For Whom Nothing is Sacred 27 July 2016

How do you understand, let alone challenge, those for whom nothing is sacred? This question should be at the forefront of all those who seek to counter the wave of attacks across the world in recent months. Isis, recoiling and losing land in the Middle-East, has maintained its global reputation through the bloody and ruthless killings of its devotees globally. Two attacks in particular take on a dark significance. The first was an attack at the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah. It is the second most sacred mosque in Islam, containing the grave of the Prophet Muhammad. The attack took place during Ramadan, the most sacred time in Islam. Sacredness upon sacredness desecrated by Isis. The second attack, more recent, was in Normandy, France. The killers murdered an elderly priest in a church, taking hostage the worshippers. There has been a longstanding tradition of Just War in Islam, in which the sanctity of places and people of religion has always been maintained. There are several teachings of the Prophet Muhammad that express the following: –

“Do not kill the monks in monasteries, and do not kill those sitting in places of worship.” Prophet Muhammad (Musnad Ahmad Ibn Hanbal)

Likewise, in classical Islamic interpretations of the Quran, fighting in self-defence is permitted to protect religious institutions: –

Permission [to fight] has been given to those who are being fought, because they were wronged. And indeed, Allah is competent to give them victory. [They are] those who have been evicted from their homes without right – only because they say, “Our Lord is Allah .” And were it not that Allah checks the people, some by means of others, there would have been demolished monasteries, churches, synagogues, and mosques in which the name of Allah is much mentioned. And Allah will surely support those who support Him. Indeed, Allah is Powerful and Exalted in Might. (Quran 22:39-40)

This poses a significant challenge for Muslims? How do you possibly “deradicalise” or debate with those who on one hand lay claim to the Islamic tradition, vocally pronounce their religious identity, and go as far as claiming they are an “Islamic State” – yet on the other hand, indiscriminately kill – and in ways that disregard almost intentionally all the things Islam calls sacred. This isn’t simply an issue of “differing interpretations”, the behaviour of those who call themselves members of the “Islamic State” perversely contravenes almost every established teaching of normative Islam. It is why, well-intentioned as they might be, efforts at “reforming Islam” or theological refutations of terrorism are, in my view, utterly pointless. When there exists an undebated and uncontroversial religious prohibition against killing on sacred ground (whether the Prophet’s Mosque or a church in Normandy), what could – for example – “Quilliam’s Muslim Reform Team” possibly offer that the established norms of Islam cannot?

For others too, the response to these terror attacks can often fall to popularism or demagoguery. Either repressive “counter-terror” laws from governments, or vigilante-like acts of violence against Muslims or Muslim institutions. Accompanying, and perhaps encouraging this are sensationalist calls to “ban Muslims”. While Trump is most famous for the latter, Piers Morgan has recently advocated for it too, though with less bombast than Trump.

So what is the way forward?

The first is to recognise the complexity of the issues. The Munich shootings of July are case-in-point. They were committed by a half-German half-Iranian citizen, more inspired by Anders Breivik than Isis, who was believed to be targeting young foreigners. The attack had nothing to do with Isis. That didn’t stop our Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson using the incident to call for further military action in the Middle-East. Likewise, the backgrounds of the Orlando shooter and the Nice killer further highlight the complexity of the issue. They were men with a history of violence against women and mental health problems. Their families called them irreligious. How would Piers Morgan’s and Trump’s ban on refugees and Muslim migrants possibly have prevented these attacks?

The second way forward is to reject outright the notion of a ‘clash of civilisations’ or a religious conflict. This is not East versus West. Dhaka, Istanbul, Madinah have all faced attacks just as Wuerzburg, Nice and Normandy have. Nor is this Muslim versus Christian, lest every victim of Isis in Syria and elsewhere be ignored.

Finally, we have to face up to the reality that war breeds war, and stability breeds stability. Boris Johnson’s hawkish calls for greater military attacks in the Middle-East should send a shudder through the spine of all those who desire peace. Instead, we need to work with all our political, economic and personal might to bring a stable solution to conflicts in the Middle-East (and more often than not, that means not being the ones dropping the bombs).

The most important response we can have to those who hold nothing sacred is to reaffirm our belief in the things we call sacred – the value of human life, the importance of community, and belief that violence is not the answer.

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About Abdul-Azim Ahmed

Dr Abdul-Azim Ahmed is Editor of On Religion magazine. He holds a doctorate in religious studies and an MA in Islam in Contemporary Britain.