“We are not Terrorists. We are jihadists.”

On December 9th, five Americans were arrested in Pakistan for allegedly attempting to join terrorist organizations. Entering the courtroom for a hearing, Howard University student Ramy Zamzam, one of the arrested five, told reporters: “We are not terrorists. We are jihadists, and jihad is not terrorism.’’ In court, the young men maintained “that they had neither sought nor established contact with extremist groups, and traveled to the region only “to help the helpless Muslims.’’

But according to Pakistani police, who had been alerted by neighbors, the men had traveled to Hyderabad and Lahore to make contact with extreme organizations. Americans, including these kids’ parents, are once again asking why. “What,” one blogger writes, “could make seemingly normal, integrated, university-educated Muslims turn to terrorism?”

The Internet has been coming in for a large share of the blame for providing terrorists with a platform for recruitment, for dispersing Jihadi websites and videos and serving as a forum for airing grievances of Muslim persecution and oppression, that is for doing what it was designed to do: provide free speech for all. But it’s not as if YouTube videos and websites find their target audience so easily, though they surely want to. Given the overflow of information available online, the chance that any posting will be watched and read grows ever smaller. SO FACTS: These young men went online, googled specific topics of interest, and took the time to load and watch, to sit and read and know. These young men were more than less self-recruited and self-indoctrinated, which is a frightening truth, incomprehensible to most Westerners.

A close reading of what these kids–by all accounts good, even hardworking young men–have to say about why they went to Pakistan might help.

Ramy Zamzam told reporters, “Jihad is not terrorism.” Google the word jihad and you will come upon an Islamic concept known as the greater and lesser jihad, a newly controversial idea sourced in an old hadith or saying credited to the Prophet on his return from war in Mecca: “We have returned from the lesser jihad to the greater jihad.” What is the greater jihad? “Holy is the warrior who is at war with himself,” Mohammed is said to have said. The greater jihad, according to Sufi writings, is an inner spiritual struggle toward self-perfection, an ideal perhaps best known to us in the West, courtesy of the Monty Python Brothers, as the search for the Holy Grail. The grail, according to Sufis and other mystics, is a perfected or pure self, one who can submerge his own needs and ego for the larger good. This is a form of self-sacrifice familiar to soldiers in every army, from the Kamikaze Pilots in WWII to our own soldiers fighting in Afghanistan.

“We are jihadists,” Zamzam said. He and his friends didn’t go to Pakistan to seek comfort and luxury, they gave up a lot, perhaps everything, to “help the helpless.” In modern Arabic, the word jihad stands for the struggle for any cause, such as Gandhi’s jihad for India’s Independence, a third-world country’s jihad for economic development, or the struggle for women’s liberation. These five young men became jihadists against injustice and oppression, which are seen, even in the west, as cause for a just war. For the sake of a better world, they gave themselves to a struggle that places the highest demands on its soldiers, and such extreme self-sacrifice is difficult to understand and accept.

Understanding requires a kind of empathetic self-extension, asks that you enter into the mind of the other and imagine the world from another point of view. Living as these kids did near Washington DC, in close proximity to the White House and the U.S. Justice Department, institutions charged with upholding the constitution, they might have been inspired by our ideals of justice and freedom for all. But then they witnessed what the American government is capable of: lying to go to war, blackout flights, waterboarding, months of imprisonment without representation, spying on its own citizens. As Muslims living in America at a difficult time, they might have experienced racism first hand. And when the Abu Ghraib photos were released, they had evidence of what Americans will do to those perceived as other, a position in which they and their families suddenly, frighteningly found themselves.

The relief of a new president, a black president!, would have helped during the first months of 2009, but then came the same old struggle to effect change–provide healthcare for more Americans, keep America safe—while still remaining politically viable. They would have seen the corrupting snares of partisanship and political posturing standing in the way of justice for all, compromising the best intentions. They would have heard about the drones that kill civilians, women and children, along with targeted individuals. They would have been appalled by the decision to send more troops to Afghanistan. They would have found all this frustrating and would have wanted to do something better. And they knew: struggle, including Obama’s, is important, honorable. Sacrifice for the larger good is the path toward self-perfection. So they traveled to Pakistan “to help the helpless Muslims.’’

As it happens the altruism and individual self-reliance involved in sacrifice are deeply embedded in the American grain, which means that to understand we have only to be more rigorously honest and willing to know ourselves. Self-knowledge isn’t easy; it’s rather close to the spiritual struggle the Prophet called the greater jihad.

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