In an earlier column I wrote about how difficult it was to be a modern Muslim in South Africa, with so much of my faith being misunderstood by followers and others alike. The events of last weekend in Kenya, perpetrated by people claiming to do God’s work, makes such challenges even more difficult.
The terrorists who killed innocent people in the name of Islam at the Westgate Shopping Centre are an abomination. I am prepared to say with much conviction that they do not represent the precepts of my faith; their actions are a perversion of the spirit of peace and tolerance of which Islam is composed. I’d even go so far as to question their worthiness to call themselves Muslims at all.
I say this because Islam’s very meaning and etymological root is salam, or peace, which these terrorists and all of their kind have forgotten. The god in whose name they committed their atrocities is not my God, or the God of all peace-loving peoples. Their god is Anarchy, and the only message they know is how to destroy, not how to create.
Since 9/11 it seems everyone is an expert on the perils of Islam and Islamic fundamentalism and the dangers of sharia-law. The actions of a motley collection of misguided acolytes, radicalised loons and social outcasts in the days since have hardly helped in facilitating a shift of this narrative.
All too often the actions of this anarchic fringe have helped cement the narrative that Islam is intolerant, medieval and barbaric; that it seeks to rid the world of infidels and return it to the 7th century. And if we Muslims are honest with ourselves, the actions of many purportedly Islamic governments have strengthened this assertion.
Woe to all of us if the medieval Wahhabi dogma of Saudi Arabia spreads to other parts of the world. (If it did, I and many other Muslims would probably have our hands lopped off for writing such pieces.)
All I can offer in defence to the unconvinced is to reassert that the vast, vast majority of the 1.6-billion people who follow the faith of Islam do so every day with a spirit that does not covet violence.
They do so with a backbone that prizes iman, or peaceful faith, and ehsaan, public ethics. They live their lives without a feeling of having a monopoly on God compared to people of other faiths. Hundreds of millions of them live under non-Muslim or secular governments – in India, the United Kingdom, the United States, Turkey, Malaysia and South Africa, to name a few – and yet do not see themselves as being in a permanent state of conflict with their “infidel” governments.
The majority remember and live by the injunction of Surah 5 of the Quran, which says, “Whoever killeth a human being, it shall be as if he had killed all mankind; and whoso saveth the life of one, it shall be as if he had saved the life of all mankind.”
From childhood we are taught another verse in which the Prophet Muhammad comforts people of other faiths by saying, “You are allowed your own moral code, while I am allowed mine – there is no compunction in religion.”
Many people have asked me if there is a single distinction of belief that can be made between these two sets of Muslim majority and tiny, violent minority. I’m sure others have a different take on it, but for me the chief difference between the two is that while the majority see their religion as a basis of personal faith, the minority view it as a demarcator of difference and superiority – and are prepared to kill for it. But I stress, this is a small minority.
I suspect though, that for many this does not go far enough. Many will ask: If Islam truly is a religion of peace and tolerance, why then are attacks like al-Shabaab happening so frequently, and with such few signs of abatement?
If Muslims of the true faith insist that the killings of innocents is prohibited within Islam, why then is the exhortation of jihad as a holy war against non-believers such a commonly used tactic of the last decade by those purporting to be practicing Islamic beliefs?
It’s a valid line of questioning, and deserves an appropriate response. The academic Ayesha Jalal, a foremost expert on the subject of jihad, ethics and identity in South Eastern Asia, feels that “few concepts have been subjected to more consistent distortion that the Arabic word “jihad”, whose literal meaning is “striving for a worthy and ennobling cause, but which is commonly thought of today to mean ‘holy war’ against non-Muslims”.
This distortion stems from an insistence by non-mainstream radicals on defining the term as such, which Jalal views as a “hopeless distortion of a concept that is the core principle of Islamic faith and ethics”.
For many of the pundits and instant commentators to whom I previously alluded, there seems to be scant understanding of the distinction between the religion of Islam on the one hand, and political Islam on the other. Understanding the distinction is crucial.
The first concept is concerned with spiritual affairs, as well as man’s personal striving and ethical conduct in this world. Here, the concept of jihad as defined by the Quran (and in the conduct of the Prophet) is of personal striving either for one’s own ethics, or for the collective well being of a community. Under this original, core version jihad has little to do with violence and far more to do with personal or social development. (Incidentally, the first time Muhammad used the word in action was in an agreement between the different tribes and religious communities in the city to which he had migrated, Medina, an agreement which spoke of “striving” for the collective well being of the entire community of Muslims, Jews and Christians alike. For the Prophet in this example, community was more important that any one individual faith. This seems to be an overlooked fact today.)
The second concept – that of political Islam – is very different and seems to have eclipsed the former in prominence in many commentators’ minds. The concept of political Islam is what chiefly drives temporal Muslim rulers in their objective of power and influence. In this, Osama bin Laden is no different from the Saudi Arabian king, or Saddam Hussain, or al-Shabaab in Kenya.
For all of them, the concept of jihad has been a pliable instrument, which they’ve perverted to persuade others to fight for them in order to cement their own power. Faith, ethics and self-growth do not come into it. As Jalal comments, “The religion of Islam has been shorn of its inner dimensions and reduced to a perpetual holy war”.
In the case of al-Shabaab, for example, while they may proclaim that their intention is to rid the world of non-believers, in reality their main aim is to gain political power in the Horn of Africa. Religion is simply a means to acquire it and a cloak to hide their true intentions.
So, this is my final defence in the face of terrorism committed in the name of Islam. Acts of Islamic terrorism represent acts of violent expression in the name of political Islam, which has nothing to do with the faith itself.
It is our misfortune today to be saddled with Muslim leaders throughout the world, leaders of countries like Syria and Saudi Arabia, but also leaders of organisations like al-Qaeda or al-Shabaab, whose only interest is on leveraging personal power for their own interests, and who are willing to manipulate their religion to do so. This will eventually change, but until then the world will continue to be plagued by acts of violent terror or brutal repression done on their behalf.
In the months ahead there will doubtless be several more incidents that will continue to result in the same questions being posed of Muslims and of their faith. In light of this, I think it is only reasonable for more and more South African Muslims and groups to publically proclaim their revulsion to acts of terror, as the Jamiatul Ulema of SA have done, and to show through their actions that they remain active citizens committed to the development of their country.
But at the same time, I also think it important for non-Muslims to be able to distinguish between the manipulations of power-mad despots on the one hand, and the peaceful principles of the religion itself on the other. The onus lies with all of us. DM
"Don't tell me the sky's the limit when there are footprints on the moon." ~ Paul Brandt