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Violence in the Eye of the Beholder

The sectarian carnage in Iraq is just further proof to many Americans that Muslims, especially when dealing with themselves, are blood-lusting and depraved.

A Washington Post poll from last March found almost half of Americans have a negative view of Islam, while a full third believe Muslims are prone to violence. The latter figure more than doubled from a poll conducted four months after September 11.

The poll, however, did not ask Americans what we think of ourselves. That is perhaps the more pressing question, especially considering an estimated 655,000 Iraqi civilians have died since we invaded their country.

If the war on terror has accomplished anything, it seems to be the far-reaching belief that Islam is a religion of violence and that Muslims ultimately decide the viability of a peaceful future.

This dilemma has caused many, such as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, to ponder, “Where is the Muslim Martin Luther King?”

In Tuesday’s column, Friedman said, “I raise this question because the only hope left for Iraq — if there is any — is not in a U.S. counterinsurgency strategy. That may be necessary, but without a Muslim counter-nihilism strategy there is no hope for decent politics there.”

Friedman’s dim perspective is quite striking, considering he once said, “If war turns out to be the only option, then war it will have to be.” Then, two weeks before the invasion, he declared, “Regime change in Iraq is the right choice for Iraq, for the Middle East and for the world.”

British war correspondent Robert Fisk characterized this sort of turnaround best by saying, “A new phenomenon is creeping into the pages of The New York Times and those other great organs of state in the U.S. For those journalists who supported the war, it’s not enough to bash Bush. No, they’ve got a new flag to fly: The Iraqis don’t deserve us.”

If that doesn’t seem like a fair assessment, consider for a moment Friedman’s terms for peace. He highlights the urgency of “a Muslim counter-nihilism strategy,” while assuming, a U.S. counterinsurgency strategy “may be necessary.” Essentially, Friedman is asking Muslims to learn the ways of nonviolence, while leaving the door open for our own use.

Dr. King would clearly not endorse this strategy. Lest we forget his searing attack on the Vietnam War one year before his assassination, in which he called the US government “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”

Friedman’s understanding of nonviolence is framed by a government King was ashamed to call his own, an admission he must have known could cost his life. Therefore, using his name in such a wrongfully militaristic context is an unfitting degradation of something Gandhi called “satyagraha” or “the force which is born of truth and love or nonviolence.”

This understanding is not foreign to Muslims, despite what Friedman and many Americans believe. In Pakistan, there was Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, a close ally of Gandhi during the Indian independence movement, who raised a nonviolent army that had over 100,000 members. He believed jihad should be the ultimate form of nonviolence, where only the enemies hold swords and are forced to withdraw or create martyrs.

In Sudan, there was Mahmoud Muhammad Taha, who amidst the birth of Islamist extremism in the 1960’s, wrote extensively on the original peaceful teachings of the Koran, condemning intolerant and vengeful verses as a product of the medieval era. He was ultimately hung for his convictions, by the same regime responsible for Darfur.

There are also nearly half a dozen more such figures from Palestine, but for various reasons, not the least of which are marginalization by the Israeli and US governments, have been unable to capture western ears.

Rather than blame Muslims for the violence that occurs in the Middle East, Americans must come to terms with our own perpetration of violence on the same soil.

As a Palestinian Jew famously said, “Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own?”

BRYAN FARRELL is a journalist based in New York. He can be reached at: bryanfarrell@gmail.com

 

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