Peshawar, Pakistan - An Afghan driver and three female relief workers employed by the International Rescue Committee (IRC) were shot and killed in the Logar province of Afghanistan last month. The New York-based IRC has been assisting Afghans since the 1980s. A Taliban spokesman claimed responsibility for the killings saying, “We don’t value their aid projects, and we don’t think they are working for the progress of our country.”
Across the border in Pakistan, the Pakistani Taliban has been routinely harassing and banishing relief workers and NGOs. In the last few months, they have also bombed hundreds of schools, hotels, bridges and video shops in different areas of northwest Pakistan. According to media reports, over 61 girls’ schools in the Swat Valley alone have been burnt down.
Are aid workers, students and women the Taliban’s new targets in the so-called “war on terror”? What does Islamic theory and practice have to say about such acts? And who is authorised to issue edicts on the matter – traditionally educated scholars or extremists?
As far as war ethics in the days of early Islam are concerned, several hadith (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad) forbade the killing of women and children, as is clearly stated in a hadith narrated by the Caliph Omar (Bukhari, 4:258). Abu Bakr, the first caliph and friend of the Prophet Muhammad, summarising the Prophet’s message, telling the leaders of his armies, “Do not kill a woman, a child, or an old man. Do not cut down a blossoming tree, do not destroy a building, and do not kill a sheep or camel, except for the purpose of eating it. Do not submerge or cut down a palm tree. Do not be excessive, and do not be cowardly.”
There is a nearly universal consensus among Muslims that the killing of civilians is not acceptable, even in conflict. However, the Taliban and Al Qaeda appear to be redefining this notion to suit their ambitions.
Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al Qaeda’s number two in command, declared such acts, including suicide bombing, as justified in times of war. However in Islamic tradition issuing such a religious legal opinion – also known as a fatwa – is the prerogative solely of learned scholars who are specially trained in Islamic legal tradition, not of informally trained militants killing in the name of Islam.
Claims that killing innocent people, burning down schools, harming aid workers and resisting developmental projects can be justified under Islam have come under harsh criticism by traditional Islamic scholars, sometimes costing them their lives. Maulana Hasan Jan, a respected Islamic scholar from Pakistan and an imam of Darwish Masjid, a central mosque in Pakistan’s northwestern city of Peshawar, criticised such acts in his Friday sermons, claiming that taking the law into one’s own hands was a blatant transgression of Islamic teachings. Soon thereafter, he started receiving death threats and was eventually shot dead by Taliban militants in September 2007.
Maulana Hasan Jan was not alone in issuing such a verdict. Centres of Islamic scholarship, which have the right to issue Islamic legal verdicts in Karachi, Lahore, Multan, Gujranwala and Peshawar, declared attacks targeting innocent victims alien to Islam. Even Maulana Sufi Mohammad, the hardline leader of the Movement to Implement Shari’a who was arrested on charges of instigating youth in tribal areas to go to war, declared suicide bombing and mass killing un-Islamic.
The Taliban and Al Qaeda have been unable to rally support from the majority of traditional Islamic scholars and jurists who consider their extreme tactics a deviation from true Islam and a result of misinterpretation of religious texts.
Thus Muslim scholars and jurists have the leverage to reverse the growing trend of attacking aid workers and development organisations. They have a largely untapped potential in the field of conflict resolution and prevention. In fact, this potential is being realised as many universities in Muslim countries start new disciplines examining peace-building and conflict resolution in Islam. In Pakistan specifically, Karachi University and the National Defence College in Islamabad have begun to offer courses in peace and conflict studies.
Likewise, there are many Islamic scholars throughout the world actively involved as teachers, researchers and activists asserting and explaining Islam’s peaceful approach toward civilians. These scholars can and should continue to speak out, asserting Islam’s pro-development posture, deflating the ability of violent militants to use Islam to justify their actions and making Islam part of the solution.
*Husnul Amin is a columnist for the Urdu daily, Mashriq, and a PhD candidate in development studies at the Institute of Social Studies at The Hague in the Netherlands. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at www.commongroundnews.org.
Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 9 September 2008, www.commongroundnews.org Copyright permission is granted for publication.