(This is the third in a series on Islam as liberation theology. It is based on Karen Armstrong’s Muhammad: a prophet for our times. London: Harper Perennial 2006)
Since 9/11 the West has vilified Islam as a violent religion and Muhammad as a blood thirsty fanatic. Since the mid-sixties, liberation theology has suffered similar accusations. Critics ask: What about Islam and violence, jihad and holy war? Isn’t Islam – isn’t liberation theology – inherently violent?
The question is ironic.
That’s because it is almost invariably posed by those wedded to the nation Martin Luther King called “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” Conservatives there identify themselves as Christian. Yet they are among the strongest supporters of spending $2 billion per day (!) on the military. They love holy war.
Back in 1954, their government overthrew a democratically elected head of a Muslim state in favor of a brutal puppet, Reza Palavi. He proceeded to institute a quarter-century-long reign of terror in Iran, the birthplace of the Islamic currents so feared by Americans today.
Additionally the government of these Christians unconditionally supports Israel, a state which since 1948 has evicted Muslims from their ancestral homes in Palestine killing tens of thousands in the process. The majority of U.S. Christians not only support Israel in general (often on religious grounds), but even its possession of a vast arsenal of nuclear “weapons of mass destruction.”
In response, Muslims have used box cutters, stones, sling shots, primitive IEDs and homemade rockets, (along, one day, with hijacked planes) to defend themselves and counter-attack against forces that have declared a perpetual war against them.
Why this condemnation of the violence of the impoverished adherents Islam alongside virtual worship of the “Gods of Metal” by rich imperialists? The answer lies in Muhammad’s attitude towards war.
Like the vast majority of Christians since the 4th century, including our own day, and along with virtually all the prophets of the Jewish Testament, Muhammad was not a pacifist. Remarkably – once again like most Christians – Muhammad was a proponent of just war theory. In fact, he pioneered the theory’s development far ahead of its Christian proponents. Following its dictates, common sense and Muslim doctrine, the poor, he insisted, have the right to self-defense.
Yes, Muhammad recognized the right to jihad. Most of us are familiar with the term which is translated for us as “holy war.” Actually, the word means “struggle.” It signifies resistance to the forces of self-seeking within the individual believer, the Muslim community, and against those forces as represented by those who attack from without.
It’s that latter application that makes Islam so threatening to the West. The West wants no part of people who defend themselves against western depredations. Meanwhile western powers themselves claim not only the right of self-defense but even the prerogative of “preemptive strikes.”
What the West expects in return on the part of those attacked – especially if the attacked are “religious” – is a pacifism that for more than seventeen hundred years has never been a major part of “Christendom’s” belief system. As a matter of fact, western Christians tend to ridicule pacifists as unrealistic, unpatriotic, even cowardly “bleeding hearts.”
No, the West wants an enemy that simply rolls over for colonialism (in Israel), wars of aggression (in Iraq), policies of torture and illegal imprisonment, drone strikes, mass killings of innocent civilians, support of unpopular dictators, rigged elections, and a host of other crimes. In fact, when religious people defend themselves, westerners cry “foul” and condemn their victims for being hypocritical and “violent.” If the self-defenders are Christians influenced by liberation theology, they are characterized as Marxist, communist, totalitarian dupes. If they are not, their religion itself is perverse. Once again, all of this is as if westerners themselves were somehow religiously pacifist. They clearly are not!
Do you see why I used the term “ironic?” Actually, a stronger word is required but is likely unprintable.
And there’s more to this question of violence and Islam . . . . Muhammad’s own experience of being driven from Mecca by opponents of Islam closely tracks that of Israel’s treatment of Arabs in Palestine.
This becomes evident by recalling Muhammad’s basic story. It’s the account of a prophet and his followers attempting to return to a homeland from which (like today’s Palestinians) they have been exiled by force. Here are the elements of Muhammad’s career:
• An impoverished merchant from Mecca
• Living in a period of cultural crisis
• Characterized by neglect of the poor and vulnerable
• Receives revelations from God
• Centralizing surrender (Islam), humility, equality and peace
• He gradually draws to himself many devoted followers
• Drawn especially from society’s castoffs and despised – especially women
• This community is squeezed out of Mecca
• Its dwellings confiscated by the ruling class
• Now based in Medina, Muhammad and his followers (Muslims) wage a decades-long struggle to return home
• The struggle centralizes guerrilla attacks, economic blockade, “sit-ins,” and non-violent demonstration
• (At times, it is true, the tactics stood in conscious violation of basic Muslim commitment to peace and reconciliation)
• By these means, Muslims finally return to Mecca
• And establish Islam as the dominant religion of Arabia
In view of these details, it’s no wonder that Palestinians claiming “right of return” find inspiration in Muhammad. It’s no wonder that sister and brother Muslims throughout the world sympathize with the Palestinian cause and recognize Muhammad as a prophet for our time.
It’s no wonder that the U.S. and Israel vilify Muhammad’s religion so attractive to the impoverished people they are so intent on oppressing.
(Next week: Islam and Women)