Sunday, October 23, 2011

Post #15 - What is Jihad?

Many Americans have, by now, heard of jihad -- which means, for Muslims, “exertion or striving in the path of God” -- and even perhaps of the two jihads: the external jihad, and the internal (or “great”) jihad. It is the latter which is seen as the more important one, as our struggle to conquer our own demons, whether we are Christians or Muslims, is the toughest battle we will ever fight. Gandhi used to say that he had a formidable opponent in the British colonial government, an even more formidable opponent in the Indian people, but the worst and most intractable enemy he fought was Mohandas K. Gandhi. The greater jihad is, in the words of Prof. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, “the inner battle to purify the soul of its imperfections, to empty the vessel of the soul of the pungent water of forgetfulness, negligence, and the tendency to evil and to prepare it for the reception of the Divine Elixir of Remembrance, Light, and Knowledge.” It is also the daily battle to balance piety, responsibility, charity, emotion and rationality, and never to flag or falter.

The lesser jihad has, in the West, often been associated with rampaging hoards of scimitar-swinging Muslims, sweeping across desert vastnesses with blood in their eyes -- in other words, with “holy war.” We would do well to keep in mind that 1) jihad was rarely waged against Zoroastrians, Jews, Hindus or Christians to convert them to Islam, even in Arabia, 2) violent "jihad" has almost never been carried on outside of Muslim lands until the 20th century (unlike the series of transcontinental Christian crusades of the Middle Ages), and 3) the great majority of modern-day Muslims feel that the acts perpetrated by Osama bin Laden and his kind to have nothing whatever to do with true jihad. Jihad cannot, moreover, be legally originated as aggression, nor as an expression of hatred or rage, but only in defense – especially within the Shi'ite tradition. Islamic scholar Vincent Cornell has said that violent Islamists present a type of Islam that can be characterized as "radically superficial." It is the "Islam for Dummies" approach that emphasizes finding a way to fight back against cultural assaults on Islamic societies, in the same way that neo-Nazism provides a home for those who feel disenfranchised in a multicultural America. To focus on this brand of Islam as though it were Islam writ large is, in Nasr's memorable phrase, to "absolutize the transient."

Nasr retells the story (from Book I of the Mathnawi of Rumi) of hand-to-hand combat between an early Muslim prince and a powerful opponent. Although nearly assured of victory, the prince, 'Ali ibn Abi Talib, stops himself and steps back when the other spits upon him. As he sheaths his sword, 'Ali explains to his foe that he was fighting for the Truth – until the insult of the spitting turned his motivation into anger. He ceased battling because he did not want to fight out of personal rage. “I am the Lion of the Truth,” he says, “not the lion of passions,/My action is witness to my religion.” Whether the story is historical or legendary, its moral is clear.

In the following passage from Birds Without Wings, Louis de Bernieres recreates a lesser-known "clash of civilizations:"

"Ever since the year 1189 in the Muslim calendar, which was 1774 in the Christian, the Russian Empire had exercised a policy of religious expurgation every time that it expanded into newly conquered lands. In the Crimea, in the Caucasus, in southern Ukraine, in Azerbaijan, Kars-Ardahan and Laz, the Russians massacred and displaced the Muslim populations, swamping the Ottoman Empire with refugees with which it could not cope. It is impossible to calculate the number of deaths, or to reimagine the manner in which these murders were perpetrated. It was perduring holocaust, but, unlike the more famous one of the Second World War, it is uncommemorated by the world because it received no publicity at the time or afterwards. No monuments have been raised, no dates of commemoration have entered the calendars, no religious services have been held, and no hindsighted pieties have been repeated for our edification. The Russians replaced these slaughtered populations with Christians, preferably of Slavic origin, but in the absence of Slavs they made do with Ukrainians and Armenians.

"It is curious that the Russians, calling themselves Christians, and like so many other nominal Christians throughout history, took no notice whatsoever of the key parable of Jesus Christ himself, which taught that you shall love your neighbor as yourself, and that even those you have despised and hated are your neighbors. This has never made any difference to Christians, since the primary epiphenomena of any religion's foundation are the production and flourishment of hypocrisy, megalomania and psychopathy, and the first casualties of a religion's establishment are the intentions of its founder. One can imagine Jesus and Mohammad glumly comparing notes in paradise, scratching their heads and bemoaning their vain expense of effort and suffering..."

Robert Traer, who teaches ethics at Dominican University and who led the International Association for Religious Freedom from 1990 to 2000, wrote an article entitled "Speaking Truth" (Current Dialogue, World Council of Churches, #49). In it, he traced some of the history of both the pacific and belligerent strains of Christian and Islamic faiths, concluding:

"The contemporary Christian attempt to characterize the Christian tradition as more peaceful than the Islamic tradition is largely self-serving. As Christians, we know too little of Islamic history and have forgotten too much of Christian history, to make any such comparison. Moreover, most Christians in the United States do not realize that the war against terrorism, which is presently being waged by the Bush administration, on behalf of U.S. interests, is perceived by many in the world, and especially by Muslims, as a Christian crusade."

The line being everywhere purveyed today is that radical Muslims seek to "destroy our way of life" and hate "our democratic values." Yet, the senior CIA person looking for Osama bin Laden starting in 1996, Michael Scheuer, wrote in 2004 (in Imperial Hubris) that "bin Laden has been precise in telling America the reasons he is waging war on us. None of the reasons have anything to do with our freedom, liberty, and democracy, but have everything to do with US policies and actions in the Muslim world." We must not forget, then, to ask the question of why any of our leaders would want us to think that it was for another reason. Simply, I would submit, because that alternate explanation absolves us any responsibility, removes any reason for us to examine our own assumptions or behavior, and puts the onus exclusively on those who oppose us. They must be opposed, we feel, because what they seek is nothing less than the end of our most cherished ideals. So, we say "bring it on," and go in with both barrels blazing. Unfortunately, as Jason Burke says (in Al Qaeda) "Every use of force is another small victory for bin Laden" [the Scheuer and Burke quotes were taken from Noam Chomsky's Failed States].

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