How to Understand Jihad. . . . Oh, and, um, Evangelical Protestants

The article, a review, written by Malise Ruthven, of five works, is entitled “How to Understand Islam,” but it highlights varying interpretations of jihad and what behaviors are permissible in war. Ruthven writes, “The scholars who interpreted the Prophet’s teachings addressed issues such as the permissibility of using ‘hurling machines,’ or mangonels, where noncombatants including women and children, and Muslim captives or merchants, might be endangered. In the ‘realm of war’ outside the borders of Islam a certain military realism prevailed: for example the eighth-century jurist al-Shaybani (who died in 805) stated that if such methods were not permitted the Muslims would be unable to fight at all.”

“Military realism” is troubling, because it rationalizes all manner of atrocities, as we see in the Bush Administration’s “War on Terror,” but in Muslim history, “the truth of Islam was vindicated on the field of battle.” This leads to exceptionalism, also a feature of U.S. attitudes, that the god of Abraham is on the fighter’s side, that the fighter fights for that god, and therefore any crimes committed are in the name of that god, the ultimate and final judge. Sounding familiar?

But there’s more. “Full-blown democracy, where the Muslim voice might simply be one among many, implying a degree of moral equivalence between Islam and other perspectives, would be ‘dangerous, not only for the standing of the Muslim community, but for the moral life of humankind.'”

Since the god in which a vast amount of emotional energy has been invested appears to have said different things to the various individuals claiming to speak on his behalf, belief in the certainties held by one tradition necessarily excludes the others. This is especially so in the Abrahamic family of Western monotheisms, where confessions are deemed to be exclusive. In the mainstream, orthodox versions of these faiths, one cannot be a Muslim and a Christian, or a Christian and a Jew (although hybrid versions, such as “Jews for Jesus,” undoubtedly exist). In a globalized culture where religions are in daily contact with their competitors, denial of pluralism is a recipe for conflict.

Yet acceptance of pluralism relativizes truth. Once it is allowed that there are different paths to ultimate truth, an individual’s religious allegiance becomes a matter of personal choice, and choice is the enemy of the certainties that religions—especially monotheistic ones—are supposed to uphold. Fundamentalism is one contemporary response to the crisis of faith brought about by awareness of differences.

As Jesus supposedly said in John 14:6, “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” It is an extraordinarily intolerant, absolutist approach, that leads to an appearance that the forces fighting in the Middle East deserve each other; but the carnage they inflict does not discriminate between absolutists and those who would choose a greater tolerance. And Ruthven writes:

A famous hadith (tradition) of Muhammad states that differences of opinion between the learned is a blessing. Sharia reasoning is therefore “an open practice.” In Islam’s classical era, up until the tenth century, scholars exercised ijtihad—independent reasoning—in order to reach an understanding of the divine law. Ijtihad shares the same Arabic root as the more familiar jihad, meaning “effort” or “struggle,” the word that is sometimes translated as “holy war.” Ijtihad is in effect the intellectual struggle to discover what the law ought to be. As Kelsay remarks, the legal scholars trained in its sources and methodologies will seek to achieve a balance between the rulings of their predecessors and independent judgments reflecting the idea that “changing circumstances require fresh wisdom.” The Sharia is not so much a body of law but a field of discourse or platform for legal reasoning. Recently, it has become an arena for intellectual combat. . . .

Outside the ranks of a small intellectual elite, the theological obstacles to dialogue are indeed formidable. In the ninth century the caliph al-Ma’mun and his immediate successors tried, and eventually failed, to impose as orthodoxy the belief that the Koran had been created in time (with the implication that its teachings might be contingent and time-specific). In reaction to this policy the majority Sunni tradition espoused an antirationalist theology that holds the Koran to be “uncreated” or co-eternal with God. In consequence the extraordinary veneration of the Koran has dominated Muslim religious thought and popular culture for more than a millennium.

Whereas historical criticism of the Bible has been accepted by most Protestants (except for fundamentalist die-hards) as well as by Reform Judaism and, belatedly, by the Catholic Church (following the Second Vatican Council of 1962–1965), “higher criticism” of the Koran has yet to take root despite the impressive achievements of individual scholars such as the late Fazlur Rahman, Mohammed Arkoun, and Farid Esack (all of whom work, or have worked, in Western universities). For [Hans] Küng,

It can only help Islamic faith if Islamic scholars begin to tackle the historical problems. This can still be dangerous for a Muslim today, just as a heterodox view was for a Catholic at the height of the Inquisition or for a liberal Protestant in Calvin’s Geneva.

But this focus actually dismisses the role of Christian “fundamentalist die-hards” who now control the White House, and fails to address the appeal that fundamentalism continues to hold for a significant portion of the population, not just among Muslims, but among evangelical Protestants in the United States, and Orthodox Jews in Israel. Ruthven narrowly focuses on what Islam needs to do, writing:

The problems do not lie in the realm of theology, where Muslim intellectuals have charted retreats from the received certainties of the medieval paradigm that are just as ingenious and (for true believers) just as plausible as the efforts of Western theologians. The obstacle lies rather in the absence, in the majority traditions, of structures of leadership through which reformist ideas can be effected at the popular level.

Yet this resembles the attitude that Karen Hughes, Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy, took to the Middle East on a 2005 trip to improve U.S. image. “‘I am here to listen and to learn and to work to strengthen the relationship and close partnership between our two countries,’ Ms. Hughes declared in Turkey,” where “American officials have not only had to defend the Iraq war but also to counter erroneous press reports of large numbers of rapes of Iraqi women by Americans. Earlier this year, many papers reported that the tsunami in Asia last December was caused by an American undersea nuclear explosion.”

A study two years ago by a panel led by Edward P. Djerejian, a retired diplomat, indicated that anti-American sentiments around the world had risen to alarming levels. Mr. Djerejian said recently that 80 percent of the hostility derived from American policies, especially on Israel, Iraq, the treatment of Iraqi prisoners by Americans at Abu Ghraib prison and the detention of people captured by the Americans at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

“Karen understands that ‘it’s the policies, stupid,'” Mr. Djerejian said in a recent interview. But the other 20 percent, he said, could be addressed by a sophisticated media strategy that Ms. Hughes should be able to provide.

To state the obvious, the policies have not changed; we are still in Iraq, we rattle our sabers at Iran, and we continue to sustain Israel.

[Hughes] addressed several policies, but in concise sound bites rather than sustained arguments. In American campaigns, such messages repeated over and over can have an effect because a presidential candidate dominates the news with every statement he makes, and if that fails to work, money can be poured into saturation advertising. . . . But Ms. Hughes made it plain that “public diplomacy” was not a one-trip exercise and that she would continue to travel around the world, hone her message and show that the United States was capable of listening — and to urge State Department officials to think in those terms as well.

Hughes’ role is not to change policy, but to advocate existing policy, as if that message could be injected into Arab publics in the old “hypodermic needle” paradigm of media effects. Even the old linear communication model includes a channel for feedback, but messages here travel only in one direction; Hughes’ “listening” is without substantive effect. Her message–and any like it–fails to address a sense of secular values as corrupting values and fails to carry the legitimacy that could only come from a meaningful response to Arab grievances. It is exactly the sort of message we would expect from one set of fundamentalists to another, even as the killing continues.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.