While our nation was breathing a sigh of relief over the rapid deterioration of Taliban power in Afghanistan, we American Muslims were still reeling from the fact that our faith had also been hijacked on Sept. 11 by people who twisted their version of Islam into a blackened form uglier than the burned metal of the World Trade Center. According to Islamic teachings, no matter how angry and tormented these men were, their souls are condemned, because they took the lives of innocent human beings.
The Islamic sacred text, the Koran, tells us: Whosoever kills an innocent human being...it shall be as if he has killed all mankind, and whosoever saves the life of one, it shall be as if he had saved the life of all mankind (Ch. 5, verse 32).
I personally have a hard time thinking of those hijackers as Muslims. To call them Muslims would be like asking people to think of Timothy McVeigh as a Christian because he was influenced by the teachings of the Christian Identity Movement, a conglomeration of various religious fringe groups. Some distinctions and definitions are called for here.
Since Sept. 11 the media have more than ever been tossing about the word jihad. The word does not mean holy war; it means to strive or to struggle. According to the teachings of Islam, our greatest enemy is within us. In Arabic this force is referred to as the nafsego, if you willthat part of us that is led by our greed and arrogance, rather than the inner-self that God created in order that it might worship him and bring a sense of balance, peace and justice to the world.
The Koran tells Muslims to join the struggle (that is to say, to make jihad) against that which is evil and to enjoin what is good and just, with God as their guide. Writings by Islamic scholars throughout the centuries have listed four types of jihad:
1. jihad of the heart, which leads the struggle against temptations and the evil within, so that one may comply with God’s will and be pure of heart.
2. jihad of the tongue, in which one uses the power of speech to enjoin that which is good and forbid that which is evil.
3. jihad of the hand, in which Muslims use their actions to defend the weak from the oppressor and to work toward bringing about a just world.
4. jihad of the sword, or combat, which is the last resort. Jihad of the sword is not always a military struggle. It also includes the use of political or diplomatic means.
There are both historical and theological reasons for viewing warfare as the final jihad to which Muslims are to turn. The first group of Muslims was being killed by powerful pagans, as they were called, who ruled them. Revelations for dealing with their situation came to these Muslims in the Koran. First they were told to persevere in their sorrows and tribulations. The next revelation referring to their oppression told them to emigrate. That prompted those early Muslims to move from Mecca to Medina in the year 622. The third and final revelation concerning the threat to the prophet Muhammad and his small community of followers came when it looked as though the Muslims, simply because of their faith, were going to be wiped out if they did not defend themselves. The following revelation came down, which allowed them to fight in defense of their faith as well as the faith of other Abrahamic monotheists who were also under attack at times:
To those against whom war is waged, permission to fight is given because they are oppressed, and God is well able to help them; those who have been expelled from their homes without just cause, only because they say God is our Lord. And had it not been for God repelling some people by means of others, cloisters and churches and synagogues and mosques in which God’s Name is much remembered would have been destroyed. (Ch. 22, verses 39-40)
This verse refers to the unity of all peoples of the Abrahamic faiths, and it enjoins Muslims to fight oppression, particularly religious oppression, no matter who the target is. In fact, Jews and Christians have special status within Islam as Ahl al-Kitab, or People of the Book, because they are also recipients of divine revelation in the form of sacred texts. Because of the Koranic verse quoted above, those Jews and Christians have also historically been referred to as Dhimmi, protected ones, meaning that their right to practice their faith is to be defended by Muslims if necessary.
Of course, there has always been a difference between how religions teach us to behave and how we as human beings fail to live up to that standard that God has set forth for us. That is the real tragedy of our history. Unfortunately, we are now in danger of making it the tragedy of our future as well.
Why Did This Happen to Us?
Like many other Americans, I am afraid. I fear that this is just the beginning of a new chapter in global terrorism, although perhaps we can say that Timothy McVeigh wrote the preamble in 1995. What we see now is the world’s most powerful nation bombing one of the world’s most devastated nations. I am afraid that the policy we turned to, the bombing of Afghanistan, will backfire and simply create more enemies for the United States.
When on Oct. 7 President Bush announced the air strikes on Taliban and Al Qaeda targets in Afghanistan, he said, We’re a peaceful nation. A few days later, while speaking at the F.B.I. headquarters, he declared, This is the calling of the United States of America, the most free nation in the world, a nation built on fundamental values that rejects hate, rejects violence, rejects murderers and rejects evil.
In an article for MSNBC.com, Arundhati Roy pointed out that since World War II the United States has, in fact, been at war with, and bombed: China (1945-46, 1950-53), Korea (1950-53), Guatemala (1954, 1967-69), Indonesia (1958), Cuba (1959-60), Zaire (1964), Peru (1965), Laos (1964-73), Vietnam (1961-73), Cambodia (1969-70), Grenada (1983), Libya (1986), El Salvador (1980’s), Nicaragua (1980’s), Panama (1989), Iraq (1991-99), Bosnia (1995), Sudan (1998) and Yugoslavia (1999). We can now add Afghanistan to that list.
By turning once again to the use of military technology and power, U.S. policy has aggravated the process of destabilization in an already volatile region. It is quite possible that our military strikes will force moderate Arab states to align with the radicals, in order to avoid coming under attack from within their own nations.
When it comes to relations with the Middle East, it is no secret that the United States has a poor track record. U.S. support for Israel obviously continues to exacerbate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While America’s ties with Israel have received media attention during the war in Afghanistan, the effect of U.N. sanctions on Iraqi civilians seems to be a non-event in the eyes of the American public. In the Middle East, however, these sanctions are like a wound that will never heal. I cannot imagine any American who has not shed tears over the loss of innocent lives in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania because of the terrorist attacks. This loss of approximately 3,000 lives was agonizingly painful for all of us. Iraq experiences a similar loss every month. According to recent Unicef statistics, the American-led sanctions are causing 4,500 deaths in Iraq every month.
The majority of those victims are children, who are dying from diseases that could easily be cured by basic health care or avoided by access to safe drinking water. American citizens must insist that our nation no longer kill innocent children in pursuit of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. A three-year-old dying of dysentery is not the enemy of the United States. The current situation only foments further resentment toward the United States and does a great service to those who are recruiting future Osama bin Ladens for their ranks. Therein lies our greatest danger.
How Can the United States Respond?
All the world’s major faith traditions call on those who have power and wealth to use their bounty for the benefit of those who are less fortunate. The Koran even points out that this is the way to make your enemies into friends again: And hold fast all together by the rope which Allah [stretches out for you] and be not divided among yourselves; and remember with gratitude Allah’s favor on you; for ye were enemies and He joined your hearts in love so that by His grace ye became brethren; and ye were on the brink of the pit of fire and He saved you from it. Thus doth Allah make his signs clear to you: that ye may be guided (Ch. 3, verse 103).
Imagine a future Osama bin Laden trying to drum up support against the United States, if we were to help the Palestinians achieve a small state of their own. Imagine trying to rally hatred against a nation that not only stops the sanctions against Iraq, but sends in technicians and supplies to repair the infrastructure that it destroyed during the Persian Gulf war. Imagine a world in which the powerful ones use their might to help the less fortunate, and you will be imagining a world in which terrorists would have a hard time drumming up support.
Turning to Peace
The word islam means submission, but its three-letter rootslmis the same as the linguistic root of the word peace. The inference here is that one finds peace through submission to the will of God.
The Koran tells us: The true servants of the All-Merciful are only those who walk humbly on the earth and who, when the ignorant address them, reply with words of peace (Ch. 25, verse 63).
Finally, one need look no further than the Islamic practice of prayer as an act of peace and submission. Five times each day we Muslims have the sacred experience of putting our faces down on the ground in an act of submission to God. The Islamic prayer is called Salah in Arabic. This word has the same linguistic root as the word for connection. With our faces pressed to the ground, we are practicing the Remembrance of Allah and being reminded that when the connection to God is broken, the world tumbles into a darkened chaos.
In the ninth chapter of the second part of Dark Night of the Soul, St. John of the Cross, the 16th-century Christian mystic, speaks of how even in the darkest of times, a person of true faith can find the spirit of God’s light. According to St. John, the darkness appears to the spirit in order to illuminate it and give it light: It now remains to be said that, although this happy night brings darkness to the spirit, it does so only to give it light in everything. And that, although it humbles it and makes it miserable, it does so only to exalt it and to raise it up; and, although it impoverishes it and empties it of all natural affection and attachment, it does so only that it may enable it to stretch forward, divinely, and thus to have fruition and experience of all things, both above and below, yet to preserve its unrestricted liberty of spirit in them all.
Let all of us Americans use this present time to rethink our priorities and to gather together people of all faiths to pray for those who are suffering and need our help. It is time to search for ways in which we can use our wealth, our power and the divine guidance given to us to create a world that truly supports liberty and justice for all.