I asked a very peaceful sounding Muslim, Mr T J Bowes, whether he would sign Harry Richardson’s Declaration of Peaceful Intent:
understand that there are commands in the Quran which compel Muslims to kill, behead, crucify or commit unprovoked violence against non-Muslims, Jews, Christians, atheists or apostates from Islam. I fully, completely, unequivocally, 100% reject, and refuse to practice or teach any of these commands. I believe these commands from Allah are not applicable, not relevant and should not be practiced in any form in today’s world by anyone.”
I will examine the parts of it which seem relevant to my concerns (Australian treatment of Aborigines and British firebombing of Dresden do not, since as far as I am aware no one has ever suggested that they were religiously commanded).
“If I am perfectly honest, I think my adversary will have difficulty finding anyone to sign Mr Richardson’s so-called Declaration of Peaceful Intent in its current form, given the way it is framed: the signatory is asked to agree that there are “commands” which “compel”, and further, to commit “unprovoked” violence.
In my earlier blog post I too balked at the words “commands” and “compel” but Mr Bowes and I part company over the phrase “unprovoked violence”. I suggested dropping the word “unprovoked” because any jihadi would regard rejecting Allah as provocation enough, and therefore it is redundant.
It appears though that it is the word “unprovoked” which Mr Bowes sees as important. In fact his entire reason for rejecting the Declaration turns on it. I hope I’m not putting words into his mouth but he appears to understand the Koran as calling for “provoked violence” in some circumstances ie defensive, but only defensive, violence – with that call still being active today as well as just historically.
“But of course, this is not the position of Muslims everywhere. It is true that some Muslims believe that verses of the Qur’an can be read as isolated commands, hewn of all context, be it the preceding verses or the book as a whole. However, that is certainly not the position of all. For example, Surah al-Tawba [ie sura 9] is held by most to refer to a historical episode between the Muslims of Medina and the hostile Meccan forces who breached the peace treaty of Hudaybiyya. That is the position of many scholars of tafsir such as Razi, Zamakhshari, Baydawi, Nasafi and Biqai, and of many contemporary scholars too.
As it happens I totally agree with the claim that the so-called “jihad verses” to be found in sura 9 and elsewhere in the Koran refer to historical episodes between the Muslims of Medina and Meccan or other enemy forces.
But that has no bearing on whether the battles Mohammed fought were provoked (ie defensive) or unprovoked (ie offensive). There is no way of knowing whether the Meccan forces did actually breach the peace treaty of Hudaybiyya or whether Mohammed invented it as a pretext for war. What the Koran presents is of course “victors’ history”. Mr Bowes believes that version to be true but states it not as a belief but as a fact.
“Contextually these verses are not talking about initiating “unprovoked violence” but about responding to a specific group of people that declared war on them. A Muslim who holds this position, therefore, is not going to find himself able to sign a declaration which states the very opposite.
I must admit I had not anticipated that response although I should have because I have seen the same claim made elsewhere. To take that position he “categorically rejects the doctrine of abrogation, which allows aggressors to ignore verses which clearly call for restraint”.
It seems to me that he must also:
1. Discount the many aggressive hadiths in Bukhari, Muslim etc.
2. Discount the Sira since ibn Ishaq, at least, has Mohammed engaging in a great deal of unprovoked violence.
3. Discount the fact that after Mohammed’s death his companions, who presumably knew his intentions best, immediately engaged in unprovoked violence against local tribes wishing to reconsider their commitment to Islam (after all, there is no compulsion in religion is there?) and then attacked their neighbours to East and West.
4. Discount the various establishment figures in Islam who took it quite for granted that jihad means both defensive and offensive warfare…eg ibn Kathir, ibn Khaldun, al-Ghazali etc.
5. Discount the rulings of the four main Sunni schools of Islamic jurisprudence, and the Shia ones too, so I believe.
As an aside, apart from all the violence referred to above, there is also the violence promised by Allah throughout the Koran to unbelievers. Yes, you and I regard it as only imaginary but (presumably) Mr Bowes doesn’t since he (also presumably) believes the Koran is Allah speaking for himself. I would call the violence awaiting us in Jahannam unprovoked, unless simply declining to believe in Allah is sufficient justification to warrant an eternity of fire, boiling water, branding of flanks, beating with hooked rods of iron, garments of pitch and hanging by the breasts….I’m lucky, I miss out on that last one.
This of course has no direct bearing on the kind of physical violence in this world with which the Declaration is concerned, but Allah sets the tone with the sadistic violence he likes to inflict on unbelievers in the hereafter.
“For my part, I will gladly declare:
A Muslim (or indeed anyone) should only fight those that fight them, and if they do, they should not transgress limits. A Muslim must not be an aggressor.
In a legitimate war, Muslims (or indeed anyone) must engage specifically with those who fought them, i.e. soldiers in combat. Targeting civilians is absolutely out of the question. I don’t subscribe to the principle of collateral damage; civilians should never be deliberately targeted in any conflict.
If the army they are fighting ceases hostility, then likewise the Muslim (or indeed anyone) should also cease fighting. If they incline to peace, then likewise the Muslim should incline to peace.
I dislike war, but I acknowledge that sometimes it is necessary to prevent aggression, oppression and greater harm, and that in those cases warfare has to be described in uncompromising terms.
It never ceases to amaze me how peacefully inclined Muslims pick and choose the bits they like from the Islamic texts while accusing people like me of “cherry picking” and “taking out of context”. It seems to demand a remarkable level of mental dexterity but there we are, the above is what Mr Bowes and a great many other Muslims appear to believe.
That being so, I assume he wouldn’t even be able to agree to either of the options in my suggested all-purpose, declaration:
that there are no calls to violence in the scriptures of my faith
that any calls to violence in the scriptures of my faith are purely of historical interest and carry no prescriptive force today”.
Looking at his version of an acceptable declaration, I imagine that he would be willing to agree to this:
“I affirm that there are no calls to aggressive or unprovoked violence in the scriptures of my faith”
Or perhaps I am wrong even there.
But assuming I am right, it seems to me that he provides no effective criterion to distinguish between himself and the jihadis since they can plausibly quote Islamic scriptures to show that violence against non-Muslims is always defensive or justified, just as Osama bin Laden did *.
In that case it appears to me that there is only a different interpretation of the word “unprovoked” between him and those he calls his enemy. I wonder if he can produce a snappy, one sentence distinction between them and himself, something he could agree to and they could not. Wouldn’t it be helpful from both his point of view and mine to do so?
If we cannot agree on a formulation which, at least conceptually, captures the difference then it does not bode well either for Harry Richardson’s project or, more importantly, for long term relations between Muslims and non-Muslims.
* Those with a taste for this kind of thing will appreciate the novel version offered just recently by none other than the Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman. He said in an interview with the Atlantic magazine:
“God, in Islam, gives us two responsibilities…Our second duty as Muslims is to spread the word of God. For 1,400 years, Muslims have been trying to spread the word of God. In the Middle East, in North Africa, in Europe, they weren’t allowed to spread the word. That’s why they fought to spread the word”.
Indeed. What else could they have done?