Sunday, September 17, 2006

The Pope and Jihad

The world would surely be a better place if people were able to be critical of their own side before they laid into someone else’s. So, as a Muslim, I’ll start:

Straightforward imperialism has been pursued under the banner of Islam on various occasions in history. In Sudan, the state’s desire to extend its reach into areas where tribe counts for more than government means that Islamic rhetoric has been used as a tool of subjugation. In Saudi Arabia, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, and Shia Muslims face varying degrees of persecution for simply worshipping in the way they feel best. In Nigeria, Muslims have frequently taken out their political bad temper on their Christian neighbours (and vice versa). I could go on and on. The Muslim world is a mess.

If the Pope had condemned the treatment of Christians in Saudi Arabia he would probably still have provoked an angry reaction among the lunatic fringe of Muslims, but I for one would have supported him. It’s part of his job to defend Christians around the world, and by pointing to their oppression in some Muslim countries he would have encouraged a necessary debate among Muslims. If he’d made some kind of general statement that all religions must take care to interpret their scripture in the most positive and peaceful way, that Muslims and Christians and Jews have all at various times used religious language as they commit crimes, there would be no problem.

But what he did by quoting, but not distancing himself from, a 14th Century Byzantine emperor, was to suggest that Islam is an “evil and inhuman” religion that has no place for reason. Here we go again. It’s open season on Islam in the bloodhungry West. What is so depressing about this bout is that senior religious leaders had until now been careful to keep out of the fray.

It hardly needs to be said, I hope, that the Catholic church (as opposed to Christianity) has an exceptionally ugly record of crusading, anti-semitism, and persecution of intellectuals. It ethnically cleansed Spain and Sicily of Muslims and Jews. Muslim, Jewish and even Protestant refugees from Catholicism found refuge in the Ottoman Empire. As recently as 60 years ago, the Catholic hierarchy collaborated with the Nazis.

This is not the only side of the Catholic story. Catholics have also been persecuted, and there have been many instances of Catholics helping their persecuted Jewish neighbours in Europe. ‘Liberation theology’ priests in Latin America have been at the forefront fighting for oppressed people’s rights. Catholicism is a vast tradition full of diversity. My point is simply that Benedict could have found plenty of irrationality to talk about in Catholic history.

His statements are worse than unwise. Muslim-Christian relations are already in their worst state since the Crusades. On the one hand, Christian Zionists have been the most ardent supporters of the occupations of Palestine, Lebanon, Afghanistan and Iraq. On the other, Wahabbi nihilists see everyone in the West (and quite a few people in the east) as Crusaders who must be destroyed. As the world seems to be lurching towards an apocalypse of environmental breakdown and total war – not following divine plan but for very human reasons – we surely need more intelligence, more self-criticism, more compassion for the blood of others.

And very quickly, a word about jihad in Islam. Jihad means struggle, not holy war. Struggling to pray or fast, to control your anger, to provide justice to the weak, are all forms of jihad. I get a laugh from my students when I tell them that marriage is jihad, but I mean it seriously. Learning to compromise, to recognise the needs and wants of another as valid as your own, is jihad.

And jihad can mean defensive, but never offensive, war. In an Islamic war, the following regulations must be observed: Non-combatants, women, children, the elderly, officials of any religion must not be harmed. There must be no mutilation of corpses, and no torture. Trees and crops must not be damaged. Property must not be damaged. As soon as the enemy forces wish to come to terms, fighting must stop.

Muslims have very often ignored the rules and the true significance of jihad, just as Christians have very often killed and conquered in the name of a prophet who taught men to ‘turn the other cheek.’ Whether or not Muslims should restrict themselves to Islamic laws of war in a contemporary world where no-one respects such restrictions – that’s another question entirely.

A last point. Although, as I said above, Muslims have built secular empires in the name of their religion, conversion by the sword was an aberration rather than a norm in Islamic history. Indian converts were attracted to Islam not by Mongol or Persian military might but slowly, by travelling Sufi mystics and musicians. In Africa Islam was spread not by the swords of Beduin raiders (who usually cared little for religion in any case) but by tradesmen and, again, Sufis. Even in what is now the Arab world the process of conversion was gradual and peaceful. All the time that Damascus was the capital of the Ummayad Empire it had a Christian majority.

Anyway, God save us all from bigotry and ignorance.

The vicar of Putney comments intelligently on the Pope’s speech. You can read that here:

Tariq Ali has words, here:

And I like Fareena Alam’s (Editor of Q-News, a British Muslim magazine) comments, quoted in the Guardian:
“The media are giving the supposed ‘anger of the Muslim nation’ too much coverage. Such insults are as old as Islam itself. The Prophet dealt with them with dignity. We must stop over-reacting ... A Muslim who truly lives according to the moral code of Islam - of justice, neighbourliness and compassion - will know that it is our greatest weapon against misrepresentation. Perhaps the Pope was ‘merely quoting’ the 14th-century emperor. Perhaps he did so because he actually shares this belief. If so, he is more ill-informed than we thought. I refuse to let such provocations shape the global faith agenda.”

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