The Blame for Paris Atrocities Rests with Attackers – not Islam

Posted on: 17 November 2015

By Neville Cox, Associate Professor, School of Law

The perpetrators claimed, after all, to be acting in the name of Islam. Their actions will, no doubt, have helped to reinforce the widespread impression of an inherent connection between Islam and terrorism or violence – a view summed up in one of the cartoons published in Denmark's 'Jyllands Posten' newspaper in 2005 depicting the Prophet Mohammed with a lit fuse at the end of his turban.

It is impossible in a short opinion piece fully to consider this proposition, but a few points are worth bearing in mind. Islam, like any religion or indeed any ideology (including the ideology of liberalism or human rights) which speaks in broad terms, inevitably leaves itself open to a variety of interpretations, and it is not true that all Muslims think in the same way or believe the same things. Inevitably, we approach our interpretation of ideological issues informed by our own prejudices, judgments and agendas.

I would suggest, though, that even if someone who is predisposed for whatever reason to attack western society or western materialism can find some passages of the Koran which give superficial backing to his or her actions, a genuine and complete interpretation of Islamic law shows that terrorism is entirely prohibited.

It is true that in the seventh and eighth centuries, as the fledgling Islamic empire grew, with extraordinary rapidity, from being a tiny, persecuted community to being a world force that controlled the Arabian peninsula and beyond, there was a clear view that use of military force was warranted and, indeed, that God was on the side of the Muslim armies.

Four points should, however, be made about this. First, this mindset is also to be found in much of the Jewish Old Testament, and hence is part of the property of Judaeo-Christian orthodoxy (and, of course, it is not merely religious ideologues who have committed acts of violence to further their messages and believed they were 'right' to do so). Secondly, it is open to question as to whether various passages in the Koran (including Chapter 9 – the chapter with the most prominent references to use of force) represent general and ongoing instruction for the people of God, or were specific to the context in which they were revealed.

Thirdly, whereas Islam (like Christianity) calls on its followers to win the world for God, it is clear that this does not always, or even usually, entail use of force. Indeed, the concept of jihad, which, of course, is now associated with use of violence, actually denotes struggle – a struggle in the path of God which includes such things as charity, prayer, self-discipline, persuasion and so on. Finally, as a matter of historical reality, whereas undoubtedly the Prophet Mohammed and his followers used force, what marks out the Muslim conquests from those of other world forces at the time (including the forces of the Holy Roman Empire as it sought to expand the bounds of Christendom) was arguably the extent of their generosity to those whom they conquered.

This is not to say that appalling violence has not been committed in the name of Islam (and Judaism and Christianity) – of course it has.

It is simply to say that the blame for this rests with those who commit the attacks, and not with the law on which they claim their actions are based.

More importantly still, there are multiple verses of the Koran which impose conditions on the use of force and it is these which, I believe, mean that even if some use of force is permitted under Islamic law, equally the type of force connected with terrorism (indiscriminate targeting of innocent civilians in order to spread fear) is prohibited.

In the first place, non-defensive force is a community thing and cannot be waged by individual actors rather than the state. Secondly, historically, there was a requirement only to target enemies and, in so doing, to offer them in advance the options of (a) embracing Islam or (b) paying a poll tax, and only if these options were refused to proceed with use of force. In other words, a surprise attack without warning was prohibited.

Thirdly, and most importantly, there is an obligation not to cheat, or mutilate, or kill minors and non-combatants, including women and children, such that an individual insurrectionist who did so was guilty of baghi (armed transgression), which is arguably a capital offence under Islamic law.

Finally, there is a requirement that use of force be proportionate and appropriate and, being waged in the name of God, that it be exercised ethically, fairly and with a desire for peaceful resolution of disputes.

It goes without saying that these are all elements which were absent in Paris last Friday night. Thus, like Bernard Lewis, the great historian of the Middle East, I am quite clear that, even if some use of force is authorised and even if individual Koranic passages can be decontextualised and misinterpreted to justify vigilante violence, what happened last Friday, far from being required by Islamic law, is entirely repugnant to it.

Of course, big questions remain as to why individual Muslims are drawn to Isil and whether western policy towards Islam has any causal responsibility for this.

But I have no doubt that what happened last Friday was not warranted by Islamic law and was not the fault of Islam, still less the millions of peaceful Muslims in the world, who will have been outraged by what happened but who may feel its impact in the form of understandable, though unjustified, increased western suspicion of all Muslims.

This piece was originally published in the Irish Independent on November 17, 2015

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