17 August 2014

Justice Breakdown: End Times?

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No caption - "Islamic Radicalism and the End of Times," by Mbaye Lo No caption - "Islamic Radicalism and the End of Times," by Mbaye Lo http://estudies.alarabiya.net/content/islamic-radicalism-and-end-time

 A couple of weeks ago Duke University Arabic professor Mbaye Bashir Lo attended Friday prayers at the Grand Mosque of Niamey, Niger. Originally from Sudan, he’s doing research on militant Islam in West Africa this summer. What he heard the preacher say startled him: “These are troubling times: there is killing everywhere, and certainly, these are signs of the end of time.” This was followed by a hadith of the Prophet, “At the end of time neither the killer nor the victim will know the reason of the killing.”

Lo’s article that inspired this blog was published in al-Arabiya online, the Saudi/Emirati-owned news service, based in Dubai and al-Jazeera’s closest competitor in the Middle East. [At least at this writing the article has several mistakes, and even one in the title; I’ve never seen that on al-Jazeera!]

One point he makes is that since the 1991 Gulf War (First or Second, depending on whether you count the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s), no war has been fought between two national armies. George H. W. Bush’s international coalition was composed of armies contributed by those nation-states fighting Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi army. But the Balkan wars of the 1990s, for instance, had to do with the breakup of former Yugoslavia. I think he’s right, but if you can think of a counter-example, please post a comment below.

When the US and Britain invaded Iraq in 2003 they quickly routed its army and then followed nine years of fighting mostly Sunni militia, with an increasingly organized al-Qaeda branch on the side. Think too of the Russian “rebels” fighting the central Ukrainian government forces in Donetsk and other eastern provinces. This is a proxy war, with Russia clearly involved, of the same type that has been raging in Syria for three and a half years now.

That said, as Lo recognizes, most of the violent hot spots today involve at least some Islamic militants:


“Look at the news highlights of the past week: a suicide car bombing killed 21 in Baghdad; gunmen killed 21 security forces on Egypt's western border; in Gombe, Nigeria, Boko Haram militants killed 32 villagers in different towns; in Libya, 38 were killed as the Libyan Army and Islamists clashed in Benghazi; in the Chaambi mountains of Tunisia, gunmen killed at least 14 Tunisian soldiers. The list goes on, to say nothing of what is occurring in Syria, Somalia, and Yemen, among other places.”


To say the least, this is depressing and even bewildering for the vast majority of Muslims worldwide. Why is jihadism on the rise, anyway? After all, and by far, Muslims remain the majority victims of this systematic slaughter of civilians.

I want here to discuss Lo’s answer in three parts. First, it seems that militant Islam is feeding on both favorable ideological and geopolitical conditions. Second, as I alluded to above, we might be seeing the “fading of an old order,” that is, the international order the foundation of which go back to Swiss political philosopher Emerich de Vattel’s The Law of Nations is being seriously shaken. And finally, as I’m (slowly) writing my book on justice, I’ll comment on how “justice” might relate to this topic, especially in the way Lo ends his piece.


Jihadism, dying and victory

Lo thought that the imam’s sermon was “very relevant in the current discourse of militant Islam.” Muslims generally believe that the Prophet Muhammad was victorious because he was “right.” In other words, his was a righteous and just cause and so he prevailed religiously, politically and militarily. Lo explains, “There is a right reason and a wrong reason to die. The right reason is associated with victory, while the wrong reason is associated with peril and defeat.”

The converse is that if your cause is unjust, you cannot prevail. That of course posed a cruel dilemma for Muslims under colonial rule. How could these plundering conquerors have the upper hand? The same logic, adds Lo, buoyed ISIS founder (IS from now on, The Islamic State) Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in his bid to break off from al-Qaeda and declare himself caliph of all Muslims. Had he not, unlike Ayman al-Zawahiri, proved his mettle by conquering a territory larger than that of Great Britain? IS fighters took control of a quarter of Iraq while chanting, [We are on] “the righteous path, and the sign is self-evident.”

Sayyid Qutb (executed by President Nasser in 1966) glorified martyrdom (shahada) for martyrdom’s sake, continues Lo (on him, see my blog, “Jihad Revisited”). This mindset prevailed until the Muslim Brotherhood actually came to power in Egypt in 2012. Jihad now is all about achieving victory. Lo continues:


“The new leaders, Al-Baghdadi in Iraq, Muhammad al Zahawi (the leader of Ansaar al-Sharia in Libya), Ramadan A. Shalah, (the military leader of Islamic Jihad in Ghaza,) and Abubakar Shekau (the leader of Boko Haram in Nigeria), are not interested chiefly in shahadah. They want tangible evidence of victory: bondage, ransoms of war, estates and Khilaafah [caliphate]—for them, these are the hallmarks of real power. According to the Yemeni singer Abu Hajir al-Hadrami, through jihad, al-Baghdadi is ‘re-wiring the Muslim land.’”


That's a few words about the ideological vacuum the jihadis have filled. Regarding the favorable geopolitical conditions, I'll only state the obvious: jihadism finds its home in any territory (under)ruled by a weak state and thrives when instability turns to chaos -- like Sudan for bin Laden after Afghanistan, then Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover; then post-US invasion Iraq; then the Syrian civil war and Iraq in the last eight months.


The fading of an order?

Vattel penned The Law of Nations (the French original, “Droit des Gens,” could also be translated “The Right of Peoples”) in 1758 a century after the horrific religious wars known as the Thirty Year War. For me there’s an eerie parallel with today. Sure, nation states were involved in the fighting, but at bottom it was Christians fighting Christians.

Vattel’s central thesis is that only a sovereign can declare a war and only troops can fight troops. Civilians should both stay out of the fray and be protected from harm. Are we witnessing the end of that order? Over 70 percent of the recent Gaza war’s victims were civilians, with almost 500 children killed.

By the way, Vattel’s Swiss editor Charles Dumas sent Benjamin Franklin three copies of the French book just before American independence. Franklin in his letter of thanks included this phrase, “It came to us in good season, when the circumstances of a rising State make it necessary to frequently consult the Law of Nations.”

So is that order passing? Lo might be overstating his case. Vattel’s book fed into the wider current of Enlightenment philosophy that also inspired the US Declaration of Independence and Constitution, the French Déclaration des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen, and eventually the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the body of international law that followed. Should the UN fall apart (heaven forbid!), yes, that would mark the end of the era of international law – contested as it is. But Lo is raising an important issue, that of justice and how it works out on a global scale.


Justice and legal theory

Having published a good amount on Islamic law in the 2000s, I wanted to write a small book on justice that would incorporate some of that research, as well as some of the work Yale philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff completed in the same period (see my blog Jesus and Justice for a taste of Justice: Rights and Wrongs). Knowing I needed some input from legal theory, I turned to Raymond Wacks’ Philosophy of Law: A Very Short Introduction. I was not disappointed.

In 128 pages Wacks offers an intellectual history of “justice.” At the risk of oversimplifying, let me say that there are three basic ways to look at law and justice:


1. Law and morality are intertwined. In fact, human laws in their general principles flow out of natural law. This is the heritage handed down by the Greeks, and especially the Stoics, for whom “natural” was derived from human reason. This is the current too that impacted the Muslim rationalists, the Mu’tazilites, and also Muslim philosophers such as Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and Ibn Rushd (Averroes). This current was in turn passed on, at least partially, by Muslim Spain to European theologians like Thomas Aquinas. Humans know good and evil, because through creation God imparted this knowledge of objective moral truth to humankind. Any law enacted by humans that goes against natural law (and divine law as revealed in the Scriptures) is not law. The good precedes the right, and this is the current that fed into the Vattel, Hugo Grotius and human rights tradition.


2. Law is man-made and morality is not relevant. This is legal positivism. There are no legal norms outside of humanity and, what it more, law and morality are two different things. For “exclusive” legal positivists like Joseph Raz (b. 1939), law is a social fact and hence, autonomous. It is also the only source of authority in a society, outside of any moral considerations. Other positivists, so-called “soft” positivists, like H. L. A. Hart (d. 1992), see law with a minimum content of natural law; and yes, this content does have moral implications. That said, the law is a system of rules people make to ensure that a human society can function and not be destroyed by people’s selfishness and inclination to violence.


3. The field of “critical legal studies” questions the validity of all formal schemes of human progress, and even the notion of utopia, noting that, above all, law is about power. The history of the Western world is replete with Western states conquering and subjugating other parts of the world, and forcing them to submit to their laws. Globalization for them is mostly a form of neo-colonialism, by which Western economic power – through its multinational corporations and a neoliberal form of capitalism – subverts and drains developing countries from their economic and therefore political potential. Extreme partisans of postmodernism even doubt that there are any possible basis for moral agreement among humans. So much for human rights . . .


Mbaye Lo’s conclusion

Lo has given us a useful snapshot of the jihadis’ mindset about military jihad, but nowhere does he offer a critique of their tactics or theology. I’m sure he has done so elsewhere, or he wouldn’t be teaching where he is. Further, his pedestrian tone seems to dismiss the jihadi threat by saying it’s simply part of a general breakdown of the international order (civilians are killing civilians everywhere) and that, according to his Niamey imam, these are the signs of the end times.

What is more, though he admits that the roots of jihadism are complex, he basically concludes it’s America’s fault:


“I agree with the imam: this is the end of time, scary times, and troubling times. Many factors have contributed in its making. But I still blame the U.S. for abandoning the moral high ground when confronted by militant Islam. It has failed to lead by example, by its moral ideals. A Wolof proverb states, “if the father is a drummer, then no child should be scorned for dancing.” In this instance, the U.S. has led by policy and actions, and the rest of the world has followed its example.”


I am definitely recommending the first position above: law and morality must go hand in hand, and justice is about treating all human beings with respect and dignity. The partisans of critical legal studies certainly have a point about law and power. The United States has reacted to militant Islam in ways that have clearly skirted international law and violated human rights, including a clampdown on the press at home (see Dowd’s column). It all started on Sept. 14, 2001, with the AUMF, which gave the executive branch carte blanche in pursuing the "war on terror." But I would say that if you want to be called “leader of the free world,” then you should lead by example. True, there are many reasons why jihadis do what they do, but foremost among them is their theological orientation.

Plainly, the jihadi movement is now on steroids with the dramatic expansion of the “Islamic State”in Syria and Iraq, with dire consequences for the whole region. I applaud the coalition of British imams (“Imams Online”), representing Shias and Sunnis, who issued a 4-minute video strongly condemning the Islamic State and its tactics of terror. In fact, it seems that this crisis sparked the formation of the coalition in the first place. According to their website, “Senior British imams have come together to emphasize the importance of unity in the UK and to decree ISIS as an illegitimate, vicious group who do not represent Islam in any way.”

Make sure too to read this gut-wrenching piece of soul-searching by an American imam, "Lunacy in the Levant: Deconstructing the ISIS Crisis."

To sum up -- Justice demands the rule of law and the opportunity for all nations to continue the process of hammering out “international law” based on the respect for the “natural” (and I add, “God-given”) rights of all human beings. Yes, the United Nations organization does need reform so that all nations can feed into this process in a just manner. But one way or another we will have to work together to make sure that no group can drive people out of their cities and exterminate others, all in the name of religion. It’s our moral duty to struggle for justice, even until the end of time!