Friday, November 29, 2019

'Jihad' and World Politics

One of the most misunderstood and much maligned concepts in the world of religion today is the doctrine of ‘Jihad’ in Islam. Unlike any other matter of devotional piety in any religion, ‘Jihad’ brings around it images of a deadly cocktail of religion, identity politics and armed violence involving wily politicians, extremists and terrorists; generating genuine anxiety, confusion and fear among the people. Indeed, ‘Jihad’ has come to mean different things to different people in our times. 

In our deeply troubled world, where powerful nations set the rules of the global game, non-State actors are also increasingly becoming vital players. In States where turbulent political conditions exist, ‘Jihad’ is almost invariably associated with the call to arms and violence by certain Muslim-groups ostensibly working to protect the collective interests of the Muslim communities concerned. For many governments with separatist movements or insurgent groups in their territorial domain; ‘Jihad’ is nothing but an ideology of unbridled violence and mayhem championed by non-State actorsIn sharp contrast to this, the groups fighting States look upon ‘Jihad’ as the ideology of their political resistance against unjust regimes- the moral and ethical justification for their militant campaigns against governments that ‘oppress’ the people. Inspired by their own notions of injustice and agency; often seeking retribution for alleged past crimes of the State concerned or to induce change in State policies vis-a-vis certain matters; organized groups as well ‘lone wolfs’- including suicide bombers- perpetrate violent crimes, targeting symbols of State power. These attacks often indiscriminately impact civilians as well, leading to ‘collateral damage’- unnecessary suffering for common people caught up in such incidents.

For instance, the horrific 9/11 terror attacks in the United States of America at the beginning of this century- in the year 2001- directed at the symbols of American military and economic heft resulted also in the death of thousands of people going about their everyday lives. The terrorists who executed this most audacious attack claimed they were driven by the ideals of ‘Jihad’ in committing this mass murder. Those who waged this ‘war’ on America were seeking vengeance upon the country for its dreadful policies abroad- including military interventions that killed hundreds of thousands of innocent people, and even destroyed entire societies in the Muslim world. Despite the moral high-ground the parties in conflict- States and the terror groups- seek to assert for themselves, both State terrorism and non-State terrorism are problematic for their means and methods of warfare and also due to the profound consequences such violence has upon its innocent victims, common folks like us.

Be that as it may, under international law, the State has monopoly over the recourse to force. Non-State actors do not have such a privilege under that law, except in a context of foreign subjugation, colonial exploitation or national liberation from alien administration. With most of the world now formally out of colonial subjugation and foreign occupation, the legitimacy of militant struggles in post-colonial societies is doubtful, with the result that much of the internal armed conflicts being dismissed as unlawful exercise of military power by non-State actors against the established power in a State-centric world order. Hence, great political controversy and intense public scrutiny surrounds the claims of non-State actors using violence as an instrument of political action, including by the groups arguing the ideal of Jihad as the justification for their indiscriminate violence.  

There is little doubt that global political fault-lines, especially its searing manifestations in the life world of the Muslim nations/peoples in recent decades, have created the material conditions for the ideological cult of violence called "Jihadism". In the cauldron of Cold War rivalry against the Soviet Union and its geo-political tentacles over much of the Third World, the United States committed several excesses, including  through aiding and abetting insurgent groups in different nations to fight against the  regimes of the day. Consider the case of Afghanistan. Following the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan of 1980, the US intelligence services trained and created the ‘Mujahideen’  forces to take on the invading Soviet-army. Osama Bin Laden, who later established the Al Qaedah terror network and went on to taunt and torment the US forces in several nations in the post-Soviet era, including by engineering the 9/11 terror attacks, is a direct product of such US duplicity, double dealing and highhandedness in Asia. Indeed, international relations scholars today agree that the United States  cynically exploited global political fault lines to facilitate ‘Jihad’ in the Muslim nations. Put differently, in ‘mainstreaming’ the militant politics of Jihad today, the role of the West/’Christian’ nations is vital and constitutive.

It also needs to be noted that in many parts of the Muslim world, the simmering political conditions are conducive for the flourishing of extremist ideologies and the radicalization of youth. The post-colonial Muslim world also deeply suffered from the humongous political, social and economic consequences of European colonialism, imperialism and racism. Consider the Middles East and North Africa: revolting political realities such as the prolonged Zionist/Israeli military occupation of Muslim holy lands in Palestine; the continued strategic and economic subjugation of the Muslim nations by the western powers even after decolonization; internecine conflicts forcing widespread displacement of people, rendering millions into refugees and stateless persons; the suppression of political and personal liberty in the Arab world by the hedonistic oligarchs. In the absence of real democratic avenues for the expression of people’s aspirations in militarized societies, political extremism takes the garb of ‘Islamic Jihad’. 

Jihad and the 'Soul' of Islam

Widespread misunderstanding exist among the theologians and common folks about the meaning and purpose of ‘Jihad’ in Islam.  Some divines propagate that it is ‘Jihad’ to kill non-Muslims for being who they are, and that force can be deployed in the propagation of faith where as the Qur’an contains express limitations on the use of military force in both war and peace situations. Hence, in the ‘invention’ of Jihad as a tool of political extremism and terrorism, the role of the divines and other theological leaders cannot be discounted either. 

As against the diverse articulations of Jihad in the political context of our times stand the perspective of the devout and pious Muslims. For them, however, ‘Jihad’ is an amazingly positive conception revolving around their deepest spiritual convictions on the ultimate purpose of life. For believing Muslims, Jihad is to strive hard in the way of God, seeking to abide by Divine Law; to be mindful of God or be ethically-aware in all that we engage in, is an all-encompassing responsibility involving every fiber of their lives.  In the Islamic tradition, it is through leading such a righteous life that the quest for attaining God’s approval, satisfaction and pleasure can be pursued by a believer. It urges a common believer to wage an unrelenting struggle against the evil inclinations of the human self, permeating every aspect of their lives in the larger quest for God’s approval and satisfaction in all that they do. It is through sustained striving in the path of Divine ordinances on an everyday basis that a Muslim recognizes the dues of God and the rights of her fellow beings. Hence, ‘Jihad’ or the sustained striving in the cause of God is a lifelong obligation on every Muslim.  

Jihad in the Qur’an

The Holy Qur’an presents a multi-layered and profoundly rich concept of Jihad. Under the Qur’an, Jihad is a comprehensive obligation, for it calls for personal striving in the path of God while being mindful of His commandments in all aspects of one’s life: the duty to stand up for peace, freedom and justice and to respect the equal rights of all persons in all of life’s varied settings- and not just in times of armed conflicts. In other words, the use of military force represents only one dimension of jihad, since the concept of jihad not only implies sheer force, but it also includes robust debate and persuasion through dialogue. In such a perspective, Jihad as the recourse to force and arms is necessary and unavoidable in certain contexts where freedom of conscience and liberty of faith are denied by brute force by unscrupulous enemies of a peaceful social order. Most certainly, the Qur’anic concept of Jihad includes a call to arms; but it cannot be reduced to its military dimension alone. Armed Jihad has its relevance only in contexts of religious oppression or military aggression by enemies of peace.  

Qur’an and Islamic Law indeed permits the recourse to arms and military force as a measure of self-defence and self preservation, in defence of peaceful social order, against the aggression of the violent enemies. In the historic context of the great battle between  David versus Goliath, the Qur'an notes: "If God did not drive some back by means of others the earth would be completely corrupt..." (2:252) Under the Qur’an, Jihad is a profound responsibility to stand up and be counted in service of human rights, justice and freedom, including in times of grave crisis engulfing a community of people; in service of the people’s right of self defence against aggression and to preserve freedom, peace and liberty in the land. The Qur’an further asks the believers: 'Why should you not fight in God's cause and for those oppressed men, women, and children who cry out, 'Lord, rescue us from this town whose people are oppressors! By Your grace, give us a protector and give us a helper!?'  (4:76) 

The Holy Book further commands: Permission to fight is given to those against whom war is being wrongfully waged” (22:39) 

Fight in God’s cause against those who wage war against you, but do not commit aggression: God does not love those who overstep the limits’ (2:190) 

Explaining the Qur’anic command la ta’tudu used here, scholar MAS Abdul Haleem notes: ‘the command… so general that commentators have agreed that it includes prohibition of starting hostilities, fighting non-combatants, disproportionate response to aggression, etc.’The defensive nature of the recourse to force is also explained by the Qur’an in several verses: ‘And He does not forbid you to deal kindly and justly with anyone who has not fought you for your faith or driven you out of your homes: God loves the just’ (60:9)

The Qur’anic commandments regarding the recourse to force in self defence contain within those principles the elements of a just social order. It is also instructive to note that Jihad is not a license for unbridled conquest; wanton destruction or ruthless pillage. The transgression on the rights of others and the destruction of their properties is condemned in no uncertain terms in the Qur'an. The sanctity of human life is upheld in one of the most eloquent verses of the Qur'an: "...if anyone kills a person- unless in retribution for murder or spreading corruption in the land- it is as if he kills all mankind, while if any saves a life it is as if he saves the lives of all mankind." (5:42) 

The recourse to the use of force must be with due regard for context, keeping firmly in view the requirements of justice, equity and elementary considerations of humanity. When enemy is to be engaged in a war by the Muslims, the Shariah prescribes the rules of military engagement: necessity, proportionality, reduction of unjust suffering; protection for those who do not participate in the hostilities; special measures for women, children; the elderly; wounded soldiers; prisoners of war, humanitarian relief, etc. need to be respected and provided for. Most certainly, sublime Islamic teachings prohibit social anarchy and wanton attacks against civilians. Hence, wanton killings of defenceless people going about their daily lives can never be allowed to be glorified as Islamic Jihad. Indeed, such terrorism cuts at the roots of all Islamic ethics and teachings on social solidarity with other communities and the need for respecting the sanctity of their essential rights under Islamic Law. 

Today, the question of Jihad is not just about the legitimate use of force against oppressive non-Muslim States or governments. It is also not just about civilian non-combatants in non-Muslim nations; but it increasingly relates also to the intra-Muslim questions and the use of sword or armaments to settle scores among sectarian denominations. In an era of deep divisions among the Muslims, the hardening of denominational identities leads to much injustice and strife within. The bloodshed and killings in the name of 'Jihad' are regrettably becoming routinized in many societies- Syria, Iraq, Palestine, Egypt, Sudan, Yemen, Libya, Afghanistan, Pakistan. Likewise, among innumerable sects within the Muslims, interpretational differences over even basic spiritual doctrines abound and the very definition of being 'Muslim' is under intense disputation, with profound implications for the basic human rights and political entitlements of 'legally excluded' Muslim sects and denominational groups, such as the Ahmadis in Pakistan and elsewhere. 

To establish peace and reconciliation across our multiple divides in society, Muslims need to be role models for others. In reclaiming the soul of our faith and our own spiritual identity as pious and devout Muslims in this difficult era, Muslims need to be people who stand in awe of God, and who display the spiritual humility of non-judgmental affection and residual goodwill for all of His creatures-fellow Muslims (of different sects) and the non-Muslims alike. It is by being mindful of God’s commandments and expectations to repel evil and promote goodness in all settings and contexts of one’s individual, social, national and international life that the believers can do true 'Jihad' for a just world under Islam.