[conspire] NYLXS Press Release on the OLPC Project

Rick Moen rick at linuxmafia.com
Thu May 1 11:20:37 PDT 2008

Quoting Ruben Safir (ruben at mrbrklyn.com):

> This might be a good example of how language shapes culture and
> reflects culture.  The word "Jihad" is not an equivilant of say the
> word "Mitzvot" neither of which have equivilants in English.

(I've slightly corrected what I'm pretty sure is a minor typo in your
rendering of "mitzvot", feminine plural of mitzvah, into the Latin
alphabet, above.)

> Slice it and dice it as you wish but the word Jihad never has the
> innocuous meaning such as you described. 

It would be more precise to say that it's never had _solely_ the
innocuous meaning I described.  And that is because words in all
languages have multiple senses, and shades of connotation -- far more
than political agitators find convenient.  Some of those meanings are
metaphorical, such as (as all Neal Stephenson readers know) the Latin
for "argument" in the phrase Louix XIV ordered etched into the French
army's cannons:  "Ultima ratio regum", the last (final) argument of

Metaphor sometimes fades so far into background we forget it's there, as
with our referring to newspapers and magazines as "the press", sixty
years after hot type (and thus "pressing") was obsoleted by
phototypesetting, and sometimes it wears down to practical nonexistence,
as we say "goodbye" without stopping to realise it was worn down from
"God be with ye".

The point about "jihad" is that like, well, the English words "contend", 
"strive", and "struggle", it always had, in Arabic, a large array of
senses and connotations depending on context, and "violent religious
warfare" is the primary and overwhelming sense of the term only in the
minds of certain not-very-well-informed Western commentators such as
your esteemed self.

So, yes, jihad has always had a whole raft of innocuous meanings --
along with menacing ones.  "War" in English does, too, courtesy of the
double-edged sword of metaphor, as witness LBJ's (attempted) War on Poverty.

And, yes, "jihad al-lisan", striving with tongues, i.e., debate, which I
sense that we are continuing to do, would be one of the extremely well
established senses of that term.

> The word "Jihad" has no such segragation.

You are simply mistaken.  Deal.

If I may presume to speak of the Hebrew word "mitzvah" for a moment, the
root verb from which it comes is tav vav heh (tzavah), the verb meaning
command.  In context of Judaism, as you know extremely well, the
proper-noun sense of Mitzvot is the 613 divine commandments that God
is said in the Tanakh (Bible) to have decreed that Jews should obey as
their part of the covenants of Jacob, Moses, Abraham, and Noah.

However, as you also know well, "mitzvah" also has a metaphorical
meaning of a "good deed", an act of kindness ("chesed") and compassion
("rachmones") -- the implicit idea being that such deeds are a blessing 
upon the name of God ("kodesh ha-Shem").  

And, oddly, even though I'm not Jewish and never went to Hebrew school a
day in my life, I _do_ sometimes think of it as "doing a mitzvah", if I'm
visiting someone who's ill (the mitzvah of bikkur holim), or comforting
someone in mourning (the mitzvah of nihum avelim).  That's not me being
religious -- I privately think the God in question is a Right Bastard
who doesn't deserve that kind of devotion[1] -- but rather, I guess, my
admiring the concept's implied spirit.

[1] http://linuxmafia.com/faq/Essays/pascals-wager-and-me.html

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