"I think there are two things happening at the same time. One is that a lot more backlash is happening, and a lot more fear-mongering--and on the other hand, there's a large group of people who are consciously wanting to find out and learn and understand Islam and Muslims."
For this story, we interviewed Naz Mohamed, who has participated frequently in the Bridging Muslim/Non-Muslim Divides event series we organize with Critical Connections. We spoke about her local interfaith work and her thoughts on what will contribute to better understanding.
By Paula Green, Karuna Center founder
November 2014: This is the third workshop I am facilitating with Combatants for Peace (CfP) on behalf of Karuna Center for Peacebuilding. My co-facilitators this time are Ben Yeger, an Israeli CfP member living in the UK, plus Ali Nassal from Ramallah in the West Bank. Both are new colleagues to me before we begin this workshop.
We are at a particularly critical moment in the escalating violence and increasing dehumanization between Israelis and Palestinians. Especially in Jerusalem, where I stayed before the workshop, tensions are high and both populations feel their wellbeing and sense of security threatened.
Approximately 50 Israeli and Palestinian members of CfP gathered for a 3-day retreat in Beit Sahour, a small village near Bethlehem in the West Bank. The Israeli members of CfP served in the Israeli Defense Force and generally also in reserve duty following their service. Palestine members found their own ways to battle against the occupation, many landing in Israeli jails for long or short durations as a result of their protests. For all the members, some event, incident, or insight served as a wake-up call to relinquish their guns or stones. Somehow, they found their way to Combatants for Peace, where they discovered a new way to engage, this time with words and actions focused on ending the occupation rather than through weapons that cause harm and continue the cycle of violence.
Pick up the latest New York Times, skim through the top entries on The Huffington Post, or tune into the latest headlines on CNN, and you can be sure to read or hear about how various Muslim groups are perpetrating violence in the name of Islam. And it so follows that for many of these groups – from ISIS to Boko Haram – jihad is the spiritual and ideological vehicle that legitimates these violent demonstrations.
So what exactly does the oft-misunderstood jihad mean, and how does it relate to the Judeo-Christian concept of just war?
These questions formed the crux of our September 18th discussion entitled “Jihad vs. Just War: Understanding Armed Struggled in Islam.” With a turnout of over 50 people, this was the fourth event in Critical Connections’ and Karuna Center for Peacebuilding’s Bridging Muslim-Non-Muslim Divide series.
The featured speaker was Dr. Sohail Hashmi, a Professor of International Relations and the Alumnae Foundation Chair in the Social Sciences at Mount Holyoke College, where he teaches ethics, international relations, and Middle East politics, among other subjects. In 2012, Dr. Hashmi edited an anthology entitled Just Wars, Holy Wars, and Jihads: Christian, Jewish and Muslim Encounters and Exchange: ideas and terms that were at the forefront of the evening’s discussion.
Following introductions from the directors of the Karuna Center and Critical Connections, Bernie Pelletier – Director of Critical Connections’ Addressing Muslim/non-Muslim Divide Initiative – assumed the role of moderator with a series of questions for Dr. Hashmi aimed at addressing both the historical and present-day realities of jihad and just war.
Dr. Hashmi began the conversation by sharing an anecdote that illustrated how jihad is commonly misunderstood to imply violence, when in actuality its true meaning carries a far less bellicose connotation. As Dr. Hashmi explained, the term jihad stems from the Arabic root jahada, meaning to struggle, make an effort, and give one’s utmost towards something.
In its earliest conception, jihad was closely tied to the notion of personal struggle and striving, an idea that still holds weight for many Muslims. It was not until the year 622 – when the Prophet Muhammad migrated from his birthplace of Mecca to the city of Medina – when jihad began to be referred to something more practical as Muslims struggled to defend their nascent community from hostile elements opposed to the Prophet’s message. Nonetheless, while Muslims began conceptualizing jihad as the struggle to defend their community and later as a driving force for territorial expansion beyond the Arabian Peninsula, it was seldom understood as a means for proselytization. Forcible conversions, Dr. Hashmi clarified, are explicitly disallowed in Islam, according to Qur’anic scripture.
From jihad the conversation moved to just war as Dr. Hashmi outlined the two main tenets of the theory. The first of these – jus ad bellum – refers to whether the war in question is permissible and holds just cause. The second concept – jus in bello – concerns conduct in and of war. For example, war must be fought with restraint, meaning that combatants cannot pointedly targeted civilians (discrimination), and must strive to limit civilian casualties (proportionality). Taken together, these two ideas put theory into practice and delineate how war should ideally be waged: in line with the principles of justice and ethics.
Just war, however, is dissimilar from the glorified notion of holy war. As Dr. Hashmi described, when individuals feel that they are acting on God’s commandment – as was the case for the Israelites and the Crusaders – jus in bello is often left by the wayside. Holy war often becomes synonymous with total, unrestrained aggression.
Here the conversation turned directly to the key verses of the Qur’an that address jihad and violence towards non-Muslims. Verse 9:5 in particular – popularly known as the “Verse of the Sword” – has long been upheld as emblematic of the supposedly inherently violent nature of Islam, not to mention a boon for jihadists aiming to advance violent extremism. Yet, as Dr. Hashmi indicated, the verses preceding 9:5 referred specifically to a group of pagan Arabs who were seen as relentless in their persecution of the early Muslim community. In other words, the Verse of the Sword is not a blanket incitement to fight, but rather, an injunction rooted in a specific time and place.
With new information and insights to ponder, the audience members organized themselves into small groups to consider the similarities and differences between jihad and just war and their historical and modern-day applications. Several group discussions revolved around the actions of ISIS and whether the United States was poised to embark upon its own “just war” in response to these militaristic manifestations.
Among the key takeaways from the evening was the idea that jihad is a multifaceted and complex term that must be understood in its profound theological, juridical, social, and historical context. And so it is the job of all consumers of the media to strive to maintain a critical eye and work to correct statements made about Islam and the Qur’an that lack proper historical and textual context.
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