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Politics and Interfaith 2 - from the archives (2015)

Extremists, Sharia, Jihad and all that.

A panellist on ABC’s Q&A, in the wake of the Paris attacks, addressed the big “Us versus Them” issue. He said IS wants to promote the conflict as between Islam and the West - a view echoed by Waleed Aly off The Project. Instead, the panellist urged, the conflict should be framed as : The Moderates of All Religions versus The Radicals/Extremists of All Religions. This is the line of mainstream leadership : maintain social cohesion within secular states by refusing to allow religion, per se, to divide us. The impression purveyed by the media is that, in order to be safe, we can scapegoat the terrorists (who coincidentally happen to rally under the banner of Islam); then it is but a small logical step to justify blasting these people into kingdom come. Does something strike you as problematic with this view? It does me.

Many in the world are expectant of a final, imminent, apocalyptic conflict. Some imagine an

ultimate showdown of good and evil, with religious overtones. Buddhists await Matreiya; Muslims a Twelfth Imam; Jews a Messiah and Christians the return of Jesus. Such a personage could lead the way out of the ashes of the apocalypse. If you are secular-minded, perhaps you expect the G20 and the UN Security Council to institute a better, safer, new world order. Whatever the case, I doubt we can see the other side of this conflict if we don’t get right its essential characterisation. If the essence of the ultimate conflict turns out to be neither Islam versus the West; nor Moderates versus Extremists; nor Civilisation versus Barbarism - but something else - we will compound misery and disillusionment, and delay passing through to the other side - to the Promised Land.

Unsuspecting Sikhs, Middle Eastern Christians and others of like complexion and minority ethnicity in the United States, Britain, Australasia and elsewhere experience a backlash after Islamist terror attacks, alongside the resident Muslims. Obviously, the jihadist narrative of ‘Islam versus the West’ has grassroots resonance in our modern, Western states. Because it is not merely a jihadist narrative. It is the famous ‘Clash of Civilisations‘ narrative of Samuel P Huntington from Harvard. The narrative, disowned in the public space, is very much alive behind the scenes. It lends impetus to covert CIA operations that have repeatedly rejigged the geopolitical map, including the resourcing of rebels in the Syrian conflict who have later defected with their weaponry to ISIL. Such operations also resulted in arming the Taliban and al-Qaeda. The picture is complex. The narrative can easily be disowned publicly if one hides behind the rubric that religion is purely a private matter.

The bloody Crusades are invoked in the imagination of many disaffected Muslims when Westerners attack their holy places. The published grievances of the jihadists attest this. Symbolic timing also attests it. The “War on Terror”, which has accelerated the final stages of globalisation, began with the Twin Towers catastrophe of September 11, 2001. The date is significant. September 11, 1683, was when the armies of Islam were repulsed from the Gates of Vienna in the last serious threat to Christian hegemony in Europe. (It was also, incidentally, the date in 1973 when a CIA covert operation helped overthrow the Allende regime in Chile - the first democratically elected government in Latin America.)

A US presidential hopeful, after the Paris news, said that, while America could not subject refugees to a religious test, it should subject them to an ideological test. An alarmed Independent MP in Australia on the airwaves this morning offered her own legal test for the refugees : they should renounce any adherence to Sharia law! Even Putin told the Duma in August, that if some prefer Sharia to Russian law, they can migrate to a Sharia-governed state. In my opinion, it is not reasonable to ask a Muslim to renounce Sharia. Firstly, it is an honoured part of Islamic tradition whose essence has been very distorted by nightmarish representations. Secondly, I believe it is possible for a Muslim to live peacefully in a secular democracy, whilst still being inspired and guided by Sharia.

About 1200 years ago, the father of Islamic jurisprudence, Al-Shafii of Mecca, outlined the four roots of the Sharia which, in their undistorted sense and applicaton, suggest an authoritarian pair balanced by a democratic pair. The roots are Quranic revelation; the words and deeds of the Prophet; consensus, or general agreement of the community; and reasoning by analogy. One could imagine an admirable legal system that universalised the underlying principles. 1. True revelation - wherever it may be found. 2. The models provided by all authentic prophets; 3. Global community standards and 4. Rational human or individual rights.

Similarly, it is unreasonable to demand that “Jihad” be dropped. In the first place, jihad is meant to be an inner, spiritual struggle against the dross of impurity. A struggle for wholeness. Yes, there is an outer correlate, but tread carefully. Juridical tradition distinguishes between Dar al-Islam, “the House of Islam”, and Dar al-Harb, “the House of War”. “Islam” means “submission”, that is, submission to the Creator’s Will. So within the House of Islam, life should go swimmingly and peacefully. Outside this blessed domain, by definition, I must necessarily be at war with the Creator; my inclinations being at variance with divine purpose. At war with the Creator, I will also inevitably be at war with my neighbour, and I would especially be motivated to attack the righteous whose very existence is a reproach and reminder of infidelity - a falling away in faith. Furthermore, I am unlikely to give up without a fight to the bitter end against those who have made peace with the Creator.

Observing the myriad way human beings do violence to each other - militarily; through economic strangulation and social marginalisation; through psychological, emotional, verbal, sexual and physical abuse, I ask myself, what all this warring is about. Humans are well-versed at demonising each other - which leads logically to destroying each other - so let us sincerely seek out the roots of violence. What if the essence of the ultimate conflict is neither ‘Islam versus the West’ nor ‘Moderates versus Extremists’ but whether or not one believes in attack, even in the name of self-defence? Choosing to love an attacking enemy might be the most fruitful way to interpret jihad.

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