Abdal Hakim Murad
A lecture given at St Martin-in-the-Fields, London, on 2 November 2015
One of my favourite novels is called Death and the Dervish. It’s the major work of the mid-20th century Bosnian novelist Mesa Selimović. He’s been turned into something of an icon in post-independence Bosnia, with boulevards, high schools and various public libraries now carrying his name. In the contested, competitively-loved city of Sarajevo, which sometimes calls itself the Balkan Jerusalem, where religious faultlines only a generation ago collapsed into catastrophe, he’s taken as a helpful icon of Bosnian togetherness, a Muslim anxious about religious divides — Orthodox, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim — which under Tito had been forcibly subsumed under the slogan of Brotherhood and Unity, in a new secular world in which class, and not religion, would henceforth be the criterion of worth and identity.
Selimović, child of a city both divided and united by its Abrahamic plurality, was not a happy man, nor did he write happy books. Death and the Dervish, a dark tale in which all the action seems to happen at night, tells us the story of the head of a dervish retreat prominent in the city during the eighteenth century. He is a respectable, literate preacher who presides competently over his order’s serene and complex Sufi ceremonies. His comfort-zone is invaded, however, when he learns that his brother has been arrested and sent to prison on a serious but frustratingly vague and misty charge: the city police and bureaucracy are willing to offer no clear idea of what the offence might have been. In this Kafkaesque darkness the imam prevaricates, hesitant to act, intervene or speak up on his brother’s behalf, until, some days later, the news arrives of his brother’s execution.
His agony and shock are described in the title of Chapter Six, which bears a Koranic quotation: My God, I have no-one besides You and my brother. This is, of course, from the story of Cain and Abel; and he feels the parallel spreading like a stain of dark ink across his soul. In a way he is like Hamlet, whose indecision, apparently peaceable and benign, allows moral darkness to prevail in his family, leading to a terrible guilt and his own destruction.
Shattered by the news, Selimović’s dervish stands up before his mosque congregation, in the dim candlelight. They all already know what has happened. And he says this:
Sons of Adam! I will not give a sermon. I could not, even if I wanted to. But I believe that you would hold it against me, if I did not speak about myself now, at this moment, the darkest in my life. What I have to say has never been more important to me, but I am not trying to gain anything. Nothing, except to see compassion in your eyes. I did not call you my brothers, although you are that more than ever, but rather sons of Adam, invoking that which we all have in common. This crime concerns you as well, since you know the scripture: whoever kills an innocent man, it is as if he has killed all men. They have killed all of us countless times, my murdered brothers, but we are horrified when they strike our most beloved. Maybe I should hate them, but I cannot; I do not have two hearts, one for hatred and one for love. The heart that I have knows only grief now.
I am like Cain, to whom God sent a crow that dug up the soil, to teach him how to bury the body of his dead brother. I, the unfortunate Cain, more unfortunate than a black crow. I did not save him while he was alive; I did not see him after he died. Now I have no one except myself, my Lord, and my sorrow. Give me strength, so that I will not despair from brotherly and humanly grief, or poison myself with hatred. I repeat the words of Noah: Separate me from them, and judge us.
And now go home, and leave me alone with my misfortune. It is easier to endure, now that I have shared it with you.
This is, as you may have guessed, the beginning, not the end of the book, which then charts his agonising descent into doubt and amorality. But in this tragic soliloquy, contemplating the claustrophobic darkness that now surrounds him, the dervish is trying to voice several painful insights about our human condition. All revolve around what his language calls malodušnost, which means, roughly, to have a diminished soul. When we fail the absolute duty and challenge of fraternity we become smaller and frailer; and the experience of that shrivelling of the soul can be as painful as the memory of our original dereliction.
Selimović tells us that how we discharge our duty to our brother, which in the rather thinly-populated world of Adam’s time essentially meant to everyone, is going to make or break our spirit. Nothing agitates and abrades the human consciousness quite like the remembering of violence, weakness, vulnerability, and our own reluctance to do something about those afflictions. Complicity causes us to rot; for the rest of our lives we relive the moment when we seemed to hold in our hands the miracle of free will, an actual fork in the road open before us; now, although we can look back, we cannot turn back. Put to the test, we were not our brother’s keeper.
There is a tragic depth here, but it is not the tragic depth of he who would simply counsel a peaceable response. The dervish’s homily asks for forgiveness for the bearer of false witness who has destroyed his brother. Could I do the same in his shoes? Probably not. Yet it cannot end here. Forgiveness and passivity are unnatural bedfellows. Forgiveness is more whole and healing when we know that we might, just, become instruments of some just resolution. Because we are made in God’s image, inertness is foreign to our constitution. In the prospect of restitution, even of some form of justice, there is a healing. We are not to sentence ourselves or others to permanent guilt and distress at the memory of our own inaction, or that of others. It is monstrous to impose or to expect such corrosion.
‘There is life for you in restorative justice, O possessors of souls’, says the Muslim scripture. To forgive a murderer may be a miraculous sign of forbearance and trust in God’s creation, of transcending the certainly heathen impulse of revenge. Restorative justice, however, is something else; it is not tied to revenge. It can bring a certain lightening of the burden. The relatives of crime victims sometimes speak of what they call ‘closure’ when a due sentence has been passed, say on a murderer or a child molester. In the United States, families traditionally have the right to witness the murderer’s execution. In our soft Europe we wince at what we dismiss as trans-Atlantic crudeness, and perhaps there is a sort of absent mindedness here, rather as we happily eat chicken sandwiches but have no desire to see how the chicken’s life ended. But what are called the right-to-view laws only endure because families do often report a certain strange peacefulness once they have witnessed the execution. Again, this is not simply the acceptable face of revenge.
Brooks Douglas, who wrote Oklahoma’s new right-to-view statute a decade after his parents were murdered, said this: ‘It is not retaliation or retribution that I seek in witnessing the execution of the man who killed my parents. It is closure. Closure on an era of my life which I never chose to enter. Closure of years of anger and hate.’
Justice does not normally remedy a crime, but we are reassured when we recall that it may help to preserve the order of the world; despite our squeamishness we know that when justice is rightly administered some sort of holiness fills the air, a presence of the mysterium tremendum, the deep, solemn mystery of God and His will for equity and safety among His servants. Even St Paul, sometimes read as an abolisher of the Jewish law, at least, also writes in Romans that ‘the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good.’ He is telling us that it is not only useful, but holy.
Whether or not we support the death penalty, which I cite only as an example, we are likely to recognise that despite our anxieties the Queen’s peace will always depend on punishment. If convicted, Cain ought to be punished. And to fail to punish will not only endanger the good order of the world, but is likely to purtify our souls. It is not justice or forgiveness, but, we may ideally hope, justice and forgiveness.
This is, a few radical pacifists excepted, a pretty normal understanding in our three monotheisms. But as so often in our chaotic human world the matter does not stop with crime and punishment. What if there is no constable and no magistrate? What if one is a refugee, or stateless, or living in a failed state? What if there is no human arbiter who might re-establish a settled pattern of life and bring offenders to book? If one is, say, in a Croydon riot, and the police are nowhere in sight, what is the right course of action? May one defend one’s shop and family against looters and thieves?
This is not, of course, a matter only for theologians. Section 76 of the 2008 Criminal Justice Act sets out our common law understanding of legitimate self-defence. Turning its pages I find that subsection 5a even makes it legal for me to use disproportionate, but not grossly disproportionate, force when defending myself against an intruder who has broken into my house. The courts will generally consider any violent action which I honestly and instinctively think is necessary for a legitimate purpose to fall within the purpose of legitimate self-defence, as defined in English law; in fact, this subsection, introduced as recently as 2013, significantly expands my right to use violence to defend my property, family and home. The same applies in a public place if I witness, for instance, a mugging on the Piccadilly Line, and become involved in the defence of the victim. In some cases I may even be prosecuted for inaction. I am very much my brother’s keeper.
Again, on the issue of self-defence where the police are not to hand, we are likely to be united. Who respects the bystander who just passes by on the other side when a woman is being molested, or seeks to intervene only with words of pious exhortation? But what if we enlarge our compass again, and zoom out, to view great collective issues of war and peace? Clearly, unless we are convinced pacifists, even on this macro scale we will allow human communities, and not just individuals, the use of force in self-defence. If Israeli soldiers or settlers try to demolish Palestinian homes, to take one topical example, it is hard to deny their victims, as individuals and communities, the right to raise their hands in self-defence. And this surely applies on the national level as well. To remain with Palestine, since it has been cited so emphatically by a previous speaker in this series, there would seem to be no ground in our English legal precedent and historical norms to deny the Palestinians the right to defend themselves. To propose a simple thought-experiment, if what befell Palestine in 1948 had happened to us here in England, we would presumably have fought; neighbouring states would have come to our aid, and probably many of us would still be fighting.
Are we now feeling a little less comfortable? Perhaps fidgeting ever so slightly, and wondering where tonight’s speaker is likely to go? You are right to fidget. I do so as well. But if we are morally serious we ought to look this one in the eye. Should self-defence apply only to our own British selves, while on others we wish an interminable Peace Process while the lands of the victims are steadily curetted away, as a whole country is subjected to a kind of death by a thousand cuts? At the end of October I read on the website of the human rights activist Philip Weiss, that, quote, “Israeli forces have killed 65 Palestinians this month, including 14 children.’ The Palestinians in their weakness are trying to resist the progressive confiscation of their land. I suppose that we would do the same, if England and our own suburbs were facing the bulldozers. So why do we find their resistance so morally difficult? If I fight back when my house in Croydon is vandalised by intruders, and would fight back if my country was occupied, why should this not introduce a universal principle, available to other races, peoples, and faith groups?
As the poet Rumi says:
‘Knowledge and wealth and office and rank and fortune are a mischief in the hands of the evil-natured.
Therefore the Jihad was made obligatory on true believers for this
purpose, namely, that they might take the spear-point from the hand of the madman.’
So far our argument has been, I think, roughly consensual. I have given a topical example, but the rule seems to be rather simple and universal. Of course, if someone stabs my wife, I should fight back; if my country is invaded and occupied, I should defend it. The law is holy precisely when it prevents or punishes aggression. The three monotheisms largely concur on this. So why, at this point of the argument, do we feel a certain agitation?
I think the reason is not, in fact, located in an assumption that non-Europeans ought not to have a right which we would claim for ourselves. It is more disturbing and challenging. It is to do with unease over the due boundaries of our resistance. Does subsection 5a explain the dividing line between excessive and grossly excessive force? It does not. Can religion do so? On the face of it, it seems to insist that it does. Here, for instance, is the Qur’an:
And if one has responded to injustice to no greater extent than the injury he received, and is again tyrannized, God will help him; for God is Pardoning and Forgiving. (22.60)
The medieval commentator Razi here gives the sense: the believer who fights proportionately, but is thereafter still the victim of aggression, will certainly be given victory by God; but he adds: ‘even though God gives you this guarantee of victory, he offers you something which is better: forgiveness and pardon.’
This is the principle of proportionality, which as the American scholar John Kelsay has shown is a key principle in both Islamic and Christian theories of just war. And the option of forgiveness is provided as well.
This sounds easy. But how easy is it for religious scholars to explain proportionality in practice? Probably, if we are honest, not very easy at all. Every human situation has its own logic; the boundary between legitimate and transgressive violence will fluctuate wildly from encounter to encounter. In a life-or-death situation, emotions can flare, and under such circumstances we find ourselves doing things which posterity may or may not find it possible to forgive.
And yet everyone asks religion to furnish guidance, and to keep it as clear as possible. What must we, and what must we not do, to protect Abel, or to prevent a repeat offence? General injunctions to act morally and proportionately can abound in a generously gaseous profusion; but what combatants and victims would really like to hear is clear and practical instructions. Nowadays some might urge the setting-aside of religious talk in favour of an allegedly neutral and objective secular theory of the right conduct of war and international affairs. Leave Hebron, or Kabul, or Srinagar, to the diplomats! But this turns out not to help very much. Just as subsection 5a cannot really tell me when I should use a kitchen knife on a burglar, so also the brave declarations of the United Nations, in themselves so precious, seem only to offer limited guidance. It is fine that we have the Convention on Cluster Munitions, for instance, and I find it a source of pride that the United Kingdom is a signatory. But we all know how blunt an instrument the law is in practice. Whatever the law might be, the ultimate decision in the real world is likely to stay in the hands of the combatants; it is they who decide what might be a legitimate use of force under the circumstances.
In our literature perhaps the best-known recital of this fear is Shakespeare’s Henry the Fifth, as the king warns the people of a besieged town that when his soldiers’ blood is up, neither he nor any moral law can answer for the consequences. These are his great and sobering lines:
I will not leave the half-achieved Harfleur
Till in her ashes she lie buried.
The gates of mercy shall be all shut up,
And the flesh'd soldier, rough and hard of heart,
In liberty of bloody hand shall range
With conscience wide as hell, mowing like grass
Your fresh-fair virgins and your flowering infants.
What is it then to me, if impious war,
Array'd in flames like to the prince of fiends,
Do, with his smirch'd complexion, all fell feats
Enlink'd to waste and desolation?
What is't to me, when you yourselves are cause,
If your pure maidens fall into the hand
Of hot and forcing violation?
What rein can hold licentious wickedness
When down the hill he holds his fierce career?
We may as bootless spend our vain command
Upon the enraged soldiers in their spoil
As send precepts to the leviathan
To come ashore.
In our modern scenarios, not enough has changed. Generals and politicians will still shrug, and blame the chaos of war itself and the passions which it perhaps uniquely enflames. Conventions and rules for armed conflict are right and proper, but the boundary between necessary and grossly-excessive force cannot be successfully policed by the instructions of anxious bureaucrats at the United Nations. All too often the men in blue helmets appear after the last shot has been fired, to investigate atrocities, and to file reports.
Above all, religion must surely step in here to define, in a world of white-hot hasty passions in which deliberative judgement is often difficult or swept completely away, the limits of self-defence. What is the use of religion, I ask myself, if it cannot help me to discern my own spirit, and know the difference between justice and vengeance? Between proportionate and excessive self-defence? Between protecting myself from a subsequent lifetime of guilt at my own inaction, and a no less ravaging guilt at my own excessive and vicious action?
We religionists will need to be honest about this. Have all rabbis spoken out against what has happened to the Palestinians? Did all Anglican bishops condemn Bomber Harris during the Second World War? And what precisely were the Slovak bishops doing? And in the modern Islamic world, exactly how many are condemning suicide bombings against random Israelis and others? Some do, but we are haunted by the fact that some do not. Here, surely, there is a shameful trahison des clercs.
There is a kind of excuse for which we reach. In 1943 we might have thought that the Reich would surrender if her beautiful cities were reduced to smoking rubble. It was a partial, ill-informed judgement of its time; and six hundred thousand civilians died. Today, some might imagine that the fate of the Palestinians will be improved rather than exacerbated by suicide bombing, a practice unknown to Muslims until some twenty years ago. That too is surely the consequence of emotion, excitement, and even a kind of fear and despair driven by current events and relentless media frenzy. Yet surely we find such excuses underwhelming and distressing at best.
I myself once stayed in a refugee camp near Jerusalem, where I found that some still defended terrorism because they felt they had no other weapon. But most, I found, felt shamed and humiliated. Their claim to be on a pristine moral high ground, the weak and poor victims of Israel’s military Goliath, a noble sense of self which sustained them and in some measure healed them in their exile, was now obscurely besmirched. Justice is a healing, to be sure; but ugly disproportion adds to the soul’s distress, heaping on our wounds the desperate feeling of shame.
Here we ought to stand, I feel sure. How terrible that religion, whose rich resources for helping us with anger management and self-control seem so much deeper than any international convention could ever be, should sometimes seem to act as a magnifying glass for our rage and desperation, and find through a disastrous casuistry some theology of the moment which allows us to defend the indefensible in the name of faith. Read an al-Qaida justification of suicide bombing, and one will be struck by the vast effort made to reconfigure ancient texts and values to deliver what is taken to be a strategically-useful weapon. This is what we might call the Guantanamo school of scriptural interpretation: treat the text badly enough and it will end up saying whatever we want to hear. And who is there who will intervene, to rescue the texts from this kind of torture?
My talk this evening must certainly not be a mere commentary on current events. But Muslims still need to explicate this present and very new crisis, not least because of the disgrace which it brings. One needs to make the point again and again to a dismayed world that classical Sunni Islam has nothing to do with the new zealotries, the phenomenon of Tanfir, as we call it: that which is so vehement that in the name of the One God it ironically repels humanity from the monotheistic principle itself. Why does the Nigerian group Boko Haram not only attack churches, but also explode massive suicide bombs in Sunni mosques? Because its theology is not recognised as Sunni. Boko Haram’s founder Muhammad Yusuf, who established the Ibn Taymiyya mosque in the northern city of Maiduguri, studied with a certain Shaykh Ja’far Muhammad Adam, a graduate not of a mainstream Sunni university but of the Saudi Islamic University in Madina. Shaykh Ja’far came to distance himself from Muhammad Yusuf’s extremism, but the genealogy is noted by many Nigerians to this day. In Indonesia, the religious scholars have noted the strong convergence between Saudi types of Puritanism recently exported to the country, and the doctrinal ideologies of some of the country’s most intransigent radical groups, including the best-known, Lasykar Jihad.
In Iraq, during the years of sanctions, some Saudi agencies were working hard to create a network of fundamentalist colleges; some of their graduates eventually joined the complex sea of radical factions which emerged after the 2003 invasion.
The determination evident in some Saudi institutions to push the Islamic world in the direction of a puritanical literalism, lubricated by oil wealth and excellent relations with America, has over the past few years placed traditional Sunni Islam on the defensive. At a time when the Muslim world most needs to marshal its resources for dealing with the philosophical, moral and spiritual crises and challenges of our age, these institutions have issued a siren call to a desert Puritanism hostile to philosophical theology, mysticism, and the classical formulations of Islamic jurisprudence. Instead of the careful wisdom of ages directing our reading of the scriptures, there are only our own fallible convictions about how the earliest Muslims might have behaved, had they been in our situation.
The timing has been disastrous. For most of the twentieth century Muslim scholars strove to interpret and reinterpret their ancient and hallowed legislation in ways that could allow Muslims some workable accommodation, if not agreement, with the emerging global consensus. The Sharia, which Muslim scholars agree is not a single body of statutes but a rich and diverse legal tradition, turned out to lend itself admirably well to such a project. In particular, the practice known as tanqih al-manat – identifying the context for laws in order to determine their current form and application; and maslaha mursala, taking due account of public interest and utility, moved the jurists of the great seats of Muslim learning in the direction of accommodation, which was taken to be an authentic, not a compromised, jurisprudential strategy in a time of complex challenges. This eirenic tendency saw itself as profoundly rooted in the assurance that God’s law exists to instantiate mercy, not hardship; far from representing a concession to a secular age, as the fundamentalists thought, it maintained a prudential option for gentleness which long predated the impact of the modern world. Even in the sixteenth century the great Ottoman jurist Birgivi was urging this: ‘In our time, it is impossible, I repeat, impossible, to take the more stringent interpretation in any legal matter.’ This wisdom permitted the flourishing of an Ottoman and Levantine cosmopolitanism in which different denominations were able to thrive and interact for centuries. Thus was monotheism defended from weakness and discredit.
By contrast, we have the new Puritanism, intolerant of internal Muslim difference and maximally suspicious of non-Muslim intent. Let me cite just one example. Most Muslims are disturbed by the verdict of the leading Saudi scholar, the late Muhammad bin Salih al-Uthaimin, who wrote this:
Today, why should we not wage war on America, Russia, France and England? What is the reason? It is because we lack the power and weaponry which they have developed in this age. What is in our hands resembles kitchen knives by comparison, opposing rockets.
What precise message is this sending to Muslims in the West? That the only reason why they are not at war with the host countries is because of a disparity in military hardware? That seems to be the implication of the shaykh’s dictum. But this view is eccentric, regarded with abhorrence by more mainstream Sunni scholarship. The more normal view is articulated by the Mauritanian jurist Abdullah Bin Bayyah, who tells us this:
The Prophet, may God bless him and give him peace, says: ‘Not one of you has faith until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself’. ... Brother here does not only mean your brother Muslim, but it refers to the greater and broader brotherhood of our Adamic nature. It is a brotherhood in the sense that we are all from Adam, that Adam is the father of us all. ... We have to be good citizens because an excellent Muslim is also an excellent citizen in the society that he lives in. ... In addition, we have to recognize that creation itself is a creation of diversity. It is a creation in which you see variations of colours. God did not make all the trees one, and He did not make all the animals one. He diversified His creation. He diversified even our colours and our languages, and He did all this for a wisdom. Not only that, Allah made us on different religions and different paths, and He did that intentionally because ... there is a divine wisdom in the differences that we have.
The new fundamentalisms, sometimes fuelled by petrodollars, treat this ancient wisdom with suspicion and contempt. And so the story of contemporary Islamic extremism is so often that each movement is succeeded by one more extreme still, as we saw with the splintering of radical movements in Algeria, and as currently we see al-Qaida giving way to movements that are even more radical and outrageous, which turn on it and attack it. Under such wildly anarchic and furious circumstances the only option for traditional Sunni scholarship is often to flee or face execution.
In areas controlled by extremists, Sunni scholars may be persecuted or killed. In other places, however, they may face a different fate: brutal co-option by secular regimes. In an increasing number of countries they are forbidden to preach their own sermons, having to read out a state sermon instead. Criticism of governmental abuse and corruption is savagely punished. They have hence found themselves caught between two fires, with the result that everywhere their authority and reach is being eroded. Still, we find that they remain unanimous in their condemnation of al-Qaeda, Isis, and the other new Tanfiri movements.
Where mainstream voices are silenced or repressed it becomes easier for the extremists to step in. But here Muslims need to grapple with a painful question. One can comprehend the new fundamentalism’s rejection of classical forms of religious authority. But can one so easily account for the fact that so many young people do not only reject the classical Sunni rules, but seem to reach for disturbingly brutal new interpretations? The existence of a possible extreme has always been known in the Islamic world, although it has very seldom won favour. In fact the Prophet spoke against ghuluww, which translates very well as ‘extremism’, saying that some people go into religion so hard that they come out the other side, as an arrow passes through its target. And he also warned:
On the Day of Judgement there shall be two people for whom I will not intercede: an unjust, arbitrary ruler, and an extremist, who departs from religion by his way of entering it.
It is clear that the Prophet despised the type of the fanatic. So why is that extreme end of the spectrum being populated now? Is it enough to blame Saudi largesse?
Clearly it is not a sufficient explanation. The Saudis have, in fact, manfully struggled to ride the tiger of fundamentalism, supporting it in general but dealing firmly and sometimes brutally with its most political and extreme manifestations at home. And to be fair, those who in various corners of the world are now defending the Saudi theology, often find themselves the targets of the new radicals. Last year the prominent Nigerian Salafi cleric Muhammad Awal Adam was assassinated after criticising them in a sermon.
So doctrinal novelty has been a factor, but not the only one. We need a further interpretation, of a more numinous kind. How to diagnose the iron in the soul, which causes young people to reach for the most extreme available interpretation?
Let us step back and try to find some parallels. Take the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. One explanation for them points to the extreme humiliation the population had suffered under the previous administration, intensified by American aerial bombing that according to some estimates claimed a hundred thousand civilian lives. In fact, three times as many bombs were dropped on Cambodia than had landed on Japan during the entirety of the Second World War. The countryside was torn apart or incinerated with napalm. As one Western journalist observed: ‘it is difficult to imagine the intensity of their hatred towards those who are destroying their villages and property.’ The monster called Pol Pot crawled out of this cauldron, determined to shatter traditional society, and to rebuild a new, Maoist order which would restore his people’s self-respect and heal their humiliation.
Another case, perhaps more familiar. This time it is Hitler in 1940, arriving for the signing of France’s capitulation in the famous railway carriage at Compiègne. The American correspondent William Shirer saw his face, writing: ‘his expression, a sort of scornful, inner joy at being present at this great reversal of fate. ... It is a magnificent gesture of defiance, or burning contempt for this place now and all that it has stood for in the twenty-two years since it witnessed the humbling of the German Empire.’
In those two decades that produced Hitler, Germany had been subjected to the extreme humiliations of the Treaty of Versailles. The crippling war reparations were described by John Meynard Keynes as a ‘Carthaginian peace’ which would destroy Germany. In that world of unemployment, hyperinflation and debt, the madness of Nazism took root easily, even in the land of Goethe and Schubert.
The disproportionate, almost cultic and ritual violence, of Kampuchea and the Third Reich, thus seems to be explicable, at least in part, as the result of years of extreme humiliation and a thirst for a vengeance that would re-establish a lost self-esteem. Nothing could be allowed to stand in the way of that project. In the case of both Maoism and Nazism, the ideology was secular, taking the form essentially of a kind of totalitarian Darwinism.
In the contemporary Middle East, decades of economic and social mismanagement by desperately corrupt regimes, which themselves replaced the humiliating years of colonial rule, produced a weakness which then enabled the Western invasion of Iraq. The exact motivations and circumstances for that may or may not be unveiled when we finally see the Chilcot Report. However even Tony Blair, not a man given to undue self-criticism, has conceded that the 2003 invasion was a factor in the rise of tanfiri extremism.
But before the invasion there were the sanctions. Who now remembers the harrowing letter sent by the Iraqi Medical Association to the British Medical Journal in 2001, which said: ‘Thousands of Iraqis are still dying from malnutrition, infectious diseases, and the effects of shortages or unavailability of essential drugs. More and more children are dying from cancer, probably related to contamination of the environment with depleted uranium.’ UNICEF calculated that around half a million children died as a result of the sanctions. Most notoriously, Madeleine Albright was asked on live television: ‘We have heard that half a million children have died. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?’ Albright replied: ‘We think the price is worth it.’
Into this apocalyptic situation came the invasion, bringing yet another experience of humiliation. It was probably in the detention camps, whereas at Guantanamo, culturally-specific types of interrogation procedures were adopted, such as nudity, the use of dogs, and religious abuse, all designed to break the resistance of Arab prisoners, that the new extremist factions were born.
It is often said that the original sin in the West’s relationship with the Middle East was its refusal to deal equally with Israelis and Palestinians. Certainly that is the final proof, for many sermonisers, of the Anglo-Saxon world’s indifference to Arab and Muslim rights. Robin Cook, in his moving farewell speech to Parliament, also highlighted the foundational centrality of the Palestine issue to current Muslim grievances.
But although America’s closeness to Israel certainly added to Iraqi humiliation, and made collaboration with occupation psychologically more hard, this explanation is not nearly sufficient. Sometimes, too, it is invoked as the solitary master-explanation of all the region’s woes.
The loss of Palestine, and the ongoing loss of the remaining Palestinian lands, have clearly made it harder for the Islamic world to love the West. There will not be a resolution of this any time soon. But this must never be deployed as an excuse for breaking moral boundaries. To say that all Hamas can do to hit back at Israeli violence is to fire missiles at random civilian targets is to adopt a utilitarian calculus, driven by humiliation and a longing for revenge. And yet we find that the Prophet of Islam, who once found a woman’s body on a battlefield, forbade the killing of women and children. This is a scripture narrated by Imam Muslim, on unimpeachable authority. Proportionality is a rule in just war theory; so also is what is called discrimination. Again John Kelsay has shown in great detail that Islamic law respects the principle of discrimination, and opposes the targeting of noncombatants.
Just as Jews must condemn Jewish extremists, and Christians must condemn Christian extremists, including many on the US evangelical right who have supported violent policies towards the Arab world, so too must Muslims take risks and adopt controversial positions, opposing the logic of rage-driven revenge and tribal solidarity.
What are the prospects? It may be that the current escalation, whereby every extremism generates one still more extreme, will eventually collapse when the society and economy it seeks to produce turns out to be impossible. The Ottoman scholar we cited earlier explained that the jurist must always seek the lighter and easier interpretation because of the weakness of the people of the age. He was writing in the early sixteenth century, in an age of faith! Today, with hedonism, atheism, and a myriad of alternatives snapping at the heels of religion, all of them only a couple of clicks away, we are clearly weaker still. It seems unlikely that a fanatic religious utopia could last long before collapsing into disillusionment. It is interesting that on Fridays, those who cross the border from Turkey into Iran leave behind them a land where the mosques are full, and enter an Islamic Republic where the mosques seem almost deserted.
The Cain and Abel story, a kind of primordial parable of the human tragedy, needs to be read carefully by those who would build holy dictatorships in our time. Religious witness needs to protect our brothers, not only from physical harm, but also from the spiritual assassination that comes through any thoughtless and brutal coercion directed at their innermost convictions. Capitalism’s entertainment culture may finally serve as the crow which disposes of the decomposing body of a brother slain by the wrong kind of religious politics. In a few years we may see many such bodies littering the streets of the Islamic world. Some will be still teaching, working, loving, or parenting; but their souls will be dead to religion.
Ultimately some religious scholars themselves may share this fate. What is the end of Selimović’s Bosnian novel? He does not have his protagonist collapsing into public immorality. On the contrary, he is appointed the chief religious judge of his city. But his guilt at his abandonment of his brother has eaten away at his soul, and he is a hollow man; outwardly punctilious but inwardly a ruin. After such a crime, even the man of religion’s religion can be no more than a shell, eventually replaced, one guesses, by something else. Every Cain becomes his own Abel in the end.
Abdal Hakim Murad is Dean of the Cambridge Muslim College, UK, which trains imams for British mosques. In 2010 he was voted Britain’s most influential Muslim thinker by Jordan’s Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre. He has translated a number of books from the Arabic, including several sections of Imam al-Ghazali's Ihya' Ulum al-Din.