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Islam's Moral Responsibility to Itself and the World

by Wayne Teasdale

Every religion has engaged in war, and other forms of violence, at some junctures of their history, with the notable exception of Jainism, a tradition that has never had a war in its 2,500 year history, and that has consistently practiced nonviolence. Another exception might be Buddhism to a large extent. As a Christian, I am painfully aware of the bloody history of my tradition as a war-maker, or supporter of conflict, especially of the interreligious kind. A new dimension has emerged in our times with the attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C., new in terms of terrorism happening in America itself. The shockingly tragic events of September 11th, and the cynical appeal to Islam to justify such barbarism, occasions reflection in us all about the uses of religion in the past, and in the present. I want to take this opportunity to reflect on Islam’s moral responsibility in the face of “Islamic” terrorism, and the future of humanity.

At the outset I wish to make clear a longstanding respect I have personally for Islam as a great world religion that I’ve come to know through study, and especially through outstanding representatives of this faith in the interfaith movement, and more precisely in the context of the Parliament of the World’s Religions. It is through these associations, and through my travels abroad, that a number of friendships with Muslims have developed. I have always experienced Muslims as peaceful, insightful, and effective members of the larger world community.

For generations Christians, Muslims and Jews have lived in peace, and even friendship, in Egypt, Palestine and Syria. In virtually every state where Islamic rule obtained, Jews and Christians were treated well. With the rise of Israel as a state in 1948 that peace was shattered. Ferment has existed ever since between Arabs and Jews. Even in Egypt, a traditionally tolerant, broad-minded Islamic culture, the seventeen million Coptic Christians are under duress, and tensions are mounting.

Islam today has great difficulty adjusting to modernity. Many Muslims see their quranic values being eroded by the powerfully seductive, though spiritually superficial culture of America with its emphasis on corporate greed, entertainment and consumerism, backed up by military power to protect its sources of energy and other resources. U.S. policy towards Israel, its overwhelming presence in the Persian Gulf in the wake of the war there a decade ago, the impoverishment of Iraq through punitive sanctions, and America’s failure to meet its responsibility in Afghanistan after the Afghan Muhajadeen were used to defeat the Soviets, have come back to haunt this nation. Of course the terrorists, who are essentially Pan-Islamic opportunists, are cynically exploiting these grievances in order to gather support for their power drive to take control of Islam, so that they can use it as a weapon against the rest of the world, with the aim of bringing the entire planet under the hegemony of a global Islamic caliphate ruled by Osama bin Laden as the caliph. America stands in the way, and so is the focus of attack. If there is any doubt about the ultimate ambitions of this twisted minority, just consider what they did in Bamiyam province of Afghanistan when they destroyed those ancient images of the Buddha! That was an ominous signal of ultimate intentions, and especially their lack of tolerance for a diversity of faith.

What Al Qaeda and its Taliban confederates have done is thoroughly condemned by the Quran. They have been killing the innocent for years, which is strictly forbidden by Islam even in times of war. Numerous Islamic spiritual leaders and organizations everywhere have spoken out against the attacks of September 11th. An important example is that of Dr. Malik S. Khan, the Permanent U.N. Representative of the World Muslim Congress, who speaking in the name of this international body, proclaimed: “According to the Quran, those who kill innocent people are doomed to eternal punishment (25: 68-69), and Whosoever slays an innocent person...it is as if he had slain humankind altogether”(5:32). Dr. Irfan Khan, renowned quranic scholar and member of the board of directors of the Parliament of the World’s Religions, has been working tirelessly behind the scenes to awaken Muslim leaders to their moral responsibility to stand up and be counted. Another important local voice is that of Kareem Irfan, a lawyer, who is chairman of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago. Both of these figures are eloquent in their protest against the unislamic nature of the terrorists and their acts.

What Is to Be Done

How do we extricate humanity from this dangerous moment in history we find ourselves suddenly confronting? It is important to realize, firstly, that this is a significant and urgent moment of truth for Islam itself. Which way will it go? It has an absolute responsibility to the world and its own reputation to seize the initiative in history away from the terrorists, who are trying to entrap its soul in their insidious plans. What this hour needs more than anything else is moral clarity from Islam’s spiritual leaders, who are the only figures in that tradition who have the authority to override and cancel out the horrendously calculated manipulations of the minds, hearts and emotions of Muslims everywhere. The world needs to hear from these leaders now! The Muslim faithful wherever they are desperately require their guidance. Here the interfaith movement can be enormously helpful by contributing its good offices to facilitate the leadership of Islam’s guidance to their constituents.

The forum for such guidance should be historically dramatic. It has to be a world historical event that the whole world will be watching. In the midst of this event, perhaps in Mecca or Medina, and all the symbolism it conveys from association with a sacred site, a powerful document would proclaim for all time how Islam views violence and terrorism against the innocent. Islamic spiritual leaders should acknowledge that this phenomenon of Muslim terror has grown out of Islam itself, albeit a rather perverse form of the Islamic faith, one distorted by an arrogant drive for power by a few. It represents the shadow side of Islam, just as in Christianity, the Holocaust is the dark aspect of this faith. It's no good denying it, or maintaining that Osama bin Laden isn't really a Muslim. He believes he is. He identifies totally with this faith, and tries to justify his actions and those of his organization, in terms of Islam.

All the more need for moral clarity from Islamic spiritual leaders. The masses of faithful within Islam need to be guided by an authority who has real credibility, and who can truly speak for Islam because of the goodness of his life, or by a group of such figures. Again, there are so many who have spoken up in recent days, and the U.S. is making progress in Afghanistan itself.

Secondly, the U.N. must proceed with relative haste to offer a treaty on terrorism that all nations would be obliged to sign and adhere to, with consequences for violator states that the international community would have the authority to pursue through every legal and moral means. Already there is movement at the U.N. in precisely this direction, and something concrete should happen fairly soon.

Thirdly, as the U.S. completes its mission in Afghanistan, it should commit with the U.N. to nation building in Afghanistan and eventually in Iraq as well. We owe these two nations the fruit of our compassion. They are desperately needy nations, and they have few willing to help them in the ways they most require: rebuilding, education, medical assistance, food, shelter, clothing, and other resources. I think it’s equally necessary to assist Pakistan, especially in the economic sphere.

On the cultural level, and in tandem with its educational efforts vis-a-vis the Muslim world, America has to communicate the deeper nature of this society, the spirit of our culture, and the values that animate us as Americans. We saw this spirit and those values incarnated in the extraordinary response of all those incredible New Yorkers. That’s what we are really about as a people.

Let me close by sharing a story. I was part of a small monastic community for some ten years in New Hampshire. In 1989, the State Department brought over to America a number of Muhajadeen from Afghanistan who had been wounded in the war against the Soviets. Five of them came to our monastery, and stayed for six months. They were all gentle souls, and they participated in all our community activities, including our daily mass. They were reverent, kind, and sensitive, very likable. We were the first group of Christians they had ever met. We grew to love one another, and they returned to Afghanistan with a life-changing experience of a people not that different from themselves. We need more of this type of person-to-person encounter with Muslims all around the world. In this way we can dispel misunderstanding; create bonds that will last, and transform the global society, the human community into a universal family, rather than continue in the dangerous situation of being cultures of isolation, competing and in conflict. The aftermath of 9/11 is an opportunity to change, to grow, and realize the promise of American pluralism.

The way in which American Muslims are being embraced in our society bodes well for the future, for they are discovering bonds of connection with this land and its people. They are becoming ambassadors of American culture abroad in their relations with Muslim communities in the Middle East and elsewhere. A new moment has dawned, a turning point has been traversed, a movement in our culture from adolescence to the first stirrings of adulthood.