Morality and War
To spur his followers to the horrendous acts of Sept. 11, Osama bin Laden claimed to lead a holy war against America to end its "crusade against the Islamic nation." Yet his chosen means of warfare - the fiery destruction of the twin towers of the World Trade Center - belied his claim. In the Islamic tradition of jihad, it is forbidden for men to use fire, because that is the weapon God will use in the Day of Judgment.Skip to next paragraph
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"One thing that struck me when I saw the TV images was that destroying those buildings by fire [represented] a usurping of the divine authority," says James Turner Johnson, professor of religion at Rutgers University, and a specialist on Islamic and Western traditions of war.
When the US launched military strikes in Afghanistan, Mr. bin Laden upped the ante with a chilling statement dividing the world into two camps, the faithful and the infidels, aiming to provoke passions and to raise the specter of religious war - and perhaps the clash of civilizations spoken of in the West.
Many Muslims have reacted with anger to the US military campaign, but are fears of a widening jihad well founded? War tends to rouse emotions on all sides, but the perceptions of the majorities in many societies are
likely to be swayed by whether the actions of the players during the lengthy fight against terrorism are considered just.
When it comes to traditions of war and the efforts to harness it throughout history, those in the West and in the Muslim world are not as far apart as many may assume. The voices of Islam are numerous, as are those of Christianity and Judaism, but the moral tradition of jihad shares many similarities with the concept of "just war" in the West.
Of course, there is no guarantee that the acts of men and nations in war will conform to their principles. Yet civilizations have chosen to set those standards, based on their sense of the moral meaning of life, to serve as guides for testing potential courses of action, and for judging acts of war that have been taken.
To exert moral limits on the use of force, both Western and Islamic traditions say that war must be undertaken by a right authority (the head of a political community, not a private person), for a just cause, and under rules of right conduct.
The significant difference is that, while "just war" theory originated in Christian thinking, it is now mainly a secular tradition instituted in international laws and codes, including the Geneva conventions, and jihad is inherently religious. Islamic normative thinking does not separate the religious from the political and is derived from the Koran.
"This is a fundamental difficulty between the West and the world of conservative Islam," Johnson says. "We can't understand how they can have a society where religion and politics mix, and they can't understand why we don't. And we fault each other for these characteristics."
The Muslim world is in the throes of a reinterpretation of Islamic political theory, and according to Sohail Hashmi, assistant professor of international relations at Mount Holyoke College, this is likely to bring concepts of jihad even closer to Western precepts.
The moral principles related to "just war" were explored first by Augustine in the 4th century, reiterated in the Middle Ages by Thomas Aquinas, and expanded by jurists and others such as Hugo Grotius (1583-1645), the father of international law. Holy war had a place in this tradition - the Crusades being the most vivid example.