On War and Terrorism

11-05-2010 12:00 AM

Dr. Terence Nichols

As I write this, two events from the week’s headlines have been in my mind. One is the disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, with its potential of contaminating everything it touches: shores, marshes, beaches, wildlife such as birds, shrimp, fish, but also any people, such as fishermen and resort owners, whose livelihood can be wiped out by this catastrophe. Nor is it clear that it can be contained: winds and currents may carry it all the way around to the east coast of Florida.

The other event is the failed attempt to detonate a car bomb in Times Square (New York City) a few days ago. Recent news has it that the perpetrator, Faisal Shahzad, a Pakistani Muslim, has confessed. My first thought in reading this news was that this terrorist attempt has the potential to undo years of Muslim Christian dialogue, years in which we have been trying to build relationships of trust, understanding, and love between Muslims and Christians as fellow believers. The Islamic Center of Minnesota, here, just celebrated its 40th anniversary, and much of the celebration was devoted to the interreligious dialogue which that Center has sponsored for twenty years. But few people have heard of this event, while everyone has heard of the terrorist attempt in New York City. My second thought is that terrorism, like an oil spill, tends to contaminate everyone in its path: the millions of honest and law-abiding Muslims in our country, many or all of whom will be suspected of terrorism just because they are Muslims, but also non-Muslims, who will be caught in the slick of fear, hatred, and suspicion. I have many Muslim friends, and I would trust them with my life and life savings. But since 9/11 they too have felt the oil slick of suspicion—not from me, but from the larger population.

A month ago here in America the police uncovered a planned terrorist plot by an apocalyptic Christian group, the Hutaree militia. But this did not arouse the fear that the attack in Times Square has.

Terrorism—which might be defined as the intentional attacking of civilians to promote terror--is condemned by both Christianity and Islam. Most people don’t know this. The commandment “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13, New Revised Standard English translation) is accepted by Christians. The same commandment is found in the Quran: “You who believe, do not wrongfully consume each other’s wealth, but trade by mutual consent. Do not kill each other, for God is merciful to you. If any of you does these things out of hostility and injustice, We [Allah] shall make him suffer Fire; that is easy for God” (Surah 4:29-30). Similarly, Surah 5:32 states: “If anyone kills a person, unless in retribution for murder or spreading corruption in the land—it is as if he kills all mankind, while if he saves a life, it is as if he saves the lives of all mankind.” It is true that there are Quranic verses which support [limited] war, such as the famous ‘sword verse’: “When the forbidden months are over, wherever you encounter the idolaters, kill them…but if they turn to God, maintain the prayer, and pay the prescribed alms, let them go their way, for God is most forgiving and merciful.” (Surah 9:5, Haleem translation). But the meaning of idolaters here is the Meccan polytheists who broke a treaty with the Muslims, as verses 1-4 of Surah 9 make very clear.

So why are there so many terrorist attacks? Much of it is due to war. War drives people to do terrible things they would not otherwise do. We read often about suicide bombers in Iraq or Afghanistan. But there were no suicide attacks in Iraq until after the invasion of Iraq. Shahzad himself said the Times Square attack was revenge for U.S. drone attacks on Pakistan. These drones target Taliban militants, but also kill civilians. Because the drone attacks don’t target civilians, they are not technically terrorism. But try telling that to the civilian villagers who have lost loved ones to drones. One such villager is quoted in an American local newspaper as follows: “If they [the Americans] know about Taliban or Al-Quaida, OK, be specific and attack and kill them. But don’t kill innocent people.” (Minneapolis Star-Tribune, May 10, p. A8).
In fact some Islamic clerics defend suicide bombing because of war conditions (such as Anwar al-Awlaki), but many more condemn it, like Sheik Ali Gomaa, the Grand Mufti of Egypt, who wrote: “The murder of civilians is a crime against humanity and God punishable in this life and the next.” (Wall Street Journal, 10/08/2009, p. A 15, see www.stthomas.edu/mcdc, under “Muslim Statements”).

We read in the Amman statement: “There is to be no fighting against non-combatants, and no assault upon civilians and their properties…” Major American Muslim organizations, like ISNA (Islamic Society of North America) and the Muslim Public Affairs council in Los Angeles have condemned the Times Square bombing attempt. Similarly, most Christians, including all Roman Catholic clergy, condemn any direct attack on civilians. However, years ago, many Christians supported the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which did target civilians—because America was at war.

I think direct and intentional attacks on civilians, whether during war or not, is indefensible in both Christianity and Islam. As my friend Zafar Siddiqui wrote in a blog for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune (5/5/2010): “Terrorists have no Religion.” Whatever religion they profess is contradicted and sullied by their actions. There are terrorists who act in the name of Islam or Christianity, but their actions belie their words. Properly speaking there are no Islamic terrorists or Christian terrorists, for terrorism contradicts the basic beliefs of both religions, to love and honor God and neighbor.

Dr. Terence Nichols
Professor, Theology Department
Co-Director, Muslim-Christian Dialogue Center
University of St. Thomas
St. Paul, Minnesota, U.S.A.

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