[ by Charles Cameron — bemused again, “jihad” (the word) in the news, “big data” too, plus Google expecting Mahdi ]
I suppose I should be glad — or should I? — that the word jihad is now in the news.
It’s about time. Jihad (the word, the concept, the interpretations) should have been in the news at least since 9/11, don’t you think? or since the World Trade Center bombing in February 26, 1993, perhaps? or at least since Osama bin Laden’s Declaration of Jihad Against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Mosques of September 2, 1996?
In any case, the word finally seems to have arrived, if the entry from the National Geographic site last month (upper panel, above) can be trusted:
And Big Data (lower panel)?
President Obama launched his Big Data Initiative on March 29, 2012, but I’m not sure how long the term has been in active use. I’m told there’s no “big data” listing in the 2009 Oxford English Dictionary on CD-ROM, I have the sense that three days ago’s Foreign Policy is far more up to date than last month’s National Geographic in any case — and just a month or two ago the CTO of CIA, Ira “Gus” Hunt, situated Big Data somewhere between “the cloud” and right now, telling his audience at GigaOM:
Big Data was so last year, right, all those breathless articles and all the front page covers — I was expecting BD to be Time’s Man of the Year, right. This year what we’re really talking about is how do we get value out of the stuff?
That quote, of course, is so “two months ago”…
So what does National Geographic tell us about jihad?
The Boston marathon bombing has focused attention on the word “jihad.”
Vice President Biden characterized the alleged bombers as knockoff jihadis.” The Associated Press reported that the elder brother had “vaguely discussed jihad” with his mother over the phone in 2011.
“Jihad” is derived from the Arabic word juhd (meaning effort, exertion, or power) and literally translates to “struggle” or “resistance” for the sake of a goal. Used 30 times and in multiple contexts in the Koran, jihad most often denotes a struggle against external enemies, the devil, or one’s self. One example from the Koran (49.15) is: “The believers are those who believe in Allah and His Messenger … and jahadu (do jihad) with their properties and selves in the way of Allah.”
Mark Wilks, an early 19th-century British author, introduced jihad into the English lexicon, defining it as a Muslim “holy war,” in his Historical Sketches of the South of India. It’s retained that meaning in English; the Oxford English Dictionary defines jihad as “a religious war of Muslims against unbelievers.”
Because of its roots and context in the Koran, jihad has a positive meaning to Muslims. Whatever form jihad may take, the struggle is always noble. When the term is evoked against external enemies, it can be used only during just or defensive wars.
I’m sorry, but that last para beginning “Because of its roots and context in the Koran, jihad has a positive meaning to Muslims” isn’t terribly clear. When al-Zawahiri talks about jihad, for instance, does the writer imagine all Muslim readers imagine he’s talking about something noble? I fear there are some subtleties being missed her that not everyone who reads National Geographic may understand.
And what does Foreign Policy want to tell us about Big Data?
The promoters of big data would like us to believe that behind the lines of code and vast databases lie objective and universal insights into patterns of human behavior, be it consumer spending, criminal or terrorist acts, healthy habits, or employee productivity. But many big-data evangelists avoid taking a hard look at the weaknesses. Numbers can’t speak for themselves, and data sets — no matter their scale — are still objects of human design. The tools of big-data science, such as the Apache Hadoop software framework, do not immunize us from skews, gaps, and faulty assumptions. Those factors are particularly significant when big data tries to reflect the social world we live in, yet we can often be fooled into thinking that the results are somehow more objective than human opinions. Biases and blind spots exist in big data as much as they do in individual perceptions and experiences. Yet there is a problematic belief that bigger data is always better data and that correlation is as good as causation.
Mr Orange had something to say about the word “jihad” in his War Tracker blog the other day, under the title What’s in the names of terrorist groups (1): Jabhah al-Nusrah li-Ahl al-Shâm min Mujâhidî al-Shâm fi Sahât al Jihâd:
… they still use a religious term in their name: One that is quite negatively understood in the West but not so in the Arab and Muslim world namely Jihâd.
They are Mujâhidîn – those who do Jihâd (religious struggle – in this case fighting) – on the fields of Jihâd. Mujâhidîn has a positive, religiously legitimizing ring to it – see here is someone who struggles for the religion – and is furthermore including. Whether you are with the FSA (even one of the rather secular parts of that group mind you) or with an independent Islamist group or with Jabhah al-Nusrah all do use the term Mujâhîd and all may be identified by that term (Granted there was a time when Thuwâr (revolutionaries) was en vogue but no longer so).
That, IMO, gets us a lot closer to understanding a term that has a range of meanings, a range of users, and a range of audiences — from something along the lines of divinely obligated warfare to something akin to conscience (or what Rilke calls “being defeated, decisively, by constantly greater beings”) , and from those who use it for glorious self-identification to those for whom it is a euphemism for terrorist (irhabi), and from those itching for a fight to those longing, praying and working devotedly for peace…
So — since we’re talking big data and jihad, here’s a tiny snippet of jihad-related skew from Google, one of the giants of big data…
It appears that Google Translate has a distinctly unsecular view when it comes to major figures in Shi’ite theology — specifically, it adds religious honorifics to their names when translating from English into Farsi. As you might imagine, I wanted to know how they dealt with the Mahdi — and behold, my prayer was answered:
So Google awaits his blessed return?
It seems pretty clear that SelfScholar would be skeptical about that. He ends his blog post, in fact, with an indication that he neither awaits nor expects it — choosing for his final example “to highlight the inanity of it all, just one for the road…”:
Prof. Dr. Muhammad-Reza Fakhr-Rohani has an interesting piece titled Rendering Islamic Politeness Markers into English, which he concludes thus:
There remain some Desiderata to be dealt with. First, the Arabic pre-nominal honorifics as well as post-nominal honorific-cum-optative sentences must be re-translated with a view to remove the items which make the language sound odd, and perhaps ungrammatical. Secondly, appropriate abbreviations must be devised for them. Finally, they must find their ways into English dictionaries, hence registered as part of the language.