2016-06-30
There is no path to peace in the Middle East without engaging the religious traditions there. Many people in the Middle East and around the world express their highest hopes and aspirations for what it means to be human through religion. In doing so, they follow in the footsteps of Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Dalai Lama-- who all used the highest aspirations of their spiritual traditions to attain social justice.

Yet no matter what our religious tradition, we cannot simply repeat the mantra that all our religions teach nonviolence. All of our traditions-Muslim, Christian, and Jewish--are a mixed bag, containing examples where violence toward the "other" has been justified, as well as beautiful and sublime examples of the highest ethics. We all have the task of doing some soul-searching.

To find a path to peace, a path rooted in justice, we must develop a twin set of ethical standards from within our own traditions: first, acknowledge the fullness of humanity in all of us. Second, develop the ability to engage in serious self-criticism.

A recurrent problem in the Middle East-and indeed globally-is that most of us continue to treasure "our own" lives--our own soldiers, our own civilians, our own victims--more than that of "others." For most in the Middle East, there is an undeniable sense that the humanity of "our own" people is under siege.

Until the world's people are willing to acknowledge the presence of God in all of us, there is no path to peace. We have the resources for doing so within the Abrahamic faiths. We have to insist that the lives of an Iraqi civilian, an American soldier, an Israeli teenager in a café, and a Palestinian child all carry the same inherent value. For Muslims, this is easily justified by recalling the Qur'anic teachings about God having stated that He has breathed into each and every member of humanity something of His own Spirit: wa nafakhtu fihi min ruhi. [Qur'an 15:29 and 38:72]. At the heart of the Qur'an is a simple yet radical idea: every human individual, female or male, Muslim or non-Muslim, rich or poor, has exactly the same intrinsic worth. The essential value of human life is God-given, and is in no way connected to culture, geography, national origin, privilege, or even religion. A Muslim agenda committed to peace and justice is concerned with the ramifications of the premise that all members of the human race have this same intrinsic worth because each of us has the breath of God breathed into our being.

As the Prophet Muhammad (S) stated: "The faithful in their mutual kindness, compassion and sympathy are just like one body. When one of the limbs suffers, the whole body responds to it with wakefulness and fever." And yet who among us actually treats the suffering of all human beings as his or her own suffering? It is easy to identify with the suffering of those who share our nationality, religion, race, language, gender, sexual orientation, or class. But to meet the challenge posed to us by Prophet Muhammad, we have no choice but to expand our heart so wide as to encompass the whole of humanity.

I don't see that happening right now in the Middle East. I see my fellow Muslims cherishing and lamenting the lives of Iraqi civilians and Palestinians who live under brutal oppression. We should continue to cherish those lives, but not at the expense of demonizing Israelis or others in the region. Stand up to injustice? Yes, every day, every breath. But in the process of doing so we must not forget or trample over the humanity of others. To strip others of their humanity inevitably results in stripping our own selves of our humanity. We are all caught up in what Martin Luther King called the inescapable net of mutuality. My humanity is tied up to yours, and yours with mine.

And I dare say the majority of Israeli society today is far from acknowledging the humanity of those around them as well. If they had, they, too, would be coming to terms with the painful and humiliating conditions imposed on the Palestinians and on the thousands of civilians shot dead by the Israel Defense Forces. The loss of life and property is painful enough; the loss of human dignity is an atrocity that takes generations to recover from.

Meanwhile, we as Americans have never come to terms with the humanity of Iraqis and Afghanis--if we had, we would be having a public discussion about the tens of thousands of civilian casualties there as a result of our military operations. We have never come to terms with the thousands of civilians who died in Iraq during the 1990s as a result of our sanctions against them. These civilians matter, they matter to us, and they matter to God. I have to believe that on the Day of Judgment, all of us will be asked to answer for each and every one of these lives, in the words of the Qur'an: "For what crime was she murdered." [Qur'an 81:9]

As an American, as a Muslim, and as a scholar, my own sense of the ongoing cycle of violence in the Middle East is that it is still connected to the brutal experience of colonialism. For many in the Middle East, the legacy of European colonialism is part of the injustice that must be addressed. The British, French, and Dutch, among others, have long acknowledged their "empires;" but we Americans are almost averse to thinking of ourselves as a colonial presence.

For far too long, Western regimes have supported brutal puppet dictators who have squashed all hopes of democracy and freedom in the region. Most Americans still find it hard to believe that the United States sponsored the 1953 coup in Iran to overthrow the pro-democracy Prime Minister Mosadegh in favor of the autocratic (though pro-U.S.) Shah. Most Americans have a hard time imagining the close working relationship between the United States and Saddam Hussein during the 1980s. It is past time for us as Americans to put our values ahead of narrow visions of "strategic interest."

Connected to that colonial legacy, from the perspective of many in the Middle East, are corrupt regimes that suppress democracy. All too often, these regimes-Saudi Arabia and Egypt are examples--have received political and financial support from the United States. This reality enables Islamist groups to receive a great deal of support from the masses. One cannot understand the appeal of many Islamist groups in the Middle East without understanding how they position themselves as the popular voice of anti-establishment, anti-corruption, and anti-colonialism.

To understand one of the sources of conflict in the region, namely the Palestinian-Israeli tragedy, it is vital to understand that for the overwhelming majority of Muslims and Christians in the Middle East, the rise of Zionism, particularly from the early part of the 20th century to the establishment of the State of Israel, is inseparable from the colonial enterprise. The discourse of early Zionism was the same as the early discourse of colonialism: bringing civilization to allegedly "backward" and "primitive" natives. Furthermore, although Israel was founded out of a post-Holocaust need for a Jewish homeland, its establishment also occurred in the milieu of British mandates in the region, followed up by blind and unilateral U.S. support. The animosity most Middle Easterners felt toward the colonial powers was therefore transferred to Israel.

All of us have a responsibility to address systematic causes of violence, starting with the ongoing occupation in Palestine-Israel. Reasonable people can reach differing opinions on whether a two-state solution, or a secular one-state solution in which all would be guaranteed equal rights, is ultimately best. The key is to achieve justice, and then to stay on the path toward peace.

The issue today is not whether Israel has a right to exist; almost all Arab regimes have recognized that right. The issue is whether Israel will be a just state, ensuring that all citizens in her borders (Muslim, Jewish, and Christian) will be treated the same under the law, whether all will be able to own land and live free of intimidation. It is vital to pursue the same question in other counties, such as Egypt, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Iran, but we cannot avoid having that conversation in Israel. All of these states are today struggling with the issue of whether all of their citizens, no matter what their religion or ethnicity or gender, will be afforded the same legal and political rights. Again, I believe that there are resources within the Islamic tradition for us to look to. The Constitution of Medina is one great resource, which guarantees the right for practice of religion to all the citizens of Medina.

In the Qur'an, we are commanded to uphold justice as witnesses before God even if it means to speak again one's own self, one's own family, and one's own kin. [Qur'an 4:135] Today in the Middle East, we have a moral responsibility to challenge and resist tactics such as suicide bombings. These bombings, directed against civilians, violate both the letter and the spirit of Islamic law, which declares non-combatants to be off-limits. These teachings have to be resurrected, invoked, and taught again. There were effective examples of this during the gruesome beheadings in Iraq last year: a number of religious scholars pointed out how this mutilation of the human body violates the consensus of Islamic law.

Likewise, we as Muslims have the moral responsibility to stand up against misogynist, exclusivist, violent readings and interpretations of Islam, such as those favored by the Wahhabis. This is a fight that we alone must lead. Just as we have the responsibility to point out the horrific legacy (and present state) of colonialism, it is also imperative that we avoid the endless abyss of post-colonial and anti-colonial violence. That is a vortex of death which will eventually swallow all of us and our children. We can only rise though this mess through a clear appeal to justice, an unceasing commitment to resistance, and yet through the path of nonviolence.

Peace alone is not enough. The path to peace can only take shape on the solid ground of justice.

Like all other high human ideals, peace has been appropriated to justify agendas of domination. Two examples: In apartheid-era South Africa and civil rights-era America, those who fought for equality were deemed agitators, opponents of "peace." In this light, when "peace" is used in the context of "security" to reinforce the ideology of the powerful at the expense of the weak, it is a mockery. As long as our definition of peace is simply the "absence of fighting," we are already well on our way toward stripping human beings of their ability to resist injustice. Rather than insisting on the absence of fighting, we should be trying to remove sources of injustice in the region.

The conflicts in the Middle East are today--along with the divide between the world's wealthy northern and penniless southern countries, and the AIDS crisis--the world's major moral quagmires. As Martin Luther King reminded us so often, peace is not an abstract goal we seek, but the very path that we choose to get there as well. May we all be instruments of God's will, a God who desires peace for all of his creation, and who abhors injustice. This God we know, this God we adore, and it is following this just and loving God that we seek to reshape human communities all over the world. Toward that peace, rooted in justice, we rise up today.

more from beliefnet and our partners