I can direct anyone who wants to two excellent books that can open up your horizons if you are interested.
The first is the cornerstone of educational literature where the middle east (more accurately the "Near East") is concerned, it is called "A history of the Arab Peoples." by Albert Hourani, this book has been used for decades, definetly the definitive research book where the Arab peoples are concerned.
Another excellent book is written by Ira M. Lapidus, it is called "A history of Islamic Societies." I am currently studying under Mr. Lapidus' protege here in Halifax, both are brilliant men.
Reading either of these books in their entirety or merely in sections, is certainly a start to understanding and seperating myth from fact in Near east/Muslim/Arab history. So I'd reccomend them to those who are very keen on bridging the gap.
As for Jihad, perhaps one of the most misused terms by ....everyone, haha. It has developed into a word with two meanings. At it's root, it simply means "Struggle" in the context of faith, so a "Struggle of Faith."
Firstly is the more radical meaning which is the physical Jihad we see on CNN..need I explain more? You know, AK waving, Qur'an shouting, god praising, passionate.(There is nothing wrong with the latter 2)
This meaning is the one you find both terrorists..and those who dislike Islam using. It makes a non-believer a legitimate target of "struggle.' It's quite easy to see where it has become completely bastardized. Armed struggle was the next meaning, and eventually the word Jihad was used by Muslims going to war to expand Muslim territory in the early days of Islam. (After the 8th Century AD..roughly)
The second meaning, the one I ascribe to. It's a more mystical definition that rejects violence, whereby you withdraw from the concerns of the world in order to achieve spiritual depth. It's a more philisophic meaning and it's the one I prefer. The struggle is a more mental one against the many temptations Muslims face in everyday life. It prizes spiritual, mental depth and strong character in a struggle waged against that which would come between oneself and God.
Folks I'll say it again, it's very important that you don't take this for gospel, the best thing you can do is to talk to a learned Muslim, best place to start is a university or any othe class. They might even say I'm wrong, lord knows I could very well be, but this is what I've grown up knowing.
To be honest; The word "Jihad" I never heard until fairly recently..like late 90's and it was from CNN not from my family and not at my mosque.