Ian G Anderson : The Anti-Terror Fatwa and Religious Arguments for Non-Violence

March 5, 2010 at 9:26 PM

Al Jazeera reports that on Tuesday, an Islamic scholar issued a fatwa against terrorism:

Muhammad Tahir ul-Qadri, head of the Minhaj ul-Quran religious and educational organisation, said suicide bombers were destined for hell as he released his 600-page edict in London on Tuesday.

“They can’t claim that their suicide bombings are martyrdom operations and that they become the heroes of the Muslim Umma [the wider Muslim community], no, they become heroes of hellfire, and they are leading towards hellfire,” he said.

“There is no place for any martyrdom and their act is never, ever to be considered Jihad,” he said.

‘No place in Islam’

At a news conference, ul-Qadri said Islam was a religion of peace that promotes beauty, “betterment”, goodness and “negates all form of mischief and strife”.

“Terrorism is terrorism, violence is violence and it has no place in Islamic teaching and no justification can be provided for it, or any kind of excuses or ifs or buts,” he said.

A number of edicts condemning extremism have been made by Islamic groups since the September 11 attacks on the United States, but ul-Qadri insists his is the most wide-reaching.

“This is the first, most comprehensive fatwa on the subject of terrorism ever written,” he told the Reuters news agency.

“I have tried to leave not a single stone unturned on this particular subject and I have tried to address every single question relevant to this subject.”

Pakistan-born ul-Qadri, 59, has written about 350 books on Islam, and is a scholar of Sufism, a Muslim branch that focuses on peace, tolerance, and moderation.

The cleric is correct in that Islamic principles, if honestly read, would lead one to a peaceful outlook. The same is true for any mainstream religious doctrine: Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims alike cannot claim in good faith to have been motivated by the principles of their chosen faith to cheat, steal, or murder.

Even a cursory reading of the Bible, for example, reveals Christ’s magnanimous character.

Why then is the religious right in the U.S., enamored with cheating, stealing, and murdering, far more potent than the religious left? Why is it that religion seems to facilitate regressive behavior far more often than it facilitates progressive behavior, if its central character exhorts its follows thusly: “Let everyone who possesses two shirts share with him who has none, and let him who has food do likewise” (Luke: 3; 11)?

Tellingly (and this fact illustrates the drawback of religious arguments for the principles of non-violence), ul-Qadri relies on the threat of violence–the punishment of hell–in order to deter violence.

Here is where religion fails: because it does not rely upon a rational or logical argument for non-violence, it must fall back upon the irrational, which is itself a form of violence. To argue for any principle without according listeners the bare respect of acknowledging their intelligence is to practice a form violence against them. As I write in God and Whose Army?,

Religion cannot lead to bona fide humanitarian social change for the same reason that non-defensive violence cannot–the use of either as rationale for altering the course of society besmirches the movement at the onset and constitutes a significant divergence from humanitarian ideals. Utilizing one’s religion as a rationale for instating change in the lives of others, whether or not it is ultimately beneficial to them from the perspective of a leftist atheist, is intolerant at its heart–so any socializing movements which cite religion as their motivation are socializing only accidentally, not by design. Insofar as secular movements become similar to religions, they too are often easily corrupted by slavering adherents (state communism in the U.S.S.R. did not merely outlaw religion, it often replaced it), so it is in any liberal reformer’s best interest to avoid even a slight association.

In light of this, a recent study by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs should be perplexing:

American foreign policy is handicapped by a narrow, ill-informed and “uncompromising Western secularism” that feeds religious extremism, threatens traditional cultures and fails to encourage religious groups that promote peace and human rights, according to a two-year study by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

The council’s 32-member task force, which included former government officials and scholars representing all major faiths, delivered its report to the White House on Tuesday. The report warns of a serious “capabilities gap” and recommends that President Obama make religion “an integral part of our foreign policy.”

Thomas Wright, the council’s executive director of studies, said task force members met Tuesday with Joshua DuBois, head of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, and State Department officials. “They were very receptive, and they said that there is a lot of overlap between the task force’s report and the work they have been doing on this same issue,” Wright said.

DuBois declined to comment on the report but wrote on his White House blog Tuesday: “The Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnership and the National Security Staff are working with agencies across government to analyze the ways the U.S. government engages key non-governmental actors, including religious institutions, around the globe.”

As proponents of religion often do, this study misses the forest for the trees: it is not the secularism of our foreign policy (such as it is) which impedes us, but its ignorance and imperialistic nature. What good does it do to better relate to the subjects of that foreign policy, if they are not to be respected and treated as equals? So long as the U.S. remains preoccupied with reinforcing international capitalism, religiosity is irrelevant; our lack of understanding isn’t what angers the world, but our lack of caring, and closing the “god gap” is tantamount to little more than lip service. We must first close the “humanitarian gap” before we can relate to others as fellow human beings, whether on a religious level or secular.

Likewise, what is to be gained by engaging others via religious argument, which is unproductive within faiths and essentially impossible between them? As an illustration, see “Biblical Prophecy and Christian Zionism” by Gary Leupp (2005), a scriptural argument against Evangelical support for Zionism. Leupp effectively illustrates that the case for Zionism is weak within the Bible, but concludes with the following hedge:

Belief in Biblical prophecy surely provides hope and comfort for the believer, and I take no pleasure in attempting to subvert humble faith. But the belief in prophecy that justifies imperialist aggression, especially when joined to bull-headed support for an ignorant president who pompously fancies himself a “religious scholar” is frightening. More frightening than the beliefs that led Japanese religious fanatics to try to usher in the End Times by releasing sarin gas in the Tokyo subway ten years ago. One can’t just shrug these off as the eccentric beliefs of a few gullible fools. They are powerful delusions wielded—as weapons of mass, apocalyptic destruction—by growing movements of highly motivated people. They have to be challenged, among other ways, by patient logic.

Patient logic? Where is the logic in Leupp’s distinction between “humble faith” and “eccentric beliefs,” when both are equally based upon mysticism? Whether or not a strict reading of the Bible favors humble faith over eccentric beliefs (as Christianity favors charity over avarice) is a fact rendered moot by the starting concession: that one can justify any sort of real-world action or position through religious thought. To condemn terrorism via the Koran is to forget that extremists are not motivated purely by the Koran, but by an ad hoc religious orientation which is influenced by the Koran but not necessarily entirely dictated by any particular cleric’s reading of it. Indeed, according to the Al Jazeera article,

Tim Winter, a lecturer in Islamic studies at Cambridge University, said while ul-Qadri’s step of declaring “miscreants as unbelievers” was unusual, it was unlikely extremists would take notice of his edict.

“Those who are already hardliners will pay no attention at all. But ’swing voters’ – poorly educated and angry Muslims, who respect mainstream scholars, will probably take note,” he told Reuters.

The reason for this is simple: all religious individuals can only guess what god was really thinking. Perhaps the text is flawed, commonly misunderstood, or improperly emphasized in certain sections. No Christian can claim to live up to Christ’s standard all of the time–so the individual must ultimately judge what religion means to him or her. Much like most modern Christians have left certain parts of the Bible behind, modern Islamic extremists have chosen to emphasize a different conception of Islam which cannot be judged (recall that the religious must leave rationality at the door) to be less authentic than any other form. Indeed, perhaps Allah smiles upon suicide bombers–because god is inscrutable, there is no way to know who is correct.

Therein lies the source of the profound danger posed by religion. As I conclude in God and Whose Army?, this existential uncertainty is an ill fit with human morality:

In “Stories of War and Peace: Sacred, Secular and Holy,” Darrell J. Fasching writes of the initial crises of conscience experienced by Nazi doctors who were tasked to perform actions in clear violation of medical (and human) ethics, as part of his dissection of the use of religious and mythological rhetoric in the service of so-called holy wars. He writes that the doctors’ hesitance generally lasted but two weeks, a remarkably short period given the wide gulf between the sort of behavior one promises as a registered physician and that which is required in the supervision of selections at a concentration camp. He cites an earlier study by Robert Jay Lifton which found that two critical factors–”a biomedical narrative that enabled them to think of killing as a form of healing and a psychological process of ‘doubling’ which enabled them to disown their own actions”–resulted in the alacrity of the doctors’ transformation. The former rationalization was found in the Aryan mythological view of Jews as disease-carriers who threaten the racial health of the collective German body; the latter “doubling” was encouraged via the military command structure of Nazi Germany. Fasching imagines what a typical doctor’s internal monologue may have been:

When I go to work I surrender myself in total unquestioning obedience to some higher authority who is in a better position than I to know what I ought to do. Therefore, in my professional role it is not I but this authority who is acting through me and I am not responsible for what I do. Consequently I can go home every evening and be loving and compassionate to my family and neighbors and go off to the camps the next day and continue the mass exterminations with a good conscience.

The roots of this sort of rationalization can be traced back to Martin Luther, who in addition to being a vocal anti-Semite argued for the compartmentalization of the ethical self which was later used to justify Nazi atrocities: he maintained that an executioner need not perform penance after carrying out a death sentence, because the executioner was not acting under his or her own volition, but rather that of the state, which in turn was acting under God’s authority. The easy replacement of religion with morality in Luther’s argument provides a ready-made rationalization for the commission of atrocities. Religion is thus the low road precisely because it claims to be the highest road, a ready-made unachievable standard by which to compare (and conflate) all lesser thoughts and actions.

Source : http://ianganderson.wordpress.com/2010/03/05/the-anti-terror-fatwa-and-religious-arguments-for-non-violence/