Marc Finaud

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Holy War and the Killing of Innocents

Posted on July 22, 2016 at 4:10 AM

23 January 2015


In the aftermath of the Paris terrorist attacks, as after previous incidents resulting from publications seen as offensive by some Muslims, the debate understandably focused on discrepancies between the universal concept of freedom of expression and the limits seen as imposed on it by religious faith. A lot has been expressed, both in media and in the streets around the world, by the opposed ends of the spectrum, which at this stage appear difficult to reconcile. One aspect of the problem, however, seems to have been almost absent from the exchange of arguments: those who claim to fight in the name of Allah or Prophet Mohammad or as part of a Holy War or jihad grossly violate the rules contained in the Qur’an and further elaborated over centuries by Muslim scholars. Indeed, the most widespread interpretation of the Qur’an insists on the notion of individual responsibility, and therefore bans collective sanctions affecting innocents:

Those who kill innocent people are doomed to eternal punishment (25:68-69). Whosoever slays an innocent person ... it is as if he had slain humankind altogether." (5:32).


Some Muslim scholars consider that “collective criminalization as well as collective punishment is the norm under tribal rules. Islam puts the responsibility of illegal acts on the miscreant alone, abolishing the tribalistic code. The Qur’an declares that no bearer of burdens can bear the burdens of another. (Al-Naja 53 v.3 8) This was the final nail in the coffin of tribalism.” Such a doctrine can be considered as one of the several limitations that Islam imposes on warfare, which, according to the Qur’an, must be defensive and subject to strict rules to be obeyed by all:

“Fight in the path of God those who fight you, but do not transgress limits, for God does not love transgressors.” (Qur'an 2:190).


On this basis, Muslim scholars thus developed ethical and legal norms to be applied in times of conflict, in particular when fighting ‘holy wars’ (although the concept of jihad has a broader meaning): defenceless people such as women, children, and the elderly should not be killed intentionally, although it was once permitted to enslave them. Monks, nuns, and the disabled also are to be spared from execution after a battle. Prophet Muhammad’s successor and first Caliph, Abu Bakr (573-634), spelled out these rules:

Stop, O people, that I may give you ten rules for your guidance in the battlefield. Do not commit treachery or deviate from the right path. You must not mutilate dead bodies. Neither kill a child, nor a woman, nor an aged man. Bring no harm to the trees, nor burn them with fire, especially those that are fruitful. Slay not any of the enemy's flock, save for your food. You are likely to pass by people who have devoted their lives to monastic services; leave them alone.


As regards the Paris attacks, the Kouachi brothers did kill, in a premeditated way, journalists and cartoonists whom they accused of blasphemy or offence against all Muslims. But they shot at unarmed, defenceless people with automatic weapons, and in doing so, they also killed people who just happened to be present there. Then they killed a fallen, wounded policeman pleading for mercy before taking strangers as hostages or human shields. Their fellow terrorist, Amedy Coulibaly, killed an unarmed policewoman and several hostages at gun point in the kosher grocery shop he had stormed, where women, children and elderly people were kept for hours under violent pressure. According to the investigation still under way, he had plans to attack a Jewish school and kill children as Mohamed Merah had done in Toulouse in March 2012.


The laws of warfare gradually developed since ancient times, including in Muslim cultures, and now accepted by all states as the Geneva Conventions, essentially aim at sparing civilian populations from the consequences of armed conflict. Of course, it is debatable whether terrorists, despite their claims, actually conduct war against the “Infidels” and are entitled to the protection granted to combatants by international humanitarian law. Some of them, either on their own or manipulated by others, do go on to fight in the many battlefields created in the last decades, most often as a result of western interventions: Afghanistan, Iraq, Mali, Libya, Syria, etc. There, they usually take part in asymmetric warfare, often against more heavily armed enemies and may suffer severe losses. Without condoning such an international phenomenon, one can recognise that some combatants display certain courage in fighting for their ideals. It may also coincide with less commendable terrorist actions such as the kidnapping and execution of hostages, use of child soldiers, persecution of women or other people on religious or ethnic grounds.


In the post-Paris attacks debate, much was said about the need to educate disenfranchised youngsters better, to integrate them socially and prevent or reverse their radicalization, especially when they returned from actual fighting. The role and responsibility of parents, teachers, religious leaders and social workers was mentioned. The importance of recalling the universal rules of warfare cannot be underestimated in this global effort. All governments have accepted the obligation, under the Geneva Conventions, to “promote” international humanitarian law (IHL), which implies a commitment to ensure general knowledge and understanding in their societies. The European Union adopted guidelines in this regard. In countries where no armed conflict is occurring, rules of human rights law are in any case applicable, since IHL is a lex specialis for the duration of conflict, and should also protect innocent civilians against violence.


One may express doubts as to the impact of such educational efforts on people considered as radicalised fanatics operating with a fundamentally different set of values. In underground cultures developed, often in social media, propaganda videos or even computer games, a cult for heroes can be promoted on the basis of values of bravery, masculinity, loyalty, etc. at the expense of those displaying cowardice. In other words, the young disenfranchised Muslims in the poor neighbourhoods also of western countries would be exposed to models or patterns of behaviour that would exclude those who killed women, children and other unarmed civilians, whatever their religion, ethnicity or the responsibility of their governments.


Is this ‘mission impossible’? It will certainly be far from easy and will take time. We should be encouraged by the achievements, among others, of a discreet non-governmental organisation such as Geneva Call, which is dedicated to promoting respect by armed non-state actors for international humanitarian norms in armed conflict and other situations of violence, in particular those related to the protection of civilians. Since its creation in 2000, Geneva Call has convinced some 53 armed non-state groups to actually respect international humanitarian norms.


Although the situation may differ when dealing with individual cases of terrorists often called ‘lone wolves’, this example shows that determined efforts to promote the rules of civilized behaviour always pays, albeit because, in the end, people involved in conflict or violent situations usually benefit from those rules. Internationally, according to the 2014 Global Terrorism Index Report, 82 percent of the fatalities resulting from terrorist acts in 2013 occurred in five predominantly Muslim countries (Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Syria) and 66 percent of claimed deaths from terrorist attacks were claimed by four radical Islamist terrorist organisations (ISIL, Boko Haram, the Taliban and al-Qa’ida and its affiliates).


Admittedly, western democracies will have a stronger case if they abide themselves more scrupulously with international humanitarian law and human rights law, for instance in renouncing such extra-territorial structures as the Guantánamo prison, drone attacks causing extensive collateral damage to civilians or indiscriminate strikes against populated areas like Gaza. Setting themselves a higher standard, these states could indeed more effectively prevent or combat organised or individual terrorist attacks by avoiding any accusations of double standards or discrimination.




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