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Artistic Jihad: Painting Words Differently

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Artistic Jihad. The name cannot help but intrigue. No, it's not an awful PR attempt to encourage violent extremism with a splash of colour. Artistic Jihad is a Muslim student art competition currently being exhibited in London's Mica Gallery. The project, run by the Federation of Student Islamic Societies (FOSIS), aims to provide a platform to ignite creativity and showcase young British Muslim artistic talent. But it's also an empowering student initiative seeking to intellectually reclaim the negative discourse surrounding Muslim communities.

The name invites curiosity. Is it corrupting art with politics? Or is art always political, some just more subtle than others? What does it actually mean in the context of a student art competition?

Jihad is a word and concept widely misunderstood and often limited in meaning to only be associated with interpretations of "holy war". It actually comes from the Arabic word meaning "struggle" and is often used in the contexts of striving for a better world and struggling against all forms of injustice - both outward and inward.

As such, Artistic Jihad seeks to highlight the many struggles of aspiring Muslim artists. It's hard enough trying to get onto the career ladder in this economic climate but many Muslim artists also struggle to overcome the prejudice their community may have towards arts. Creative aspiration is not always understood in some migrant communities which have previously prioritised the set vocational careers of being a doctor, accountant and lawyer etc. But this culture is increasingly being questioned by many young students who want to make a career out of their creative energy. Artistic Jihad seeks to help support this next generation of artists and promote the appreciation of a broad range of arts in Muslim communities. The competition is judged by several eminent Muslim artists such as Peter Sanders, Ruh Al-Alam, Abid Hussain and Reeda El-Saie.

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So who are these young artists inspired by the controversial brand-name? They tend to be Muslim University students who are bursting to convey something about themselves and what they find beautiful about religion in a contemporary light. The art defies orthodox categorisation - it is neither traditional Islamic art nor Western contemporary, but a unique fusion of the two. This flourishing new genre of contemporary British Muslim art speaks volumes about the young British Muslim presence; their values, struggles and dreams.

Perhaps all three factors played a role in proudly choosing the name Artistic Jihad. Many Muslims wouldn't touch their organisation's name with the word Jihad with a barge pole. Not because they think it relates to violent extremism. They know it's a beautiful concept of striving to be just and honourable human beings out of love for God. But they also know mainstream narratives associate it with terrorism, an excuse for the killing of innocent civilians and an ideological call against anything Western.

Let's face it - that's a hell of a tough word to reclaim from popular narratives. I'm not confident it will succeed at this point in time - the movement is too small, but all movements to reclaim language start off small. For decades minority groups have sought to re-appropriate words and reclaim authority over the terms used to describe their community. As Foucault argued, discourse is a way to articulate knowledge as an expression of power. Words are loaded bullets and if misused they can corrupt a beautifully broad concept by shoving it into a corner, interpreting it to mean only one thing. Especially when discourse is handled by influential institutions such as the media, a very one-sided discussion can take place.

It's up to small communities to try to reclaim words if they think they are being tainted from their original connotations. A few decades ago HIV/AIDS was both stigmatised as the "gay plague" and racially assigned to come from Africa, the Dark Continent, but those connotations no longer come to mind. Recently the British government launched a TV advertising campaign to broaden popular conceptions of rape; the advert shows that rape doesn't need to be by a stranger down a dark alley, it can be by one's date - it's simply if there's no consent. A word is more than a description; it can be all the connotations, stereotypes and attitudes that go with it.

There seems to be a growing trend in the young British Muslim community to reclaim language negatively associated with them. Last year Muslim students at the University of Cambridge launched a "Jihad on Homelessness", encouraging people to struggle against conditions leading to homelessness through volunteering and raising money for the local charity Jimmy's Night Shelter.

Artistic Jihad is a much-needed initiative to encourage the arts amongst young Muslims, but perhaps it is also the start of something similar to how feminists have sought to reclaim the F Word. Maybe this is the beginning of The J word.

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Artistic Jihad will be featured at London's Mica Gallery from 10am-6pm until Saturday 14th April