The Unitarian Jihad: An Internet Phenomenon

The title "Unitarian Jihad" sounds like a contradiction in terms. After all, for most people who come from a Judeo-Christian or a secular-democratic background, the word "jihad" conjures forth images of mad Arabs, full of religious fervour, waving scimitars, throwing bombs or otherwise engaging in some other form of violent fanaticism.

For the overwhelming majority of the Muslim and Arabic world however, from which the word originates, a very different interpretation is given. Derived from the Arabic root word "jahada" it means to "exert utmost effort", "to strive" or "to struggle". It has been used to represent military struggles, however arguably that the four references in the Qu'ran to the word do not refer to armed struggle. Indeed it is only through the hadith recorded by Imam Baihaqi and al-Khatib al-Baghdadi that the term jihad receives any clear military connotations at all. Even there it is very specific in the differentiation between a "lesser jihad" which constitutes military struggle and a "greater jihad", which is the struggle within one's self against temptation and, especially in the case of the Mu'tazili Caliphate, to represent one's struggle to understand the world through scientific investigation.

Further, even within this notion of the "lesser jihad", as alread diluted as it is, another distinction is made between a "defensive lesser jihad" and an "offensive lesser jihad". The former refers to the military defense of a population subject to foreign invasion and occupation, a principle which is sanctioned by the United Nations and international law. The latter however does refer to Islamic wars of aggression and conquest against non-Muslims. However, liberal Muslims claim that "offensive lesser jihad" was only appliciable in the early days of Islam when it was allegedly surrounded hostile regimes and empires and as such, it is now obsolete.

In a nutshell, despite the use and application by contemporary religious fundamentalists, the idea of a "jihad" has less to do with violence and military conflict that the term "crusades" which can also mean a conviction and passion. Perhaps if the title of this phenomenon was a "Unitarian Crusade" more pleasant images would come to mind, and we would understand that the term did not mean the violent military invasion of an alleged "Holy Land", but rather an allegory and metaphor for a spiritual and intellectual struggle. Of course, if that was the case, the multicultural point would be lost.

I have spent a little bit of time on this description, because it serves to illustrate the thinking behind the Unitarian Jihad, a nascent popular popular movement that has arisen on the Internet. The concept originated in a column by San Francisco Chronicle writer Jon Carroll in early April this year who claims to have received the first communiqué via an anonymous remailer. The following is composed from select quotations:

Greetings to the Imprisoned Citizens of the United States. We are Unitarian Jihad. There is only God, unless there is more than one God. The vote of our God subcommittee is 10-8 in favor of one God, with two abstentions. Brother Flaming Sword of Moderation noted the possibility of there being no God at all, and his objection was noted with love by the secretary.

Why is the news dominated by nutballs saying that the Ten Commandments have to be tattooed inside the eyelids of every American, or that Allah has told them to kill Americans in order to rid the world of Satan, or that Yahweh has instructed them to go live wherever they feel like, or that Shiva thinks bombing mosques is a great idea?

We are Unitarian Jihad. We are everywhere. We have not been born again, nor have we sworn a blood oath. We do not think that God cares what we read, what we eat or whom we sleep with

We are Unitarian Jihad, and our motto is: "Sincerity is not enough." We have heard from enough sincere people to last a lifetime already. Just because you believe it's true doesn't make it true. Just because your motives are pure doesn't mean you are not doing harm.

People of the United States! We are Unitarian Jihad! We can strike without warning. Pockets of reasonableness and harmony will appear as if from nowhere! Nice people will run the government again! There will be coffee and cookies in the Gandhi Room after the revolution.

The article spread like wildfire and quickly became the most sourced article for that paper. Within hours,, with inspiration from the original article, people all over the world started declaring that they were part of the Unitarian Jihad. Adopting contradictory names that combine militarism and liberalism (my Jihad name for example is apparently Brother Katana of Patience) and making self-deprecating comments about the tendency for Unitarian-Universalist Churches to be so democratic that everything goes to committee, there are now over 75,000 references to the Unitarian Jihad through popular Internet search engines.

In developing this presentation, I investigated the Unitarian Jihad community through the online web diary, livejournal. With just over 300 members this livejournal group is further developed into five “cells” with a presence in the U.K., New York, the San Franscisco bay area and Austin, Texas. Some interesting facts emerged:

The Unitarian Jihad does engage in coordinated social action. The livejournal group indicates activity around civil rights in Burma, racism in the US, global warming, censorship and, especially, the separation of Church and State. There was even one action of "public nudity for world peace"; I kid you not.

Almost 55% of those who identify with the Unitarian Jihad do not identify as Unitarian Universalists and only 17% regularly attend services.

A significant and influential number identify as Discordians. This is a parody religion, or parody of religions, popular among science fiction fans and the more light-hearted wing of conspiracy theorists. The matron diety is Eris, the ancient Greek goddess of discord. One member of the Unitarian Jihad describes it as follows;

"my own religious beliefs … are basically about producing useful meaning from absurd ideas. I'm a Discordian, but a very serious Discordian. The silly illuminates the serious."

This seems to reiterate Peter Ustinov’s comment: "Comedy is simply a funny way of being serious." The author goes on to say that the religious fundamentalists in the United States, whom they refer as the American Taliban, are simply not influenced by rational debate. They are beyond reason. Under such circumstances, the author claims what is needed is irrational debate; "a cultural zeitgeist driven by snarkiness and mockery, … [is] a deliberately absurdist movement like UJ the perfect counter to religious extremism? I think this is worthy of meditation. Can UJ serve to discredit the fundamentalists through targeted use of humor?"

This question really is the main strategic question posed by the Unitarian Jihad. In terms of policy, it is crystal clear what they stand for. They stand for the separation of church and state. The stand for religious and personal freedom, for democratic rights, for a peaceful, reasonable and harmonious society. Where the Unitarian Jihad seems to depart from traditional Unitarian behaviour it its suggestion and indeed their insistence, that opponents to the above policy propositions are treated not with reasoned discussion, as they are above reason, not with light-hearted humour, but with ridicule; purposeful, disparaging, contemptuous mocking. This, undoubtably is an enormous change, from standard Unitarian-Universalist strategy!

It is not as if the use of humour in policy debates hasn’t been thoroughly discussed in the past. Douglas J. Swanson, presenting a paper to the SW Education Council for Journalism & Mass Communication in Los Angeles in 1996, describes some of the key features in the use of humour in public service announcements. He notes that shared humour serves to ease tension, to put situations in context, to share affections, to released psychologically repressed thoughts and processes - some of which are brilliantly insightful and rational, helping in develop considered convictions; others which are the result of deeply ingrained prejudices.

Indeeed, apparently more than eighty theories of humour have been developed and they all seem to borrow heavily from each other, indicating a surprisingly stable theoretical framework. The main concepts are that humour serves for arousal, to highlight incongruities, a moderator of stress, and a coping mechanism for impairments. Viewed in this light, the behaviour and suggestions of the Unitarian Jihad become a lot more understandable.

Firstly, it must be understood that the members of the Unitarian Jihad are, along with a lot of us, are feeling disempowered and disenfranchised. They are witnessing a shift in the American political climate (and one which we are alert to as well) where the time-honoured and democratic separation of church and state is becoming less of a reality – and they are excluded from making political choices on that separation.

Under such circumstances, these dispossessed are turning to each other to establish their own cultural bonds. Shared jokes are an important part of shared understanding. The capacity of these people to use satire and ridicule to attack the pomposity of the powerful religious fundamentalists serves as a healing tonic to the political losses. They may be without power, but they at least they have clever friends, amusing conversation and witty repartee.

Thirdly, and this is important strategically, the use of ridicule is being effectively used to counter religious fundamentalists. When Dr. Laura Schlessinger referred to homosexuals as “biological errors” and “deviants”, the Old Testament was used in support of her position (specifically Leviticus 18:22). However, it wasn’t long before satirists pointed out that other elements of the Old Testament suggested that selling one’s daughter to slavery is acceptable, that slaves may be owned as long as they are from neighbouring nations, and that those who work on the Sabbath should be killed. It also pointed out that the eating of prawns was considered an equivalent theological crime (an abomination) as homosexual acts. Indeed the latter comparison has become it’s own website; The site’s introduction states:

Shrimp, crab, lobster, clams, mussels, all these are an abomination before the Lord, just as gays are an abomination. Why stop at protesting gay marriage? Bring all of God's law unto the heathens and the sodomites. We call upon all Christians to join the crusade against Long John Silver's and Red Lobster. Yea, even Popeye's shall be cleansed…. We must stop the unbelievers from destroying the sanctity of our restaurants.

The letter in particular, and the use of satire and ridicule in general, served to be a very effective and educational tool for those who were undecided on the issue. It taught people, even nominal Christians, that one cannot simply take the words in a book, even an allegedly holy book, as eternal and unchanging laws without context, because if one does so, they are clearly being ridiculous and therefore deserving of ridicule.

This is important to understand. Humour can be used for the political advantage, and in particular, for liberal minded secularists, because such people do not have irrational theological attachments they are able, with far greater perception, to see through power which is contrived by lack of grounded reason. It is no surprise, for example, that the monarchs of old and the priestly allies, or the dictators and fundamentalists of contemporary times, shroud themselves in their bizarre rituals, their unusual fashions and their pompous titles. Their entire power depends symbolically and practically on their clique being inaccessible to the majority.

In contrast, humour is incredibly democratic and irreverent. It can be used to show how inconsistent with acceptable group standards or individual standards of consistency religious fundamentalists can be. For example, Pat Robertson, who as founder of the Christian Coalition argued against pre-marital sexual relations. However, Pat and his wife, lied consistently to the public about their own pre-marital affairs. Turns out that when they were married, she was seven months pregnant!

However, from such incongruous behaviour, new, congruous organizational expectations can be developed which commands greater loyalty through its internal consistency and honesty. As much as we may justly mock and ridicule Pat Robertson’s behaviour, a rational alternative can be posed. For example, one which doesn’t declare pre-marital sexual relations as a sinful act and claims that all sexual relations between consensual people of adult reasoning is legitimate.

In other words, from a position of initial political weakness, cultural change can be popularized successfully through accessible, irreverent ridicule which simultaneously removes the symbolic strength of the powerful – the Emperor really has no clothes – and strengthens the ties among the disenfranchised. From that position, it is then possible to pose alternative policy propositions which are without internal contradiction and appeal to the reasoning senses. In this manner, the technologically savvy, anarchic, and disrespectful agenda of the Unitarian jihad (and they are poking fun at our church procedures as well!) serve as an ideal complement, but not as a replacement, to traditional strategy of carefully considered and reasoned proposals.

Finally, it bares consideration that the use and potential use of humour and ridicule for policy directives is increasing at a profound rate. Advances in digital video production and distribution can parody fundamentalist propaganda with extraordinary capacity and speed. If this ability is harnessed effectively, the result can be as shattering to religious fundamentalism worldwide as the movable type printing press was to The Church in Europe at the dawn of modernity. However it is equally important that the secular and democratic alternative is proposed alongside simultaneous to these irreverent parodies which ultimately means that cultural conversion must become political practice. For much as I love to laugh, I do not wish to laugh as an alternative to crying, living in a national under the shadow of theological dictates.

Address to the Melbourne Unitarian Church, June 13, 2005