12 June 2012

Muslim Peacemaking Is Alive and Well

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Logo of the Muslim Peacemaker Teams Logo of the Muslim Peacemaker Teams http://mpt-iraq.org/AboutMPT.mwo4ml

Over the last ten years, four Muslims have been Nobel Peace Prize Laureates – two women, and two men. Just last year (2011), the prize was awarded to three women, “for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work”: the Liberian President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf; her younger compatriot, Leymah Gbowee; and Yemeni activist, Tawakkol Karman. In 2003 it was Iranian lawyer Shirin Ebadi’s turn; then Mohamed ElBaradei of the International Atomic Energy Agency (2005) and Muhammad Yunus, founder of the Bangladeshi Grameen Bank.

This is good to keep in mind – especially in light of the very real issues of Islamic-related terrorism (which kills many more Muslims than non-Muslims, by the way) and the media’s tendency to focus on the egregious rather than on the peaceful and constructive.

I have in my hands a 92-page booklet published in 2007 by the Ahmadiyya Muslims in Pakistan: Islam, Peace and Tolerance (it is available online in pdf form). The Ahmadiyyas, who consider themselves Sunni Muslims, are viewed as heretical by many Muslims and hence persecuted, especially in Pakistan, Bengladesh and Indonesia. This is because they believe that their founder, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (1835–1908), was the Messiah or Mahdi. Still, they are perhaps the most effective Muslim missionaries worldwide, specializing in Qur’anic translation and distribution.

This booklet could have been written by any mainstream Sunni. Perhaps, I would venture, it fulfills a double function: defending Islam and urging fellow Muslims to treat them better. The author, Zahid Aziz, writes in his Preface that he aims to refute three common misperceptions: a) Islam is violent and intolerant to the point of waging jihad against all unbelievers; b) apostasy (leaving Islam) is punishable by death; c) Muslims are commanded to kill all who speak out against Islam. He goes on,

 

“These misconceptions have aroused a great deal of hostility against Islam in the West … Unfortunately, some sections of Muslims, by their own intemperate words and actions, are reinforcing exactly this alarming message of Islam. The vast majority of Muslims do not, of course, accept these extreme doctrines but have generally not realised the urgent and vital necessity of making strong, sustained efforts to remove these grave slurs from the good name of Islam and its Prophet Muhammad” (p. 1).

 

Aziz is right. For the reasons mentioned above, Muslims literally have to go out of their way to spell out the reasons for calling Islam “a religion of peace,” as President Bush put it, days after the September 2001 attacks.

Yet Muslims have been writing volumes on the subject, starting in the last century. I just picked out a dozen such books today from the U. of Penn library, maybe only one third of what is available; and there is so much more online.

In the little space I have here, allow me to make three points: some of the literature is defensive, even apologetic (especially online); how the classical shari’a worldview has evolved; research on nonviolence and peacebuilding in parallel with other faith traditions is on the rise.

 

A defensive, even apologetic discourse

When you think about the current international climate, it makes perfect sense. Islamophobia, especially in Europe, lurks behind every magazine, behind every gaze as Muslims walk the streets, ready to pounce and reinforce their sense of being marginalized and unwanted. With books like, Because they Hate (Brigitte Gabrielle) or The Complete Infidel’s Guide to the Koran (Robert Spencer), many Muslims have developed a fortress mentality. So one bends over backwards to prove, with Qur’anic verses in support, that Islam is all about peace with God and peace with one’s neighbor.

In this respect, Zahid Aziz’s book is a perfect example. The title of the first chapter says it all: “Prophet Muhammad’s life: offering friendship and peace to the world.” Chapter 2 deals with “Freedom of religion in Islam,” Chapter 3 with “Islam’s teaching on response to abuse and mockery,” and Chapters 4 and 5 on jihad and just war theory (“When is war allowed?”). In the chapter on martyrdom, Aziz offers a helpful widening of the meaning of “martyrs” in the Qur’an and shows that suicide was always considered a sin in Islam. Then he totally spiritualizes the “virgins in heaven,” failing to mention that this is a very recent twist on an ancient tradition, still a popular view today.

“Defensive” is about an attitude – you feel embattled, so you defend yourself. “Apologetic” is about a strategy. You are not just defending your faith from slander; you are promoting it so as to make it as attractive as possible to your non-believing reader. In so doing, it doesn’t hurt (though it may hurt in the long run) to put the other down, ever so slightly. So his Chapter 8 is about “The Bible and war.” I mentioned some of this in one of my blogs about jihad. But I do find objectionable that the only passages he quotes from Jesus are: “I did not come to bring peace but a sword” (Mat. 10:34) and “I came to send fire on the earth … division” (Luke 12:49, 51). Yes, he admits, these statements don’t necessarily refer to war.

Aziz should have also quoted what Jesus told the disciple who had just used his sword to cut off the ear of the man who was arresting Jesus in the garden. He said, "Put away your sword. Those who use the sword will die by the sword" (Mat. 26:52). As it is, Aziz has distorted Jesus’ message for his own purposes.

 

Reinterpreting the classical shari’a worldview

I’ll keep this short, since I’ve written about jihad elsewhere. Islamic legal theory of the classical period (from the ninth to the thirteenth century) held that the world was divided into two spheres: the Abode of Islam (dar al-islam) and the Abode of War (dar al-harb). Islam is to spread, either by means of conversion and/or by force of arms, until the whole world comes under the sway of Islamic rule. Notice, however, that this twofold division of the world is not in the Qur’an – it was a definition put forward by the jurists.

As mentioned elsewhere too, the jurists stipulated many rules of engagement in war – no harming the environment, and no killing of civilians, and especially women, children and monks. War had to be officially declared, truces and agreements with adversaries respected, and the like.

So in theory the natural state of international relations is war. In practice, though, Muslim leaders entered into agreements with their enemies, whether for truces or for long lasting covenants. Yitzhak Reiter, a senior fellow of the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies and a veteran of Jewish-Muslim dialog in Israel, recently studied key legal opinions by prominent Muslim jurists (fatwas) relating to the issue of war and peace with the State of Israel (War, Peace & International Relations in Islam, 2011). He shows that historically, not only were the jurists much more flexible in their theory (some had a third category, “the Abode of Covenant”), but in practice, after the conquests and up to the fifteenth century, “Muslims reconciled themselves to a practical situation of ‘dormant jihad’, that is, jihad as a war only in theory” (p. 26).

Even the Ottomans, who claimed to reunite the Muslim world through their dramatic conquests from the fifteenth to the seventeenth century, gave in to the idea that in light of the fact that the European powers had gained the upper hand (especially after the second siege of Vienna in 1683) peace treaties were an acceptable state of affairs. By the 19th century – the Treaty of Paris (1856) was a watershed in this regard – the Ottoman Empire had joined the international order, in effect exchanging shari’a for the prevailing legal norms of the time.

The same can be said for the twentieth century during which most prominent Muslim jurists followed the great Egyptian reformer Muhammad Abduh (d. 1905) in developing a new, pragmatic and adaptive interpretation of the Islamic sacred texts (Qur’an and Sunna). For them, jihad is mostly of the spiritual kind (controlling one’s base instincts in order to obey God); and when it comes to war, only a defensive jihad can be justified.

Notice that more than anything, this is a fundamental worldview shift: peace and not war is the natural state of international relations. Muslim majority states after WWII, after all, had to pay at least lip service to the canons of international law. At the same time, rogue groups following Sayyid Qutb (executed in 1966) espoused a radical interpretation that harkened back to the classical doctrine of the two abodes.

 

Peacebuilding and nonviolence

With the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine, Christianity went from being a persecuted, minority faith, to one that came to be associated with the Empire itself. In light of the new reality, St. Ambrose and Augustine began a tradition of Just War theory, that is, counseling rulers on principles that in particular circumstances justify going to war or not. In essence, this is what the Muslim jurists were doing all along. And though Christians didn’t have (at least theologically) a similar dichotomous view of the world, the Crusades, the Reconquista and the extermination of native peoples in the Americas did find “Christian” justifications.

In my series on Jesus’ Sunna of Peace, I highlighted Glen Stassen’s pioneering work on “just peacemaking.” So I commend to you a recent book that builds on this paradigm (Interfaith Just Peacemaking: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Perspectives on the New Paradigm of Peace and War, Susan Brooks Thistlewaite, ed.). Each of the ten principles is introduced, followed by a Muslim, Christian and Jewish reflection by a different author (and in different order each time). If you count the Muslim preface (there are two others), then eleven different Muslim scholars/activists contributed to this book. And they do so from very different angles, because this approach seeks to transcend the traditional dichotomy between Just War theory and pacifism. Leave the theory aside for a while, suggests Stassen, and adopt practices that have actually worked and brought about peace.

In the remaining space I have here, allow me to recommend six other books – in order of publication:

 

Said, Abdul Aziz, Nathan C. Funk and Ayse S. Kadayifci, eds., Peace and Conflict Resolution in Islam: Precept and Practice (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2001).

Under the auspices of the Center for Global Peace at American University, this is a book seeking to focus on Islam and peace by examining “a great living tradition and its role in the world today.” The editors add, “We have sought to present a selection from the best scholarly writings available on peace and conflict resolution in Islam, and organize them in one volume in relation to their differing interpretive, conceptual, and practical foundations” (3-4). What I find especially fascinating in this book, is its progression from the reality of the Muslim conquests, to the importance of good governance and laws, to conflict resolution, to nonviolence, and finally to the power of Sufism, Islam’s mystical stream: “peace through the power of love.” This section includes a chapter by the Sri Lankan Sufi shaykh who finished his career and was buried in Philadelphia.

 

Mohammed Abu-Nimer, Nonviolence and Peacebuilding in Islam: Theory and Practice (Gainesville, FL: U. Press of Florida, 2003).

Director of American University’s Peacebuilding and Development Institute, Abu-Nimer has been circling the globe teaching and practicing conflict resolution in many zones of conflict. This book summarizes some of the recent theory and goes into detail with regard to concrete efforts at peacebuilding between Israelis and Palestinians – an interesting contribution in light of his own Israeli-Palestinian background. Abu-Nimer is also the founder of the Salam Institute for Peace and Justice and was the main partner in the Evangelical-Muslim dialog sponsored by Fuller Seminar in the mid 2000s. I too was a participant and contributed a chapter to the book that came out of those two conferences, Peace-Building By, Between and Beyond Muslims and Evangelical Christians (Mohammed Abu-Nimer and David Augsburger, eds.).


Delhi Policy Group, War and Peace in Islam: Seminar Proceedings (Delhi Policy Group, 2003).

More difficult to obtain than the others, this book nevertheless is a goldmine if you want to get a feel for contemporary reformist Islam in India. At least one is from the ulama establishment, but most of the fifteen are influential scholars who seek to promote a progressive interpretation of the sources in an effort to counter the conservative (and they would add, “repressive” and “warmongering”) voices in many circles of the Subcontinent.

 

J. Dudley Woodberry, Osman Zümrüt, and Mustafa Köylü, eds. Muslim and Christian Reflections on Peace: Divine and Human Dimensions (University Press of America, 2005)

This is a collection of papers presented by Muslim and Evangelical scholars in a 2001 conference in Samsun, Turkey. What is particularly helpful is the place given to the contentious issue of missionary activity on both sides.

 

Qamar-Ul Huda, ed., Crescent and Dove: Peace and Conflict Resolution in Islam. Preface by HRH Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad bin Talal (Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace Press, 2010).

My top choice for a book introducing state-of-the-art peacebuilding from a Muslim perspective is this one. Its editor, Qamar-Ul Huda, is both senior program officer at the US Institute of Peace and adjunct professor at Georgetown University. Here he brings together the contribution of nine other Muslim experts on the issue, including Abu-Nimer and the prominent Turkish scholar, Ibrahim Kalin. The other reason this book is so important is that after the expected first part which reexamines the sacred texts, the second part focuses on peacemaking education among Muslims, without forgetting the crucial role played by women in the home and within grassroots movements.

 

Amitabh Pal, “Islam” Means Peace: Understanding the Muslim Principle of Nonviolence Today (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2011).

Managing Editor for The Progressive, Amitabh Pal is a writer who fondly remembers growing up in India with many Muslim friends. Here he seeks to set the record straight on the issue of Islam and violence, both from the religious texts and from many examples of peacebuilding, from the “pacifist sects” (like the Sufis and Ahmadiyyas), to the interfaith peace movement in Israel-Palestine, to the peaceful struggle of the Kosovar Albanians, to the amazing story of nonviolence among the Pashtuns of Afghanistan-Pakistan (I will come back to this). Despite Pal’s painstaking research, however, he is no specialist in Islam and he has clear political leanings. On the other hand, this serves as a useful antidote to the writings and activism of people like Mark Steyn, Pamela Geller, Robert Spencer, David Horrowitz and Daniel Pipes.

 

[I will be silent for a while, as I set off to teach a two-week course in Lagos, Nigeria]