All creatures learn by example. Although this is a natural process, it can also have negative consequences. There is a well-known hadith of the noble Prophet of Allah, upon whom be peace, to the effect that a person adopts the character of the company he keeps for 40 days. Anti-social or violent behaviour has a particularly bad influence on others; hence parents’ constant worries about the company that their children keep. There is also a tendency for undesirable traits or behaviour, such as drinking and promiscuity, to become acceptable over time, as people begin to consider them the norm. In such cases, pragmatism kicks in; the only rule is that people should not get caught.
Islam takes a very different view of personal and social ethics; it clearly delineates right from wrong, and condemns immorality of any kind, in any circumstances, even if one does not get caught. Even in the most extreme circumstances, Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala prohibits us from transgressing the bounds He has set. This is especially true in war and other situations in which we might become angry. It is at such times that one must adhere to one’s values most faithfully. In Surah al-Baqarah, Allah grants Muslims the permission to wage war but only “against those who have committed aggression against you; but do not transgress [the bounds set by Allah]” (2:190). In another surah, He reminds us to “be steadfast witnesses for Allah in equity, and let not the hatred of any people seduce you that you deal not justly” (5:8).
We now live at a time when foreign forces are waging wars against Muslims all over the world, such as in Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq and Chechnya, that may push us to resort to un-Islamic practices. It is particularly important to distinguish between fighting foreign invaders and fighting their local collaborators, however tempting it may be to blur this line. The foreign occupiers, especially the Americans, operate from heavily fortified security zones, such as the so-called Green Zone in Baghdad, making it far easier for resistance fighters to target their local proxies, but this does not justify the killing of local people employed in ministries or other departments. The resistance must concentrate on fighting foreign troops to liberate their country. Killing their own people leads only to exacerbating local tensions and undermining the legitimacy of the resistance, making the occupiers’ task easier.
In recent history the most successful resistance struggle has been that of the Hizbullah in Lebanon. There, the zionist occupiers had recruited the Christian Phalangists to fight their dirty war. While the Phalangists perpetrated appalling crimes against Lebanese civilians, the Hizbullah concentrated their energies on fighting the zionist occupiers. Even after the zionists were driven out of most of southern Lebanon, the Hizbullah leadership insisted that its members were not to seek revenge or indulge in vigilante justice. Instead, it called upon its followers to hand collaborators to the Lebanese authorities to be dealt with through the courts. It was this kind of scrupulous adherence to Islamic principles that earned them the respect of even the Christians. It was not uncommon during the years of resistance for Hizbullah leaders to be applauded when they appeared in Christian neighbourhoods. The lessons of this model need to be learnt by Islamic movements elsewhere.
Above all, Muslims must avoid adopting the tactics of the enemy. Throughout history, Western armies and mercenaries have perpetrated appalling atrocities against other peoples; Americain particular has proven utterly bestial, despite its rhetoric about human rights and the rule of law. Only last month, US president George Bush brusquely dismissed criticism of American troops and the CIA torturing prisoners, asserting simply that Americans “do not torture prisoners”. He presumably thinks that Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo are holiday camps where prisoners receive five-star treatment. The revelations about the secret detention centres in Eastern Europe—torture chambers would be a more apt description— clearly mean nothing to him.
The suffering of Muslims may tempt some to repay their enemies in kind, but it would be wrong. No matter how horrible our enemies’ crimes, we must uphold our own values and principles. We need to keep in mind the example of the Prophet (saw). In the Battle of Uhud, Abu Sufyan’s wife Hind ripped open his uncle Hamza’s body and tried to chew his liver. The Prophet was greatly distressed, but when Makkah was liberated, and Hind came to pledge allegiance, the Prophet’s only reproach was that she should not appear before him because it revived painful memories of Hamza’s mutilated body.
Some may argue that he was a Prophet of Allah and we are ordinary Muslims; but that is precisely the point. Allah has made the Prophet (saw) an example for us (33:21), and it is his example that we must follow, not that of the Americans . Throughout the eight-year war imposed by Iraq’s Ba’athist regime on Revolutionary Iran, the Islamic State refused to retaliate in kind for Iraq’s bombing of Iranian cities and use of chemical weapons. Such principled restraint is the Islamic way.
[Zafar Bangash is Director of the Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought (ICIT) in Toronto, Canada.]