Misunderstanding Islam on the use of violence.

Author:Bassiouni, M. Cherif

    Islam remains misunderstood by many in the West essentially because it has not been part of the Western cultural tradition. Negative perceptions in the West are enhanced by popular reactions to abhorrent practices committed by some Muslims, even when those practices clearly contradict the teachings of Islam. (1) These negative perceptions are also enhanced by Islamophobia. (2) Conversely, the West's double standards are particularly felt among Muslims. This applies inter alia to: the United States' military practices in Afghanistan since 2001 and the use of torture against civilians there; the use of drone attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan since 2003 causing civilian casualties; (3) the practice of torture in Iraq, Guantanamo, and elsewhere; (4) Israeli practices against Palestinians; anti-Islam feelings by Westerners (particularly right-wing parties, groups, and individuals); and cartoons and other symbols of disparagement of Islam's holy symbols in the name of "free speech." In conclusion, Muslims have felt alienated, rejected, and discriminated against by the West, which when compared with the West's double standards, its disregard of the harm suffered by Muslims not only from the West but also from other Muslims, and Muslims' own deficit in human, social, and economic development has led to the present confrontational crisis.

    Western perceptions also fail to take into account Muslim societies' cultural diversity and their respective human, social, and economic conditions. (5) These societies are still struggling with their relatively recent emergence from colonization and the negative influences of Western neo-imperialism that have kept non-democratic forms of government in place for nearly a century since the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire in (1922) C.E. of which they were a part. (6)

    Contrary to what many in the West believe, Muslims have suffered the most from the wrongful, violent practices and erroneous or misleading religious beliefs held by some Muslims, mostly based on the erroneous teachings of unqualified lay-preachers. Since WWII the number of Muslims killed by Muslims far exceeds the number of Muslims killed by non-Muslims. (7) But in the West, these facts are under-reported, while the victimization of Westerners is highly emphasized. Whereas the attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices resulted in twelve deaths, (8) DAESH/ISIS/ISIL (hereinafter referred to as "IS") executed 1,878 people in approximately the last six months of 2014, which averages a little more than ten executions every single day. (9) And on January 3, 2015, Boko Haram is estimated to have killed over 2,000 people in the taking of the town of Baga, Nigeria. (10) The numbers of these Muslim deaths in Muslim countries are multiple orders of magnitude greater than those that took place in Paris, but they have not received anywhere near the Western media attention of the Charlie Hebdo attack. This too heightens Muslim's anti-Western sentiments and enhances the disaffection of Muslims particularly among the youth.

    In the end, all of this increases radicalization of Muslims, especially among the youth, and escalates the confrontation between Muslims and the West. (11)

    Suicide bombings, the killing of non-combatants, and particularly the indiscriminate killing of civilians, including women and children, persons hors de combat such as the sick and the injured, the destruction of religious places, and torture, are prohibited in Islam, and there are no excuses or justifications for them. (12) These acts are criminal under the sharica and Islamic law, and no amount of doctrinal rationalization by certain politically motivated or insufficiently informed Muslim theologians and political activists can alter this conclusion. (13) Any cursory reading of the Qur'an leads to this conclusion, notwithstanding the fatawa (plural of fatwa) of politically-motivated religious and political leaders, most of whom are unqualified to issue any edict whatsoever. (14)

    Islam rejects the postulate that "the ends justify the means" (15) because it is a religion grounded in higher values and principles thus requiring that the ends and the means conform to these values and principles and to its specific legal dictates. Thus, violent conduct towards Muslim and non-Muslim civilians is contrary to Islam, whether it is committed by groups such as IS, (16) the Shabaab in Somalia, (17) the Boko Haram in Nigeria, (18) the Ansar Dine in Mali, (19) the Taliban in Afghanistan, (20) or suicide bombings by Palestinian freedom fighters. (21)

    The Muslim world must assume its responsibilities, not only in terms of progressively developing its laws and legal systems, but also in ensuring accountability and ending impunity for International Humanitarian Law violators in conflicts occurring within their societies. (22) This has not yet occurred. Regrettably, major world powers have also failed in this respect, and have invoked exceptionalism as in the case of the United States, Russia, and China. (23) Others, like Israel, simply employ a double standard that self-justifies their use of violence as is evident in the 2008-2009 incursion into Gaza, the Report of a U.N. Commission of Inquiry regarding the incursion, (24) and the 2014 incursion that is presently under investigation by a similar U.N. Commission of Inquiry. (25) The combination of these factors enhances the disaffection of Muslims and particularly young Muslims who are therefore likely to be drawn into groups engaged in politically-motivated terror-violence. (26)


    Over the past century Muslim societies have had to grapple with a number of existentially fundamental economic, social, and political issues that they have not been able to address, let alone to resolve. Among them is how to adapt the needs of modernity to Islam and vice-versa. For all too many Muslims the very juxtaposition of the words Islam and modernity is an anathema. Muslim reformists, particularly those who resort to scientific ways of demonstrating the need for change, are derogatorily referred to as cilmani (scientific) by some Muslim scholars and preachers, along with their followers, with the implication that such cilmani Muslims border on the heretical. (27) Yet the Qur'an refers to the word cilm (science) 880 times in positive terms. For all practical purposes, anyone who does not accept the vision of Islam that was fixed by the 12th century C.E. (28) and urges progressive theological and legal interpretation of the norms of the sharica and Islamic law, is viewed as deviant, a heretic, or even a kafir (an unbeliever, or one who rejects God or denies the truth revealed by God). (29)

    The contemporary phenomenon of violence by Muslims reveals a strong link between populist theological and doctrinal teachings to ideologically motivated violence. (30) This is largely due to the level of ignorance and/or misguided knowledge about Islam among the masses in the Muslim world. And this in turn is essentially due to a deficit in these societies' human development and the misleading teachings of Islam by unqualified mullahs, imams, sheikhs, and other (self) titled religious "leaders" that reach the masses directly, without having a corrective filter provided by the better informed religious leaders. Political actors seeking to advance their views by propagating erroneous notions of Islam that the largely ignorant masses are ready to accept and follow have supplanted traditional scholars, teachers, and Imams. The latter have, therefore, have not only been displaced, but their impact on the masses has been substantially blunted. Suffice it to observe that self-styled exponents of certain erroneous views of the sharica are doing this right now in places like: Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Mali, Nigeria, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria and Yemen. (31) Regrettably, all too few Muslim theologians, intellectuals, and political leaders raise their voices in opposition to these practices. (32)

    This is violence in the name of Islam, but not violence permitted by Islam. Acts of violence, whether against Muslims or non-Muslims, such as: indiscriminate killings, beheadings, rapes, slavery, destruction of public and private property, pillage, and theft, violate the sharica and Islamic law.

    Pseudo-culamma of the populist genre, have used the doctrine of Jihad to propagate the legal foundation for a resort to violence and more significantly as a justification for the use of violence prohibited by the sharica and Islamic law. (33) But Jihad is subject to a number of legal pre-conditions, only then does it allow for the derogation of prohibitions on the use of violence, but it still does not allow derogation of the ways and means in the carrying out of permissible violence. This is equivalent in international law to the jus ad bellum and the jus in bello. (34)

    As stated above, the violence that we are witnessing by certain groups in the Muslim world also has socio-economic and political causes. They include: ignorance, poverty, frustration, anger, and political oppression. But much of it is also due to the low level of knowledge among those who are, or claim to be, Muslim scholars and whose teachings are contrary to Islam, or at least contrary to a better and more enlightened understanding of Islam. This is not only by contemporary standards, but also by the standards established by the Prophet in Madinah during Islam's first decade (622 and 632 C.E.) and reinforced by the practice of the Muslim ummah over the following 200 years.


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