Today in bad humor…

As a frequent Jezebel reader and an editor for an e-zine that focuses on gender and sexuality in the Muslim world, AltMuslimah, I usually enjoy reading the witty banter on Jezebel. The Altmuslimah staff often shares the commentary offered on Jezebel with our Facebook and Twitter followers. It has become more apparent, however, that when it comes to discussing topics relating to Muslim women, Jezebel writers, disappointingly, do not have a real grasp of the issues, though they seem to think they do.
I usually overlook the Western-feminist-gone-awry approach that comes off somewhere between “OMG, how cute!” to “OMG, how weird!” in most such articles, dismissing it as, “Oh well, maybe they don’t know any better.” But when most of the readers seem to have a better grasp of the topical nuances than do the writers, it makes me wonder, “Well, shouldn’t they know better by now?”

So I have yet to understand why Jezebel engages in regurgitating the disturbing “good Muslim, bad Muslim” rhetoric perpetuated by mainstream pop media. In The Future of bin Laden’s Daughter, for example, Anna North claims that Osama bin Laden’s teenage daughter, Safiya, might be evil because well, she is his daughter and likely to become a jihadi (whatever that means) and that we (the US) must save her. Maybe this can be a TLC show – All-American Muslim: Saving Safiya. And though in Poll: Muslims are Capable of Being Good Americans, Margaret Hartmann correctly points out the absurdity of needing a poll to demonstrate that Muslims are good Americans as it furthers the “otherization” of Muslims, this past weekend, in Today in Bad Names: Woman Names Her Son Jihad, Cassie Murdoch shows that Jezebel is still confused as to how Muslims can be human – beings who are neither exclusively good nor evil, who follow diverse cultural traditions, even in the West.

At first, I thought Murdoch’s article was a poor attempt at being humorous, but it seems Murdoch is giving her honest assessment of something she thought was disturbing news – a Muslim woman in Germany named her newborn 13 lb son Jihad. O-M-G.

As soon as the post went up, a number of readers expressed their disappointment at the condescending tone of the piece. Some called it offensive, a few even provided detailed definitions of jihad, while others spoke of the prevalence of the name in the Arab community and how baby names have developed in other cultures. As one reader cheekily stated, “Kelly” is Gaelic for “warrior,” and yet no one thinks that Kelly Kapowski [Saved by the Bell] is a born criminal.” While Jezebel did not “feature” these comments (so you have to actually click on “all” comments to read them) Murdoch was quick to issue an apology.

In her apology, Murdoch claims she did not mean to say that the name Jihad is a bad name but rather, that it is bad timing to name a child “Jihad” considering the negative connotations it carries. These days, the name carries necessarily conjures ideas of extremism and terrorism. While I do not think that Murdoch intended to offend anyone with her article, she initially did describe Jihad as being an inherently bad name. Her words, combined with the article graphic and title, feed into the same negative connotations she describes.

To clear up the primary confusion – “jihad” in Arabic simply means to “struggle/strive in the way of God.” Regardless of what the Daily Mail claims, naming a child Jihad is not newsworthy. It is a common name among several faith groups in the Middle East. It is not akin to naming your child after a known criminal or murderer, nor is it obscure or strange.

Yet, Murdoch seems to think that naming your child Jihad is the same as naming your child Hitler. She also skews the meaning of the word jihad as “an Islamic term which, in case you’ve never watched the news, describes a religious war all followers are to wage against non-believers” – so much for debunking the negative pop media stereotypes. She seems shocked that such a common name has been used before in Europe – newsflash: Muslims live in Europe, even in Germany, and continue to follow their faith and respective cultures.

She concludes by saying that the mother in question is a “devout Muslim” (how her devoutness is determined is not clear) and that it is a “relief” that the child’s name and religion do not mean he will grow up to be a “terrorist” – let’s hope he doesn’t meet Safiya bin Laden. However, the graphic displayed alongside the article shows a passage of the Qur’an taken out of context translating jihad as “holy fighting in Allah’s cause” that is “ordained for you (Muslims).” The particular verse pictured alludes to the struggle with which we all strive to find balance between what we want and what we need, but to a reader who does not understand the variances in Arabic translation or that the Qur’an mentions the term jihad over three dozen times in various contexts, the entire post reinforces that jihad is bad and equals extremist (Muslim).

If this piece was an attempt at being witty, the humor was lost by Murdoch’s ignorant assumptions and conclusions. Perhaps if Ms. Murdoch had played around with the fact that giving birth to a 13lb baby must have been a “struggle” – no wonder the mother named him Jihad – the word play would have elicited a few chuckles. Or if she focused on the concern she claims to have about the child’s potential future “struggle” with his name in a world that does not understand his faith, she would have appeared less condescending and less ignorant.

Though I am happy to see that the readers of Jezebel are much more enlightened and well-read than the staff appears to be, it should be clear to any writer that if you do not understand something, particularly a religion or culture, it is best not to try to make fun of it – not only to save yourself the humiliation and/or from causing possible offense, but because the result is just not funny. As Irish standup comedian Dara O’Brian facetiously points out to his audience regarding his avoidance of joking about Muslims, “I don’t joke about Muslims for two reasons – “a) I don’t know a f*cking thing about Muslims and b) neither do you. Frankly, it’s a bit pointless.”

Hopefully, Murdoch and the rest of the Jezebel staff can keep this in mind the next time they have an OMG – a story about Muslims moment.

(Photo Credit: The Daily Mail)

Nadia S. Mohammad is an Associate Editor at AltMuslimah.

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