Originally published in New Haven Register
“All is fair in love and war.”
Sixteenth century English poet John Lyly’s famous proverb means that the rules of fairness don’t count under special circumstances. In more recent times, you might remember the famous line “by any means necessary” that Malcolm X used to describe his view on the civil rights movement.
The question repeatedly emerges. Even if the cause is justifiable, do we have carte blanche authority to carry out our mission?
The recent incident in Algeria brings home this question. An extremist group called the Masked Brigade — fighting the French to take over the West African country of Mali — besieged a gas plant in neighboring Algeria.
The heavily armed militants took several dozen foreign workers hostage, including 10 Americans. A bloody four-day standoff ensued with the Algerian military, which ended in the death of at least 37 workers, three of them American. The militants’ stated motive was to take vengeance on Algeria for its tacit support of the French.
What was particularly troubling to me about the tragedy is that the group claims to be waging an all-out war in the name of Islam, which it calls a “jihad.” Along the lines of the first question then, are the acts of these extremists, however outrageous, justifiable because it’s a war?
And furthermore, does Islam, the religion they brandish in their fiery rhetoric, endorse a policy of doing whatever it takes, even if it means terrorizing civilians?
The answer on both counts from this Muslim-American is an emphatic “no.”
First, a clarification: The Arabic word “jihad” does not equate to the oxymoron “holy war.” Nothing is holy about war. Jihad is actually a constant inner struggle to be a better person. As a physician, for example, my jihad is to treat my patients in the most compassionate manner.
Can jihad ever be used to justify war? Only in a very narrow sense: The fact is that throughout his lifetime, the founder of Islam, the Prophet Muhammad, sought to avoid war. In the first 13 years of his ministry, he and his followers were persecuted in their hometown of Mecca for belief in the unity of God. Many of them were brutally tortured.
Instead of waging guerrilla combat to get back at their enemies, however, they chose to simply migrate to another town, Medina. Finally, when the Meccans mounted a force against the prophet at his new area of refuge, the Muslims were instructed to defend themselves.
It’s important to know that the Muslim holy book, the Quran, states that this permission to fight was given specifically to protect religious freedom. The Quran specifically mentions the guarding of churches, temples and synagogues by name (22:40-41). Thus, a war might possibly be called a jihad if its purpose is to defend the freedom of worship for all faiths. Otherwise, it’s just another war.
Today’s Muslim extremists demonstrate not even a glimpse of the true meaning of jihad. On the contrary, they abuse the term to violate the very moral codes set up by the prophet. Even in times of war, the prophet strictly instructed that civilians should never be harmed.
He also said that every effort should be made not to destroy enemy lands. No trees should be cut down or cattle killed. Caution was exercised so that women, children, the elderly, priests — anyone not involved in combat on the enemy side — remained unharmed.
Prophet Muhammad rejected the concept of taking civilians as hostages. Christian historian Sir William Muir notes that, in fact, if prisoners were captured, they were clothed and dined in the same or better way as the Muslims and their means of release was expedited.
Based on Prophet Muhammad’s conduct, I submit that even in the most chaotic situations, namely in a state of war, we still have a moral obligation to uphold our enemies’ rights.
All is not fair in war. Instead of “by any means necessary,” the policy should be to use “every means available” to avoid war.
In particular, Muslim extremist groups should read what their faith teaches and abandon violence to support their cause. Turn to God for help. That’s the true meaning of jihad.