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Dateline: Islamic Perspectives on Peacemaking - 2001-11-30


Since the events of September 11, scholars, political leaders, and ordinary people have posed questions about the relationship of religion to terrorism and violence. Muslim scholars in particular have publicly examined their sacred scriptures and religious traditions to explain how Islam views issues of war and peace.

In November, renowned Muslim scholars in the United States gathered at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington to discuss Islamic perspectives on peacemaking. Abdul Aziz Said who holds the Mohamed Farsi Islamic Peace Chair at American University, is originally from Syria. Professor Said says Islam is one of the most misunderstood religions, and he disputes the concept of a "clash of civilizations" between Islam and the West.

"Islam is not the problem. Muslims are the problem. Muslims identify their concerns in political ways. For Muslims, Islam is both a vocabulary for resistance as well as a vocabulary for change. It is a clash of symbols, not a clash of civilizations,” he said. “What we are seeing is that Islam and the West are out of touch with one another. The antidote is active engagement, sustained dialogue. Second, Islam and the West are not enemies. Viewing Islam through the prism of extremism does not do justice to Islam or to those of us who are analyzing it. And, third is the challenge to Muslims. And here I ask, how to integrate the Muslim and the citizen, how to achieve genuine participation. Fourth, I focus on challenges to the West to understand what is happening in the Islamic world. I focus on the causes behind acts of violence and terrorism widespread poverty, repressive regimes, and the suffering of Palestinians. The most powerful weapon in the hands of the United States is not foreign aid. It is really connecting with the transnational consciousness that underscores the cry for human dignity. And the challenge is for both sides to deal with the twin cycle of arrogance that breeds contempt and the insecurity that breeds paranoia. A new relationship has to emerge."

Another perspective came from Sulayman Nyang , a former diplomat from Guinea, is Professor of African and Islamic studies at Howard University in Washington. Professor Nyang says that human beings have suffered greatly at the hands of those "who attribute to the heavenly powers" much of their own human ambition.

"Much blood has been shed by many human beings who really believe that their violent actions serve the divine cause,” he said. “Those who believe their religions have a role in the peacemaking process are now feverishly searching through the pages of their scriptures and the commentaries of their scholars for answers to the question, 'Can religion be of help in the search for peace in human society?' Islam orders Muslims to carry on two struggles simultaneously. The believer must wage a war against his nafs, that is the 'appetitive' nature, or the 'animality' of man, so that he or she can purify himself. The other side of the coin is for the human being to establish a polity that is able to guarantee the protection of the human being. So, in Muslim society, jihad is seen not only primarily against the self but also as defending the polity, the interests of the collective Muslim community. This failure to deal with the inner self and the creation of a society where Islamic values exercise some kind of influence among human beings is responsible for the development of terrorism."

Professor Nyang says that, in the current climate, American Muslims have a special responsibility to serve as a bridge between their Islamic faith and their fellow citizens.

"What is the Islamic view on terrorism, and how can American Muslims educate fellow Americans about Islam? How can they remain faithful to the Islamic ideal of justice without necessarily embracing any support of terrorism of any kind? What can they do to de-couple Islam from terrorism in the mind of non-Muslims? Here we see the problem today,” he said. “In the age of democracy what we need badly, if Islam is going to be a peacemaking effort, is that Westerners who support democracy should not restrict democracy at home and sanction dictatorship abroad. There is political hypocrisy on the part of many of us in the West. We like democracy for ourselves here, but we want dictatorship abroad because it somehow serves our material interests."

Mohammed Abu-Nimer, Professor at American University, is a Palestinian-American. He notes that the "ideals" of Islam regarding peace are often at odds with what he calls the political "reality." And, he says, the fault lies both with Muslim societies themselves and with the post-colonial historical experience. "The use of violence, or force, is a very minor element in the life of the Prophet and in Islam in the Holy Qur'an. Islam is a religion of justice,” he said. “Every Muslim has to pursue justice not through prayers only but through actions. Human life is sacred in the Qur'an. So, why are those ideas not practiced? Corruption exists in many Arab Muslim countries. And corrupted systems aggravate the issue of poverty and the gap between the rich and poor. How can we achieve the value of equality when we have 50 percent of society women who do not access political and economic decision-making and leadership? Every regime basically maintains a status quo to prevent the voices of the masses of the people from being heard." Another perspective comes from Indian-American scholar Muqtedar Khan is Professor of Political Science at Adrian College in Michigan. Professor Khan says that "salaam," or peace, is one of the attributes of God. But, Muslim commentators, like those of other faiths, he observes, sometimes use sacred scripture to suit their own ends.

"I'm going to cite two verses from the Qur'an to show you how Islam oscillates between realism and idealism. The Qur'an in chapter 2 says that it is better to be at war than to suffer injustice and persecution. Reciprocity is the principle on which you relate to the other,” he said. “Then, the Qur'an also says that he who has killed one innocent soul, it is as if he has killed all humanity. And he who has saved one soul, it is as if he has saved all humanity. The way we represent Islam has nothing to do with Islam; it has more to do with the kind of soul we nurture. Those who are angry, those who are obsessed with power will favor the first verse and justify their violence in the name of justice and will ignore the second verse. But those who are more merciful and more concerned with peace will favor the second verse.

“The images of God that we construct are not images of God, but images of ourselves. And so, bin Laden's God is cruel, murderous, but that is not the God of Islam. The way to escape this principle of reciprocity [or revenge] is to wage jihad. I would like to define jihad as essentially a war against self, and this war against the self is perhaps the only path to peace. The nature of this war is to consciously escape the seduction of mutual 'demonizing' and resort to rigorous, mutual self-criticism. The only way to represent who we are is by constantly questioning our own actions in the light of our own values. We believe that Islam is a peaceful religion. But are our actions peaceful? I think it is a religious obligation of American Muslims to develop a balanced view of the West. But it becomes very difficult for American and European Muslims to advance a balanced view of the West if a balanced view of Islam is not also being advanced simultaneously. So, I think we have to break the dichotomy of mutual demonizing and stop talking about the clash of civilizations. And we have to talk about mutual appreciation of the finer qualities of each other,” he said.