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Last Updated: 12/01/2005
Islam: Fighting the Darkness Within
Mohammed Abu-Nimer

The November 27th kidnapping of four members of Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT)—Tom Fox (54), of the United States, Norman Kember (74) of Great Britain, and James Lonely (41) and Hameet Singh Sooden (32) of Canada—who were working in Iraq in solidarity with the Iraqi people is another sad reminder of the severity and danger facing the Muslim and Arab world if continues to tolerate those “elements” or forces of darkness operating from within.

As a Muslim, scholar of Islam, and practitioner of conflict resolution and inter-cultural dialogue, I find one of the most appalling and frightening aspects of the recent kidnapping the fact that such acts have become an accepted operating principle for so-called “resistance groups” in Iraq and elsewhere in the Muslim and Arab world. Attacking and terrorizing civilians, human rights advocates, relief workers, and peace advocates has never been an Islamic way of resisting occupation or fighting oppression.

In the past decade, many books, articles, and studies have been published by Muslims and non-Muslims that systematically explain and document that foundational Islamic teachings have never prescribed such blind, shameful, and undignified ways of fighting injustice. Scholars have tried to remind Muslims and non-Muslims alike that the primary message, strategies, and values of Islam have been based on peace, achieving justice through nonviolent means, and the extremely limited use of force. Especially in the period of Islam’s early formation, Muslim religious thinkers –Faqih and Imams—spent centuries defining the strict conditions under which force can be used, hoping that their effort would restrict and reduce violence. Recent Muslim scholars as well s peace and justice activists have sought to revive such work, including: Iqbal Ahmed, Abdul Ghaffar Khan, Jawdat Said, Sathan Anand, Khalis Jalabi, Abdul Aziz Said, Khalid Kishtainy, etc. These writings offer systematic interpretations based on authentic Quranic and Hadith sources, and the authors’ analysis and attention to textual nuance leaves no doubt that there is no religious justification within Islam for brutal and ruthless actions like beheading, randomly attacking Mosques, or terrorizing civilians of any nationality.

I have been one of those who have written about Islam and peace for the past decade; however, my work in this area has been accompanied by constant frustration and challenge. Offering cultural and religious bases for and interpretations of peace and nonviolent resistance, writing academic books, and conducting international conferences has proven to be a limited strategy in confronting this “evil force” in the Muslim and Arab world. These peaceful and academic gatherings are often aimed at the Western public and policy makers, to convince them that Islam is a religion of peace and is founded on the principles of pluralism and democracy. Such conferences hope to convince their audiences that such principles are not foreign to Islam (contrary to popular belief), but are integral and prescribed principles and practices.

Although this work is important and can possibly contribute to a reduction in prejudice and negative stereotypes directed at Muslims in Western public opinion, it seems to be based in the assumption that changing US and European foreign policy towards Muslim and Arab countries is the proper first step in confronting “evil” Muslim forces in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, Indonesia, and Algeria. I think that this belief is an illusion, another way to cover our heads and escape the responsibility of looking inside the Muslim house. The real battle continues to remain in the Arab and Muslim homes and streets. A second tragedy highlighted by this kidnapping is that those Muslims and Arabs who are fighting the battle at home lack international and regional support and face constant oppression by internal political regimes and other parties in their societies. Without the empowerment of such individuals and groups to organize, it is hard to realistically hope for success in blocking terrorism in the Muslim world.

Terrorist activities, like attacking three Jordanian hotels, killing people celebrating a wedding, planting bombs in restaurants in Bali Indonesia, or leaving explosives in a London metro station,

clearly need more of a response from the Muslim and Arab world than the symbolic denunciation offered by a few Ulama or religious leaders associated with the state or political establishment. For most Muslims and Arabs, however, such religious leaders are often associated with state-coopted forces occupying political positions to serve themselves and not the general public. Consequently, these voices do not convince the masses that such attacks should be condemned, nor do they reduce sympathy for those committing the violence.

What needs to be done? Who can stop the madness of these forces? Obviously, this work cannot be done by one person, act, or group. However, the massive and influential Muslim and Arab public voice is resounding in its silence on these matters, even though it is the only force that can delegitimize such acts and marginalize the groups committing them. Despite all of its sophisticated weaponry, the American army cannot “flush” these elements out of society. They might be able to kill many of them and chase others away to underground caves and hideouts. However, they will eventually come back and renew their operations in different ways and under different covers. Unfortunately, many in the American public have not yet reached such a realization, or else deliberately ignore other alternatives of dealing with the problem.

Why doesn’t the Muslim and Arab public speak loudly against such terrorist actions? Several arguments could be put forth to explain this phenomenon. First, terrorist groups adopting such methods have taken advantage of the general public sentiment that the primary goals and practices of Western governments are aimed at exploiting Muslim and Arab national resources and at promoting Western hegemonic power over Muslim and Arab society and culture. Second, most Arab and Muslim regimes receive military and security support from the US and European countries despite oppressive internal policies that deprive opposition groups of meaningful political space. Such regimes constantly violate human rights and are mainly occupied with accumulating individual wealth or elite dominance. Third, many in the Arab and Muslim world live in fear because of state security apparatuses, which have been the main tool for governing throughout the post-colonial era rather than legislative bodies or publicly elected officials. Indeed, prisons are filled with thousands of political prisoners who dared to speak against the regimes. Fourth, economic underdevelopment and deprivation found within many Muslim and Arab societies has reached such a level of desperation and hopelessness that it can be mobilized into support for acts providing temporary relief, venting of frustration, anger, or desire for revenge, especially those acts which are framed in terms of resistance to oppression. This process displaces blame and responsibility for the current crisis in Muslim and Arab societies onto colonial, foreign, and Western [Christian] powers, and becomes the easiest outlet for escaping individual and collective responsibility and the best rationale for complacency.

We Arabs and Muslims who oppose these individuals and groups (al Qaeda, Zarqawi,etc.) can not rely on foreign forces and agents to clean our societies of terrorist forces for us. Arabs and Muslims must take to the streets and mobilize all of our social, cultural, and political institutions to fight these groups and their messages of hatred, exclusion, and blindness. When all those who oppose such actions and strategies, such as teachers, pharmacists, journalists, imams, housewives, and shopkeepers, claim the public space and call for their end, the credibility and legitimacy of such ideology and terrorism will become a religious, cultural, and political taboo.

Each and every Muslim and Arab is responsible for the kidnapping of the four peace workers who came to express their solidarity with and help for the Iraqi people. Regardless of the existence of the above four reasons for public silence, for Muslims and Arabs around the world to not massively move and speak out against these actions should be considered a silent crime against our own future generations; it is internally destructive. As we have seen in various countries, groups motivated by hate and intolerance do not stop with kidnapping foreigners, soldiers, and women; on the contrary, they are capable of attacking their own people in mosques, restaurants, weddings, and schools. There is no “Haram” or sacredness in their view of the world, and their level of “ignorance” will not stop them from harming anyone in their society who thinks or feels differently from them.

We all have to talk, stand, and act with full capacity, using all available social and cultural space to delegitimize such horrendous actions. The Jordanian public reaction to the terrorist bombings was a promising glimpse of what can be done, as was the Lebanese response to the assassination of Hariri. Thousands of people went to the streets and many nongovernmental groups and associations spoke against the crime committed.

Let us speak and act now before it is too late!

Mohammed Abu-Nimer is an Associate Professor of International Peace and Conflict Resolution at American University’s School of International Service in Washington, DC, and is the Director of the Peacebuilding and Development Institute. He is the author of Peacebuilding and Nonviolence in Islamic Context: Theory and Practice (University of Florida press, 2003) along with numerous other publications. He has conducted conflict resolution training workshops in many conflict areas around the world, including Palestine, Israel, Egypt, Philippines (Mindanao), Sri Lanka, and the U.S..