Mbaye Lo: Freedom vs. Justice —The Problem with Islamic Militancy

[ 0 ] November 14, 2012

by MBAYE LO for ISLAMiCommentary on NOVEMBER 14, 2012:

“One side argues from a perspective of freedom and mercy, as is the case with the academics, while the militants argue from the perspective of what they consider justice. The extreme diligence in pursuit of each set of values would violate the entirety of the other.” — Mbaye Lo

The response of academics and Muslims religious groups to the blowback generated by the film the “Innocence of Muslims” this past September — in the form of violent protests across the Muslim world — is the latest example of a clear disconnect in our attempts to address the problem of Islamic militancy, and warrants a clear retrospective analysis.

Most liberal academics and American Muslim religious groups tend to be apologetic about the behavior of citizens-turned-militants, rather than constructively engaging the militants’ arguments.

Meanwhile the militants themselves tend to monopolize the discussion. Thus, when one examines the discourse surrounding Islamic militancy, one finds a dialogue of the deaf or a conversation of indifference, in which the optimal goals of the participants are self-serving — monopolizing the discussion on “belief” based on a narrow interpretation of Scripture for the militants, and public relations for the academics.

There are two major claims that are consistently advanced by US-based stakeholders: 1) Islam is a peaceful religion and 2) the militants constitute a minority among Muslims. These claims  — in the face of the numerous instances of violence associated with Islamic militancy — are simply not adequate. They are not the ammunition that academics and American Muslim religious groups need in the face of a rising tide of right-wing fervor on the part of both the Muslim jihadists and the Religious Right. The frailty of these arguments serves to reinforce the very stereotype that we, as academics, are trying to uproot.

The claim of Islam’s peaceful nature is too broad to differentiate it (Islam) from other religions that profess and promise peaceful salvation of the human soul. Whether it is the three Abrahamic traditions (Judaism, Christianity or Islam), the approximately 21 religious communities in existence today, or the lesser known religions or religious movements, religion universally claims to be spiritually peaceful and socially passive.

So why do we cling to this simplistic claim?

We cling to it because it is a politically correct and intellectually comforting response to popular demand for answers to the questions “What is Islam? And what do Muslim want?” This is most evident in the manner in which leading umbrella Muslim organizations in North America responded to the violent protests in reaction to the “Innocence of Muslims” in September. Organizations such as the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), and the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA), as well as many other Muslim organizations each had to come up with a  quick press-release basically condemning the violence and dissociating the perpetrators from the fold of Islam.

In crafting the releases, they surely asked themselves: Are we mending our image for public relations? Clearly we are.  But are we engaging in formulating a durable policy to tackle the problems, or engaging the militants on their own ideological turf? Sadly, the answer to the latter must have been a resounding “No”.

An assessment of the claim that the perpetrators of the violence were a minority among Muslims, is not persuasive, as it is based solely on numbers as a proportion of the group, and not based on the merits of the argument.

In democracies as well as in autocracies it is often the few who shape the path of political action. This is the grounds for James Madison’s fear of the “Tyranny of Democracy.” Indeed, Madison was more concerned with the rights of the minority than the magnitude of the majority. In John Dalberg-Acton’s words, the evil of democracy is the tyranny of “party, not always the majority.”

Since the majority is typically represented by a few, whether in the form of a party or an individual, its right to rule is theoretically diminished by its size in comparison to the opposing minority.

Thus one can argue that decision-makers, whether elected or appointed, are often a minority relative to the total population.

Democracy does not mandate the will of all individuals, only those who are eligible and willing to have a say in the decisions that affect their lives. Therefore, in most observed democracies, the decision-makers constitute a minority when compared to the total population of country. In the US a little over 62 million people elected Obama this year out of more than 300 million Americans, and in Egypt about 13 million people elected Muhammad Morsi out of 85 million Egyptians.

For that reason, I suspect that the logic of the Jihadi militants is not marred by the alleged disadvantage of being ‘small’ in size, just as the elected ‘minority’ in the Washington or in Cairo is not delegitimized by the fact that they do not account for a majority of the population. One might argue that the latter group is legitimized by the fact that they represent the majority of the electorate. The problem with that claim is two-fold: first, the proportion by which they are a minority relative to the total population remains significant, and second, many leaders in this part of the Islamic world are not democratically elected by the people.

A critique of the US-based academics’ and Muslim American organizations’ take on the militants is not, by any means, meant to signify acceptance of the militants’ use of violence. Rather, it reflects the need to seriously re-examine the militants’ ideological reference points.

As President Obama said in his latest remarks to the 2012 United Nations General Assembly “If we are serious about those ideals, we must speak honestly about the deeper causes of this crisis.”

Therefore, we must ask, what is the argument of the militants?

The argument of the militants is that the concept of Salam/peace in Islam is conditional on the perpetuation of peace between all parties, and that violence perpetrated by the militants is justified by the U.S military’s use of violence.  This is the main argument in the list of claims that one finds in Bin Laden’s two major fatwa’s of Jihad—the Declaration of Jihad in 1996 and the World Islamic Front for Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders in 1998, as well what can be found in (current leader of al Qaeda) Ayman Al-Zawahiri ‘s ongoing tirade in cyberspace.

Two months before his death in a US drone attack in Pakistan, Abu Yahya al Libi, the former second-in-command in al Qaeda, catalogued a list of the militants’ justifications for violence against the US. His speech, the U.S. Army and the moralities of wars lists as examples: US soldiers’ urinating on dead Taliban fighters; U.S. soldiers burning the Qur’an; Staff Sergeant Robert Bales killing 17 innocent Afghans; and U.S. drone strikes killing wedding attendees and other civilians in the tribal areas of Pakistan.

Is it possible that there is some merit to the militants’ central argument for justice?

Given Islam’s discursive tradition of peace, and the criticality of justice in contributing to a durable peace, denouncing the militants’ claim categorically might not serve us in finding a sustainable resolution to the ongoing conflicts between the U.S. and militant Islam. Furthermore, such categorical denial has long proven to be the Achilles’ heel in the moral standing of Muslim liberals at home and abroad. This explains why in most cases, Muslim countries — from Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Egypt, and Mali to Libya — tend to associate militant violence with ‘foreigners.’ In the latest case of Libya, according to a report by El Khabar newspaper in Algeria, the president of Libya’s Parliament, Mohamed al-Magariaf, did not hesitate to depict the extremists threatening peace in the country and killing the U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens as “a small number of foreigners [who] entered Libya from different places, and certainly they came from Mali and Algeria.”

What would Mohammad do?

Let’s compare how some academics and how some militants formulate their arguments about what the Prophet Muhammad would have done in a given situation. Both groups draw on Islamic tradition to support their claim. Both groups use prophetic sayings to elucidate their righteous vision. Both groups are able to cite Qur’anic verses in support of their claims.

Perhaps we should look beyond their arguments to admit that we do not know exactly what Prophet Muhammad would do, and should draw on the noble messages of Islam to encourage what is good for all. That would not diminish the standing of Islam.

There are two causes for the gap. First, there is a philosophical problem; the debating sides are tapping into moral values that are equally good, but at the same time irreconcilable in human behavior. One side argues from a perspective of freedom and mercy, as is the case with the academics, while the militants argue from the perspective of what they consider justice. The extreme diligence in pursuit of each set of values would violate the entirety of the other.

Second, the prophetic tradition is crammed with examples in which the pendulum continuously swings between justice and mercy. Earlier historians (referenced in the most authentic traditional biography of Muhammad, Ibn Hisham’s Al-Sira al-Nabawiyyah) talked bout Ka’b ibn al-Ashraf, a non-Muslim poet of Arab and Jewish background, who satirized Prophet Muhammad while eulogizing the pagan Arabs (with whom the Prophet was at war), which prompted the Prophet to encourage his companions to execute Ka’b. How do Muslim scholars interpret the killing of Ka’b ibn al Ashraf? While some consider his case as exceptional, representing the case of an enemy of the state, many Muslim scholars —including Imam Khomeini’s view on Salman Rushdie to current militant groups’ postures — have continuously cited the case as a precedent for their approach to dealing with any offensive comments about the Prophet of Islam.

The widespread difference of opinion among Muslims as to how the prophet’s image should be projected, which is equally respected, problematizes any ideological debate with the militant. Because this is a grey area in the Islamic tradition, it is imperative to talk to the militants on a case-by-case basis about the evidence they are using to support their claims. This is certainly not the place for an open-ended discussion of the meaning of Islam.

Depiction of the U.S. Role in the “Innocence of Muslims”

Let’s start with an investigation of how and why the militants depicted the US as the central problem with the anti-Prophet-Muhammad “Innocence of Muslims” film trailer on YouTube.

Muhammad al-Zawahiri (the brother of current leader of al Qaeda Ayman al-Zawahiri and a former member of Tanzeem alJihad) was one of the participants in the protest at the U.S. Embassy compound in Cairo on September 11, 2012. That day, he called for the escalation of the protest, claiming that the “U.S. Ambassador’s apology is not enough as long as there is no reaction from the U.S. government, arresting the [film] makers and putting them to trial…”

Is the film the real root cause of the latest violence as it appears in Al-Zawahiri and other militants’ claims?

We have witnessed two types of protests against the film: violent ones, such as this one in Cairo, Tunisia, Pakistan, Yemen and Libya, and peaceful ones, which was the most common type in the Muslim streets. The first violent chain of protests, in which the US embassies were attacked and Chris Stevens, the US ambassador to Libya, was killed, were largely led by militant groups, particularly during the first day in Egypt and Libya, where the flags of al Qaeda replaced that of the United States. Other protests by many Muslims across the globe were generally peaceful and indifferent to US symbols.

However, the view that that particular YouTube film was the cause of the violence (and by association that the U.S. was the root cause of problem) and that Muslim rage was the response is simply false. There are hundreds of ”Prophet Muhammad films” on YouTube. Some are similarly graphic and vitriolic in their Islamophobic content as is the Innocence of Muslims’ film.  A YouTube search of “Prophet Muhammad film” will reveal hundreds of results. If we analyze the first 100 results, they break down along the following lines: 70 negative, about 12 positive, 5 neutral and 13 mixed reviews. Some are more than four years old, but most are recent and in English or subtitled in English.

If this particular film was not the first in terms of its content, nor rare in terms of its slanderous disrespect of the Muslim Prophet, it could not possibly be the axis of the problem as the militants claim.

If my analysis above is correct, then the film was just a convenient excuse for the militants’ anger towards the U.S., and a reflection of an existing crisis of confidence between the parties. It is no coincidence that many protesters in the Arab world, including in Kuwait (a strategic ally of the U.S) were shouting “Obama we are all Osama,” nor should it be worrisome that the flag of al Qaeda has become the flag of choice flown by protestors angry with the United States.

The second claim by militants seems to be the most persistent, as articulated in al Libi’s final speech: the militant’s claim of justice. Indeed, the conflict is also fought on moral grounds including testing the democratic values that the U.S. champions. President Bush’s War on Terror and President Obama’s use of drones, have taken justice beyond the limits of customary laws and outside the judicial process. The superiority of US military hardware over its militant adversaries is unparalleled in the battlefield.

Unfortunately, there exists a clear confrontation between the United States and many militant groups that are associated with the religion of Islam. Despite our eagerness to dismiss the clash of cultures argument, the might of U.S. military, intelligence, and hardware has, since the Vietnam War, been used disproportionately in the Islamic world, especially in the Middle East. Since the U.S. landing in Normandy, France (1945), the Korean War (1950-3), and Vietnam (1964-1973), U.S. military interventions have also included the Iran hostage crisis (1980), the bombing of Libya (1986), Somalia Operation Restore Hope (1991), the invasion of and presence in Afghanistan (2001-present), and the invasion of Iraq (1991, 2003-present). Targeted drone strikes continue in Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan.

Instead of claiming “Muslim’s innocence” every time there’s a U.S.-related problem in Muslim societies, we should look at what motivates their reactions. The U.S. should not only preach its own concept of justice, but apply its own values in the conflict with the militant jihadis.

Most academics as well as Muslim American organizations have been reluctant to call on the U.S. to revise its conduct in the war, including bringing an end to unjust “death by remote control” drone strikes.

Can the US win over its adversaries through military means? Yes. Is the US winning the hearts and minds of Muslims abroad ? No. Is the US setting a positive example in the conduct of war for the rest of the world, including the militants? No. No one can justifiably defend the failed and erroneous vision of the militant jihadists, but until one can defend the US’s application of justice in its conflict with these adversaries, a dialogue of the deaf will continue to characterize our conversation with and about Islamic militancy.

Mbaye Lo is Assistant Professor of the Practice, Asian & Middle Eastern Studies and Professor of Arabic at Duke University, and a Duke Islamic Studies Center affiliated (DISC) faculty member. Lo’s research interests include the sociology of Islam, and theories of civil society. He is currently teaching a course on the roots of al Qaeda’s terrorism, and published a book in 2009 titled “Understanding the Muslim Discourse: Language, Tradition and the Message of Bin Laden.” The essay above is excerpted from his current manuscript in-progress titled “The Geography of 9/11.”

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