Reflecting on the Church's Response to the Islamic Justification for Violence

How shall the American Church respond to the violence of Islamic Radicalists?

Swords to PlowsharesThe recent images of the brutal murder of the British soldier Lee Rigby and of the Boston Marathon Bombing have been disturbing. We feel angry, anxious and fearful about Islamic extremism. The responding dialogue about these two incidents has focused on the very real fear of “lone wolf” Islamic extremist violence that, in many ways, is more dangerous than that of terrorist organizations. While I have no background in law enforcement, I would imagine that events like the ones mentioned above have already prompted a number of meetings in various precincts about the best way “preserve and protect” civil order.  It is clear to me those ongoing efforts to investigate suspected plots or individuals carry on behind the scenes with much credit to our law enforcement and the assistance from law abiding Muslim communities.  In some cases continued care of such activity needs to be monitored so that civil liberties are not easily brushed aside in favor of utilitarian ends. Psychologically, emotionally and spiritually it is simplest to accept easy answers and demonize an enemy.  Congressman Peter King of New York’s response to “beef up their surveillance” on American Muslims will only increase anger, anxiety, fear.  Refusal to recognize this threatens to take us down the ugly road that has so often led to communal scapegoating.

A common thread runs through the Boston, London, and the 2010 Times Square bombings. In all of these incidents, the criminals admitted that their actions were motivated by a perceived violence against innocent Muslims around the world (in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq, for example) that was sanctioned by sovereign nation states. It is clear that these violent extremists (let me call them by my preferred nomenclature of Islamic Radicalists) do not “hate us for our freedoms,” but are responding to particular or ongoing events they understand to be targeting Muslims.  It will do us no good to simply argue that Islam is a violent religion, originated by a terrorist, which will stop at nothing but world domination.  While such a view may make us feel better and more secure, it is negated for me by those Muslim friends or acquaintances who express their own anger, frustration, and views of such “crazy people”; and who articulate their own theology in very different ways.

These recent acts of violence and terror are certainly rooted in a religiously sanctioned view of Islam. But the Islamic justification for violence, in these events as well as those in the past, has not been rooted in a simplistic understanding of a clash of the “Dar al-Islam” versus “Dar al-Harb,” but rather, there has been a long history of debate about the justification for violence in the Muslim World. Muslims from all walks of life demonstrate a wide variety of interpretations and understandings of their faith and have quoted the Qur’an for justifications of violence and peace.

The “Sword Verses” (Q 9”5, 29, 73; and 2:190-2) have often been utilized to justify and explain contemporary Muslim violence. Muslim scholars who hold to such views will argue that the doctrine of “abrogation” leads them to believe that these passages are the “last words” on any matter of inter-communal relationships and are to be followed literally.  Of course, Muslim scholars have been debating the doctrine of “abrogation” (naskh) since the Classical Islamic era. There is no consensus (ijma‘) on such matters. Other scholars have argued that these verses were revealed at a specific time and are to be understood historically, and that the underlying principles of these passages can only be utilized through a means of analogy (qiyas).

The Hadith, or sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, are also widely quoted in justification of violence.  Yet, again, Muslim scholars have very little consensus on the value of many of the sayings and how they are to be understood in relationship with the Qur’an.  There is a very prominent argument currently going on among Muslim scholars over the primacy of the Qur’an over Hadith, and when and how Hadith are to be utilized.  The fact that one can now do a Hadith search on the internet to find quotes from Muhammad on practically any topic has led non-scholarly trained Muslims and non-Muslims to draw conclusions that many traditional scholars have criticized.

While violence in Islam is certainly permitted, historically there have been rules about how and when such violence is to be engaged.  It has not been a “free for all” against unbelievers. The Qur’an has clear prohibitions against the killing of innocents (Q  5:32; 60:8) and of suicide (Q 4:29-30). There are also Hadith that also provide such remonstrations.  Among most Radicalists, including Zayman al-Zawahiri (the spiritual head of al-Qaeda), the key verse that has been used to justify violence against the United States and its citizens has been 5:32.

“On that account: We ordained for the Children of Israel that if any one slew a person—unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land [fasādin fī al-arī]—It would be as if He slew the whole people: And if any one saved a life, It would be as if he saved the life of the whole people. Then although there came to them our Apostles with clear signs, yet, even after that, many of them continued to commit excesses (musrifūn) in the land” (5:32)

The argument has been that nations themselves can be guilty of “spreading mischief” and “committing excesses” in the world at the expense of others. We have heard the British Muslim Radicalist tell us that he acted because Muslims are being killed every day.  While I have no knowledge of his particular Qur’anic or legal rationale for his actions, it would not surprise me if a spiritual guide had provided these verses as justification.  The belief that the U.S., Britain, or other allies are “spreading mischief in the land” is common.

In the best case, the U.S. has an extremely severe PR problem about its role in the world.  In the worst case, the U.S. is guilty of illegal or questionable actions against various communities in the world – that it is a bully. The truth, of course, depending on the particular place and time, is always somewhere in between. Two simple examples will suffice. One the one hand, waterboarding and U.S. drone strikes have not only have pushed the envelope of ethical warfare, but have also increased anger over the perceived ability to act unilaterally against anyone, anywhere - at will without repercussions.  This certainly has been construed as “mischief” and “excess.”  On the other hand, the lack of serious American Studies programs at major universities in the Middle East has created a complete lack of awareness about American cultural values, the function of a robust civil society, and the role of various forms and levels of government (including city, county and state jurisdictions) that have nothing to do with American foreign policy. Most Muslim communities in the Middle East, however, only regularly experience America through the State Department or DoD.

The question in all of these complicating issues is an important one for the American Church. How are American Christians to respond, given that we follow the Prince of Peace who calls us to “pray for our enemies”? How are we to recognize the danger and reality of violence in the world, and yet to know that “all have sinned.” While the Peace Churches have always had a very consistent message in the face of international violence, their plowshares and pruning hooks have always been outnumbered by the rattling of swords and spears (Isa 2:4; Mic 4:3).  A significant cohort of American Evangelical Christians has been very public about their dispensational views of a God-blessed America that is “faithful and true” and will serve Christ upon his return (Rev. 19:11-13). Such messages are not lost on Muslim preachers around the world.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s social statement, “Peace in God’s World” provides helpful reminders that we are called to engage in this world as followers of Christ who are committed to responsible citizenship, justice, mercy and love, recognizing that the “powers” of the world often have other agendas – both short term and long term. Lutherans have never historically been pacifists.  This has allowed us to address the reality of the threat of violence and to be strategic and measured in our responses, recognizing the need for the state to do its job.  It has also allowed us to understand that we must constantly be on guard for reality of the abuse of power. Nevertheless, the Church has always had a role to speak for peace and justice for all peoples, especially in the face of blind nationalism or religious ideology.

How do we move forward? We can circle the wagons and protect ourselves at all costs, which will certainly only lead to further fear and suspicion at best, and acts of senseless violence at worst.  Or, we can look for opportunities to engage those who feel disenfranchised in discussions about our mutual futures.  No doubt, there will be some who will refuse such attempts. But, human conscience and God-given spiritual dispositions will win the majority, leading us all to surprising opportunities. American Muslim communities will have a wide variety of responses to these events and will look for different opportunities to find partners for the common good.  The question for the American Church is how and to whom will we respond as people of faith living in “God’s world”?