Legitimate and illegitimate uses of political violence

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Crescent International

Rabi' al-Thani 01, 1424 2003-06-01


by Crescent International (Editorials, Crescent International Vol. 32, No. 7, Rabi' al-Thani, 1424)

Last month’s bomb-blasts at Western targets in Saudi Arabia and Morocco followed the conclusion of the US invasion of Iraq. The bomb-explosions in Riyadh on May 12 killed 24 people and wounded dozens. Four days later another 24 people were killed in five blasts in Casablanca, Morocco. In both cases the targets were Western interests and residential compounds. During the same period there were also martyrdom-operations in Palestine, in response to two days of Israeli violence in Ghazzah that left more that 20 people, mostly civilians, dead.

The first problem in discussing ‘terrorism’ is defining it. For the West, it includes any political violence against itself, its allies and interests, whatever the circumstances. Thus Muslim resistance to the US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, the zionist occupation of Palestine, India’s occupation of Kashmir and Russia’s occupation of Chechnya is lumped together with the September 11 attacks and attacks like the recent incidents. In truth these are all different cases, for which no single characterisation can suffice. The West, of course, is happy to tar all its enemies with the same brush, but Muslims, in whose name these actions are carried out, must take a more considered view.

There is no point in blindly denying Muslim responsibility for such acts, or denying that some of them are indeed utterly unjustifiable. But nor can we apologetically join the West in condemning them all, and all their perpetrators. Imam al-Asi makes the point that Muslims have always been willing to fight for justice. When Muslims are fighting external enemies, and target the political and military institutions of those enemies in our lands, these are acts of legitimate resistance.

But the bombings in Riyadh and Casablanca seem to be in a different category: political violence intended to destabilise illegitimate governments and pave the way for Islamic states. This approach is dubious on both moral and pragmatic grounds. Although targeting illegitimate rulers —such as Anwar Sadat, executed by Egyptian mujahideen in 1981— may be justified, targeting becomes problematic when the targets are junior officials whose responsibility for a regime’s actions is limited because they have no direct connection with the regime’s decision-makers. It also risks bringing the wrath of repressive state-machineries down not only on the perpetrators, but on Islamic activists and the general populace. In Egypt after Sadat’s assassination, there was a cycle of reprisals in which some mujahideen were pushed into acts of undoubted cruelty against civilians, including local Christians and foreign tourists. In Algeria, what began as a political struggle was pushed into armed struggle by government action against the Islamic movement, launching a cycle of violence in which the state effectively prevailed over the Islamists, some of whom committed appalling acts in the name of Islam.

As groups step up militant activities against civilian targets, in the Arabian peninsula and elsewhere, it is essential that we be clear about the necessity—for both moral and pragmatic reasons—of fighting a clean war, even when our enemies do not. Despite some Salafist-type groups’ false understanding of Islam (they dismiss huge parts of the Ummah as ignorant mushriks or worse), the Muslim masses are essential parts of the Islamic movement, indeed its greatest asset. What we need is not military action by tiny groups of armed insurgents, who succeed only in provoking our enemies to more repression, but political action based on a mature understanding of Islam, and on the Muslims’ support.

While standing together against the common enemy, it is vital that our leaders and activists be as clear on the illegitimacy of such acts as is Shaikh Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah of Hizbullah in Lebanon. He said after the Casablanca bombing: "From the standpoint of Islamic law, the targeting of innocent civilians...and of civilian structures by such savage acts in the absence of any justification, be it foreign aggression or war, is an offence...further, it is damaging to the reputation of Islam and Muslim people." He said that Muslims must speak out against "methods which assume a religious mantle, even though religion has nothing to do with such practices."

The truth, on which we must be firm, is that, despite the commitment and courage of these mujahideen, some of their actions are the grossest of criminal atrocities; do huge harm to the movement they claim to represent; and, most fundamentally, imperil their own souls.

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