Inter Press Service English News Wire; 10/16/1995; Kunda Dixit


PENANG, Malaysia, Oct. 16 (IPS) -- Worried by what they see as a Western-led campaign to demonize their religion, some Muslim intellectuals want to project the non-violent face of Islam. Citing the lessons of recent history, such as the Iranian Revolution and the Palestinian Intifada, they assert that much more than war, non-violent struggles have succeeded in promoting the interests of Muslim peoples worldwide.

"Non-violence is at the core of Islamic teachings, a jihad is justified only in the extreme cases. Violence absolutely has no legitimacy," says AbdulHamid-Ahmad AbuSulayman, the Saudi Arabian rector of the International Islamic University in Malaysia. But other Islamic scholars argue that non-violence in situations like Bosnia-Hercegovina would be a joke. They say the Qu'ran justifies the use of retaliation and self-defence, and a completely pacifist Islam would give the advantage to the oppressor.

They say Mahatma Gandhi's non-violent struggle for Indian independence worked because colonial Britain had some democratic values. It would not have worked if the enemy had overwhelming power, and did not hesitate to use it ruthlessly. Nevertheless, there is a small but growing body of thought in the international Islamic academia that violence in the long run is counter-productive. It violates religious teaching, begets more bloodshed and gives the enemy the excuse to use more force. "The oppressor would like the oppressed to use violence, because then it can justify its own use of violence," says Chaiwat Satha-Anand, a Thai Islamic scholar who believes Gandhi's ideology of non-violence was strongly influenced by his readings of the Qu'ran.

Many devout Muslims think the Islamic concept of jihad has been misused by radical Islamic groups, but also deliberately distorted by the West so that the term has come to mean senseless and desperate acts of violence and terrorism. The Chambers Concise Dictionary describes jihad as "a holy war" (for the Muslim faith); or "a fervent crusade." "In its most general meaning, jihad is an effort, a striving for justice and truth that need not be violent," notes Chaiwat. "Muslims are taught to practice the greater jihad -- the process of struggle against worldly passion in oneself."

Some 50 Islamic scholars, historians, Mid-East experts, activists and journalists met in Penang this month to analyze the true Islamic view on the use of force, violence and terrorism and the negative perceptions of Islam in the West.

"We wanted to find out whether it was always necessary to resort to force in the quest for justice, since centers of power in the West are bound to tarnish the image of those who are seeking justice by projecting them as terrorists," says Chandra Muzaffar, a Malaysian activist whose group, JUST World Trust, sponsored the Penang meeting.

"We want to see if it isn't possible to develop from within Islamic philosophy itself a concept of struggle, of a jihad for justice, which is totally non-violent and peaceful." Most participants agreed that the concept of non-violence is strongly founded in Islamic teachings and cited the verse from the Qu'ran on the sanctity of human life: 'And if anyone saved a life/It would be as if he saved/The life of the whole people.' "The role of violence has been greatly exaggerated, and the potentials of non-violence have been underestimated," says Richard Falk, professor of international law at Princeton University in the United States.

Falk says the issue of violence and terrorism lies at the heart of the tension between Islam and West today and has fed self-motivated prophecies of a "civilizational conflict." Detaching violence from Islam would deprive the West of its most powerful argument for demonizing Islam. Falk cites the Iranian Revolution as one of the most potent uses of non-violence against injustice, but laments what came later. Television images of Palestinian youths using stones against Israeli armored cars became a powerful symbol of non-violent struggle -- many times more effective than decades of hijackings, bombings and sabotage by Palestinian guerrillas.

Muzaffar says instances when Palestinians, Algerians or Kashmiris have blown up buses, killed journalists or beheaded tourists have diminished the moral legitimacy of their just cause. Since international public perception is shaped by a largely Western-owned media, these events receive far more coverage than the violence the world over in which Muslims are victims.

"The distorted image of Islam as a violent, extremist and uncompromising religion has been carefully nurtured to make the Western public take an aggressive stance so voters will support drastic military or economic action against selected Muslim states," says Hans Koechler, professor of political philosophy at University of Innsbruk in Austria. He says this serves a strategic geopolitical purpose for the West, which regards Mideast oil as crucial to its prosperity and power. In the process the "Arab threat" of the 1970's has been changed to the "Islamic threat" in the 1990's. "Western strategic and economic interests have a lot to do with the portrayal of certain Muslim states and groups as terrorist," says Muzaffar. "Those who submit to U.S. interests and are subservient to Western dominance will not be branded terrorist even if they terrorize their own populace. It helps to hide the terrorism of the powerful West." For Muzaffar, the most effective way to fight Western distortions of Islam is what he calls "radical non-violence" -- a combination of political and economic pressure, Islamic solidarity and information countermeasures.

Says Falk: "History is littered with struggles that have been destroyed from within because of their reliance on violence. Recourse to violence contaminates the struggle. Let us learn from history: non-violent opposition to oppression provide the most promising possibilities for real change in the world."

Copyright 1995 IPS/GIN.