone through an inadequate training to have the competence.

    I don’t mean to be just a random nay-sayer, but to fix this problem we really do have to go back to ground zero: the way we train teachers in a continually more and more interconnected world has allowed for illiteracy about MUCH of that world, and religion is just one aspect of.

    OBTW jihad is NOT a basic word of Islam. It is a basic word of our current media fascination with violent Muslim extremists, who continue to abuse the term along with their abuse of others.


  6. Thank you all for your comments. I find the recent news from Duke University–a weekly, three-minute call to prayer “moderately amplified” via speakers in Duke Chapel’s bell tower–withdrawn because, according to Michael Schoenfeld, vice president for public affairs and government relations, “What began as something that was meant to be unifying was turning into something that was the opposite,” unsettling. Yet, really not so different from the superintendent of the local school system with the ‘problematic’ math exercise supporting the principal’s decision to pull the question from the teachers’ resource pool saying, “It was divisive.” Sometimes (most times?) divisiveness must needs happen in order to achieve justice (example: civil rights). And “unifying” experiences (as with Duke) often come at a cost to justice.

    Ami–Is not “jihad” a basic concept used in Islam? I’ve heard you use the word in relation to yourself as you struggle in this “vale of tears” (so to speak). Also, there is a narrator on that DVD “Inside Islam What a Billion Muslims Really Think” whose name is Jihad. He smiles while telling the audience that he’s proud of his name and explains the meaning of it all. And yes, I agree with you that the task of teaching teachers how to teach religion in public schools needs an overhaul. However, I note resistance upon resistance to even the IDEA of teaching religion in the public schools.


  7. Hi everyone, I have a 13 year-old soccer and basketball – playing daughter. She sings Selena Gomez, has friends from all over the world. She loves her cat, is a tremendous a big sister, a fantastic friend and is an expert at postponing the completion of her chores. She is a perfectly normal, spirited and fabulous Canadian girl.
    Her name is Jihad.
    We did not name her according to Merriam Webster’s definition of a word we know and respect. We named her after knowing that is was powerful and strong and important. Like our only daughter.
    Thank you Esther for sharing your piece.


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