It is remarkable that some of the most critical concepts of Muslim religious terminology have now become part of the international language of current affairs. Questions drawn from Islamic theology are discussed freely by the world public, engaging specialists and non-specialists, Muslims and non-Muslims. Theological disputation has moved far from Islam’s religious academies.
For example, the term jihad, commonly translated as “holy war,” has become nearly ubiquitous. Though conceived in early Muslim history as a means of spreading God’s word, Muslim scholars today distinguish between two kinds of jihad – one being an internal struggle against temptation, and the other a physical conflict against an aggressor who threatens the survival or the fundamental rights of a Muslim community. In this context, there is widespread rejection of the fundamentalists’ use of the term.
Numerous Muslim scholars have raised their voices to challenge the terrorists’ defense of suicide bombings or attacks on civilians, offering long citations from centuries of religious jurisprudence. In itself, this approach represents a worthy expression of collective conscience in opposition to the terrorists.
But many among the public and in the media want more. Muslim intellectuals are being encouraged to press the religious argument against fundamentalist violence in order to deprive the terrorists of their most fearsome and potent arguments. If Muslim scholars can somehow disprove these arguments, it is thought, then the terrorists’ ability to sustain their violent underground will be reduced.
Is this right? A quick survey of the history of religious conflict shows that theological controversies have never been resolved by theological arguments. Looking more closely, one finds that while these controversies were often framed in religious terms, they were not at all about religion. The range of opposing interpretations of religious texts is virtually unlimited, and disputes are seldom resolved by rational argument.
In earlier times, such controversies were decided by political authorities, which used military force to impose one particular point of view at the expense of all others. Muslim history is full of such cases. Recently, when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, he found scholars who raised theological arguments on his behalf. The coalition confronting him had no difficulty finding religious arguments that led to precisely the opposite conclusion.
Today, it is clear that fundamentalists and their supporters are completely closed off to even the most elaborate theological refutation of their views, even when produced by distinguished religious authorities. The first reflex of the fundamentalists is to withdraw from the mainstream, to build around themselves a shell that is impervious to any logic other than their own.
The most essential questions that humans face today – those that engender the deepest conflicts – have nothing to do with theology. They concern disputes over territory, political power, definitions of rights, and distribution of wealth. The means of discussing these questions is known to all and is expressed in all religions and all languages. The evils most deeply resented – in all societies – are injustice, despotism, corruption, and poverty. We all understand what these mean, and how certain people must live with them on a daily basis.
Why, then, do we follow the fundamentalists to the very heart of their madness? Allowing them to frame these problems in religious terms legitimizes the perspective that they are attempting to impose, particularly in their own societies.It also allows them to camouflage their very worldly thirst for power.
Repeatedly, the Muslim religious establishment has been urged to issue statements denying fundamentalists the right to use religious terms like jihad. But experience has proven that this approach leads nowhere. In fact, debates about the use of religious terms lend credibility to fundamentalist efforts to apply these ideas to conditions in the modern world. Such debates concede that these religious concepts are generally valid, even when, as in the fundamentalists’ case, they simply do not apply.
As a result, the entire discussion could easily backfire. Invariably, fundamentalists dismiss religious critiques of their views as evidence that religious authorities have been corrupted by hostile influences. In this way, the terrorists oppose the “purity” and “authenticity” of their arguments to the compromises presumably forced upon religious establishments.
Speaking to Muslims exclusively in their own religious terms also excludes them from broad ethical frameworks that defend essential human values, most notably the protection of innocent civilians. These values are the foundation upon which all religious and cultural traditions rest.
To be sure, it is important to understand the discourse of those who are making war on societies – their own societies first and foremost. But adopting the terrorists’ interpretation of events conceals the reality of this conflict. Instead of fighting on behalf of political and religious liberty, we risk engaging in a conflict with the false images that the terrorists have created. Worse still, we would bring this conflict into our own societies, where different religious and cultural traditions are now inextricably mingled.
There is simply no need to look to theology to call a crime by its proper name. The revulsion provoked by the murder of innocents is deeply felt by all, and it is reprehensible by any standard, religious or not. It may even be that religious language does not adequately express the repulsion we all feel toward the terrorists’ actions. No feeling of victimhood can justify, under any conditions, such crimes against innocents, and no theology can accept the negation of the human essence that we all share.