Morality and War

By , Religion and ethics correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

"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.

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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.

Protecting the innocent

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.

Reacting to the efforts to convert Indians in the New World by force, the Spaniard Francisco de Vitoria in the 16th century became the first to reject the idea of religion as a legitimate basis for war. "Yet it wasn't until the horrendous experience of the post-Reformation religious wars, and particularly the Thirty Years' War," Johnson says, "that Western culture basically said: 'Never again.'" Still, examples of holy war appeared sporadically into the 17th century.

In addition to right authority, "just war" principles include:

• the idea of just cause, involving defense against attack, and retaliation.

• the idea of a right intention (not to dominate others, to show superiority, to enjoy the use of force, or exact cruel vengeance).

• a reasonable probability of success.

• an intention to restore a just peace.

• more good done than harm.

• use of force only as a last resort.

• avoidance of harm to noncombatants.

• proportionality - use of the least destructive force possible.

The West's campaign against Afghanistan (and any expansion into other countries) is being judged by many around the world on these principles, as well as by Muslims from their sense of grievance and their own traditions.

Principles of jihad

In Islam, the war tradition is called "jihad of the sword," representing but one element of the broad concept of jihad, which refers to personal and community "striving in the path of God."

"Jihad is a very important concept in Islam," says Taha Jabir Al-Alwani, director of the Graduate School of Islamic and Social Sciences in Leesburg, Va. "When you commit yourself to what God asks you to do, and avoid whatever he asks you to abandon, and when you cooperate with your community and encourage the practice of good - this is all part of the jihad.

"But also when somebody attacks your home, people, country, or religion, this also is jihad," he adds. "Just war is when you need to defend these things."

The author of several books on just war and jihad, Johnson says that in the 10th century, Islamic jurists in the Abbasid period of the Islamic state defined the concepts of dar al Islam (realm of Islamic society) and dar al harb (the sphere of war), representing the territories outside the Islamic state with which there were no treaties.

Offensive jihad could be initiated only by the Imam, the religious and political leader of the Islamic community. No such leader has existed for centuries - and will not again until the last days, according to Islamic teaching - so only defensive jihad may now be pursued.

The principles of war in that tradition include:

• a purpose of self defense.

• proportionality of response.

• avoidance of harm to women, children, and other classes of people (the same lists as in just war), and to the environment.

• cessation war if the enemy seeks reconciliation.

If the dar al Islam is attacked from the dar el harb, every Muslim has the responsibility to fight to protect it. During the periods of colonization by European powers, Dr. Al-Alwani says, many Muslims fighting for independence understood it as a defensive jihad for freedom. Peter Partner, the British author of "God of Battles: Holy Wars of Christianity and Islam," suggests that, at the same time, the leaders of the anticolonialist movement were largely modern nationalists, not religious people.

In fact, through history, he adds, "holy war has never been a knee-jerk reaction in Islam." Muslims didn't begin calling the response to the First Crusade a holy war until 22 years into the conflict, when they fully realized what they were facing. Saladin's campaign to oust the Crusaders later became the epitome of such war.

Fighting the infidels

In Islam, the presence of elements of the outsiders can be viewed as aggression, Johnson says. This is the argument bin Laden uses: The presence of American troops on the holy soil of Saudi Arabia is an aggression, and therefore every Muslim has the obligation to fight back.

"Yet he departs from the normative tradition," Johnson adds, "because he is fighting America in general, not simply those stationed in Saudi Arabia, which is what the old doctrine says."

Islamic tradition says that establishment of a community where sharia is the law is God's plan for the world, and Muslims should be trying to create that society. Yet today, when one-third of Muslims live as minorities in other societies, many think less of these concepts in territorial terms, and more as spiritual struggle.

Al-Alwani, who chairs a council that issues legal opinions for Muslims in North America, has published materials aimed at modifying concepts of dar al Islam and dar al harb.

"We no longer need to use those terms," he says. Muslims should think instead of "the place of people who answer the call of God,'' regardless of their religion, and "the place where those people - Muslims, Christians, and Jews - need to work together" to reach the unbelievers. The conflicts between Muslims and Christians in Africa and elsewhere spurred him to this reinterpretation, Al-Alwani says. "We need to reach others by values, not by forcing them to change their religion."

The territorial concept, however, also helps to explain why groups such as Hamas in the occupied territories and Hizbullah in Lebanon are seen as having more justification than other radical groups, although their tactics are not supported. "The case of Israeli occupation fits the defensive jihad model much better than other situations," Johnson says.

Still, Islamic tradition forbids killing of innocents and the idea of suicide.

What al Qaeda and other similar terrorist groups are doing is a clear abuse, Al-Alwani says. "A person truly committed to his religion is a person of values, and wouldn't commit such crimes."

Countering terrorism

After the Sept. 11 attacks, the foremost authority on Sunni Islam - Sheikh Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, of Al-Azhar university in Cairo - condemned them as contrary to Islam, and the Shia Muslim spiritual leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, called the fight against terrorism a "holy war." The Iranian leader has since strongly opposed the military strikes.

"There is a real distinction between the normative tradition, represented by the Sheik of Al-Azhar, and the use it is being made to serve by people like bin Laden," Johnson says. The extent to which the words of such prominent leaders sway public opinion or more radical Muslim clerics remains to be seen.

Given the frustrations of millions in the region, the primary challenge to avoiding an intensified conflict seems to rest with the counterterrorism coalition's capacity to act in ways that are convincingly just.

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