Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Martyrdom in Islam & Islamic 'Elites'

Husayn bin 'Ali, the third Shi'i Imam, and his son, 'Ali Akbar, who were both martyred at the Battle of Karbala in October 680 C.E. Their martyrdom, and those of the other members of Husayn's small band, have have been sanctified over the centuries and are a key event in the historical memory of all Shi'i Muslims. History has mixed with hagiography and what has come to be termed "martyrology" to create a highly symbolic and quasi-mythologized vision of the past. This poster is an example of popular representations of the Karbala events, which are commemorated annually in highly ritualized mourning ceremonies during the first ten days ('Ashura) of the Islamic lunar month of Muharram. The most culturally base and backward of these, performed among a very visible (and often shown in the U.S. and Sunni Muslim press) but minority group of Shi'is, particularly those from South Asia and parts of Iraq and the Arab Gulf, include self-flagellation and the symbolic cutting of the forehead with a razor, knife, or sword, representing one's willingness to sacrifice blood for the justice Husayn died for. These practices have little to no basis in the Qur'an or even Shi'i historical traditions of the Prophet Muhammad or the Shi'i Imams. In fact, they contradict Qur'anic prohibitions on self-harm. They are primarily backward cultural practices, not unlike the actual crucifixion some Christians undergo during Easter week and Hindu rituals involving the shedding of blood.

وَلا تقولوا لِمن يَقتل في سَبيل الله اموات بل احَياء لكن لا تشعرونَ
"Say not that those who are killed in the path of God are dead; They are alive [in Heaven], but you do not perceive/comprehend."
Qur'an, Surah al-Baqarah, Verse 154

Islamic Elites' Construction of Islamic Martyrdom

By Abraham Rushdi

Eureka Street.com, Australia [February 27, 2007]

An interesting, but ultimately overly generalized editorial on the issue of martyrdom "in Islam."

An Islamic martyr (shahid) is a Muslim who died fi sabil Allah (in the cause of Allah). For Muslims to die in the service of and for Allah is the highest form of martyrdom. Martyrs are imbued with special status and reverence among Muslims. Islamic martyrdom has different Islamic constructs and justifications for the diverse versions or interpretations within Islam. Islamic elites have (re)constructed the martyrdom in response to their political ambitions and the prevalent situational factors and environment. This essay will examine three main types of Islamic martyrdom: battlefield martyrdom, non-violent (spiritual) martyrdom and contemporary martyrdom operations. Most emphasis will be placed on martyrdom operations since it is the most contentious. Radical Islamists believe that Islam sanctions the use of martyrdom operations (e.g., suicide terrorism or suicide bombings) under certain circumstances. While these claims are spurious, an important question is why these radical messages resonate with some Muslim communities, such as the Palestinians, living under certain situational factors.

The Quran sanctioned the use of violence against enemy combatants, oppression and injustice. It is beyond the scope of this essay to examine the Islamic doctrine of war and peace, suffice to say that the use of violence is strictly sanctioned by Islamic jurisprudence.

Martyrs (shahid) are revered and rewarded in the physical world and in the afterlife. K. Lewinstein’s book chapter “The Revaluation of Martyrdom in Early Islam” outlines nine benefits enjoyed by the martyr: “remission of sins at the moment his blood is shed; the privilege of immediately beholding his place in Paradise (there is no waiting until the Day of Judgement); avoidance of the punishment of the tomb; marriage to seventy houris; protection from the Great Terror; the wearing of the Crown Dignity;...and the right to intercede with God for seventy of his relatives”.

The veracity of these benefits bestowed upon a martyr cannot be proven. Nonetheless, these martyr benefits are promoted by Islamic elites (scholars and activists) through a constructed culture of martyrdom, whereby the martyr gains presence and continuity in the community. The martyr’s deeds are ritualised in performances and processions that recall and re-enact the struggle for the cause of Allah. Islamic martyrdom, as outlined below, has been bestowed for diverse acts of martyrdom and importantly, for Islamic elites’ advocacy of diverse political and religious “causes of Allah”.

In the Quran, shahid refers to ‘witness’ and not ‘martyr’. K. Lewinstein contends that early Islamic scholars had likely broadened the meaning of shahid to martyrdom, not because of Islamic jurisprudence or belief, rather the Christian connection of witnessing and martyrdom reflected in antique Christian linguistic usage. The Arabic Quranic word martyrdom (shahada) came from the Greek word ‘martyr’ and Syriac word ‘sahda’. John Esposito, in his influential book Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam, argues that martyrdom comes from the same origin as “the Muslim profession of faith (shahada) or [to bear] witness” that “There is no God (Allah) but God and Muhammad is the Prophet of God”. The Quran expounds little on what constitutes a martyr, rather it states the rewards of martyrdom in Paradise: “Do not say of those slain in Allah’s way that they are dead; they are living, only you do not perceive” (Q. 2:154). Hence, what constitutes a ‘martyr’ is constructed and contested by Islamic elites.

The category of ‘martyr’ has been widened and (re)constructed by Islamic elites due to the prevalent political environment and situational factors. There are three main types of martyrdom: battlefield martyrdom, non-violent (spiritual) martyrdom and martyrdom operations. The expansion of the types of martyrdom enabled those who struggled for Allah in whatever guise to receive the martyr’s reward. However, despite the expansion of the types of martyrdom, not all Muslims who died in battle are eligible for martyrdom. Only those who fought with the proper intention may qualify for the reward of ‘martyr’. Only Muslims who died fi sabil Allah (in the way of God) are qualified for the title ‘martyr’. Those who fought for physical rewards (booty) or for ostentatious display of bravery or suicide or not fi sabil Allah are ineligible for martyrdom.

Outlined below is a brief history of the changing constructions of Islamic martyrdom. Four periods are selected: Early Islam, classical period, modernist period and contemporary era. The Islamic elites’ construction of martyrdom is contested as it changes according to the situational factors. Hence, while each historical period outlined below may emphasise a particular type of martyrdom, it is usual to observe a combination of martyrdoms advocated and practiced.

First, early, seventh century AD Islamic elites initially emphasised ‘battlefield martyrdom’, whereby, the title of martyr was bestowed upon those who died on the battlefield fighting unbelievers. The contested nature of martyrdom was emphasised by the notorious Kharijites (seceders), an obscure Islamic sect, who fought against unbelievers and Muslims not sharing their Islamic vision. They deliberately sought martyrdom (talab al-shahada) by ‘selling’ themselves in exchange for Paradise (Q 4:74 and 9:112). Kharijites advocated an exclusivist and puritanical vision believing that the profession of faith required righteousness and good deeds. They believed that acts of martyrdom were legitimised by their religious justification that they alone were the true and righteous Muslims.

Second, Islamic elites in the classical period, particularly in the ninth to tenth century AD, advocated ‘non-violent (spiritual) martyrdom’ to be bestowed by the inner sacrifice of the believer who died serving Allah. Non-violent martyrdom was evident in the Prophet Mohammad’s era and was reinvigorated by classical Islamic scholars who appealed to the Hadiths that sanctioned the internal sacrifice of believers. According to Richard Bonney, in his book Jihad: From the Quran to Bin Laden, the Hadiths acknowledged several types of non-violent martyrdom. These include death from plague, drowning, pleurisy, abdominal disease, being burnt to death and dying in childbirth. Islamic elites’ emphasis on non-violent martyrdom was influenced by the reaction against the militancy of early Islam and subsequent sedition and political upheaval. Furthermore, the quietism of classical Islamic scholars can be attributed to the promotion of moderation, peace and stability within the expanded Islamic civilisation.

Third, the modern era, nineteenth to twentieth century, initially saw the continuation of a relatively stable political environment within the Islamic civilisation that shaped the pragmatic quietism of most modernist Islamic elites and their continued emphasis on non-violent martyrdom. However, the stability within the Islamic civilisation did not prevent competing Islamic elites from appealing to battlefield martyrdom to mobilise their supporters to fight against their enemies or for their cause (e.g., anti-colonial struggles and national liberation movements).

The break up of the Islamic civilisation into Western sponsored nation-states led to the (re)construction of martyrdom by Islamic elites. They promoted ‘martyrs’ as those who died defending the state rather than those who died spreading and defending the Islamic civilisation. In this guise, nineteenth and twenty century anti-colonial struggles were viewed by modern Islamic organisations (e.g., Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt) as defending Islam and Muslims against colonialism. In contrast, competing Islamic elites, such as Sir Sayyid Khan, sought to counter the Western oriental view that Islam was a religion of violence spread by battlefield martyrs. These Islamic elites argued that Islam is the legitimate state religion of Islamic or Muslim states and is not used to promote violence. These competing accounts exhibited that martyrdom was used to mobilise the state’s nascent police and military forces to defend the motherland. For example, during the Iran- Iraq war in the 1980’s, Iranian state sponsored martyrdom was used as a propaganda tool to mobilise the armed forces and to defend the homeland. In sum, Islamic elites’ promotion of battlefield martyrdom to defend the homeland has similarities with secular politicians’ appeals to patriotism and nationalism to defend the motherland.

Finally, for the purposes of this short essay, contemporary martyrdom operations are defined as politically motivated violence that is conducted by an organisation which specifically targets innocent civilians and ensures the death of the perpetrator.

[Martyrdom operations, while often targeting civilians in contradiction of modern and Islamic legal laws of war, in fact do not solely target civilians. Take, for example, the ongoing war in Iraq. A segment of such attacks targeted Iraqi, U.S., British, and other foreign security and military forces. This does not meet the widely accepted, depoliticized definition of terrorism, the intentional targeting, or wanton disregard for, civilians. Politicized usage of the term, such as that used by the U.S., Israeli, Russian, and autocratic Arab regimes is often misleading or flat-out inaccurate/untrue. These actors often try to claim attacks on their military and security forces as "terrorism."]

Martyrdom operations emerged from the post colonial struggles of the twentieth century (e.g., Palestinian Occupied Territories). Radical Islamists criticise the quietism of Islamic moderates, which they believe led to the subjugation of Muslims by a coalition of Western and apostate governments in the Muslim world. Radical Islamic ideologues, such as Sayyid Qutb, have sought to return Islam to the ‘straight path’ by reinterpreting and revitalising Islamic doctrines. In Qutb’s seminal book Milestones, he argued that the path to freedom must be hewn by the sword (jihad bil saif). Furthermore, radical Islamists advocated that martyrdom is an individual duty (fard ‘ayn) incumbent upon all Muslims against oppressors, apostates and infidels. They support their claims by citing the Qur’anic verse, “oppression is worse than killing” (2:217). Radical Islamists have extended the construction of battlefield martyrdom from defending one’s homeland or against oppression to contemporary martyrdom operations which instils upon all Muslims, an individual obligation to fight against oppressors even if these oppressors are innocent civilians. Furthermore, they contend that those who oppress Muslims cannot be ‘innocent civilians’.

Roadside bomb, Iraq

Moderate Muslims believe that Islamic doctrine prohibits martyrdom operations on three accounts. First, as A. Palazzi states in the book Countering Suicide Terrorism, Islam clearly prohibits suicide as the Quran states “do not kill yourself, for God is indeed merciful to you” and “do not throw yourself into destruction with your own hands”. Second, Islam prohibits the killing of innocent civilians. Finally, Islam affords protection to people of the book – Jews and Christians.

Roadside bomb, Iraq

Radical Islamists believe that these three prohibitions are not applicable to Muslims who live under oppressed conditions (e.g., Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories). They argue that martyrdom is based on the Islamic doctrines of ‘Istishad’ (martyrdom) meaning self-sacrifice in the name of Allah.

Iraq Sunni insurgent Internet art

The radical Islamist perspective is exemplified by the late Sheikh Yassin, the former spiritual leader of Hamas, and Sheikh al-Qaradawi, a scholar of Islamic jurisprudence, both of whom sanctioned ‘martyrdom operations’ as a legitimate form of resistance.

Both distinguished between suicide and martyrdom, arguing that the latter is a noble act and sacrifice for the liberation of oppressed Palestinian Muslims, while the former is committed for selfish personal reasons, such as ending one’s own life. The late Dr. al-Rantisi, another former leader of Hamas, argued that if one killed oneself because of the environment, that is suicide, but if one sacrificed one’s soul for Allah in the service of defeating the enemy, then that is martyrdom.

Second, Sheikh al-Qaradawi argued that Israel is a military society

because men and women serve and are conscripted into the military. Hence, according to this view the casualties caused by martyr operatives are not in

nocent Israeli citizens because they live in a militarised society. Therefore, radical Islamists believe that there is no distinction between civilian and military targets. Third, Malka asserts that radical Islamists believe that Jews and Christians are protected under Islam only when they live under Muslim rule. Moreover, radical Islamists believe that because Jews have usurped Muslim land in Historical Palestine (Palestine before the state of Israel), hence they have forfeited any protection afforded in the Quran.

Martyrdom poster for Muhammad al-'Asi, a leader ("The Great Martyr-Leader") in the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a paramilitary group loosely affiliated with the Fatah party of Mahmoud 'Abbas, whose term as Palestinian president has expired (but who has remained in office anyway.)

The above three arguments lack Islamic legitimacy [as if they is a single "Islamic" stance on this, or many other issues] because martyrdom operations explicitly target and kill innocent civilians. [As discussed above, this is not always the case.] Furthermore, martyr operatives do not die for or in the service of Allah. Rather, they die for their political cause – for example, the liberation of Palestine. Hence, despite radical Islamists’ claims they do not have the right to explicitly target innocent civilians in the service of their clause. Therefore, radical Islamists’ appeals to an Islamic legitimacy for martyrdom operations are unethical.

This short historical account has elucidated that Islamic elites – moderate and radical – have utilised the construction of martyrdom as an effective mobilisation tool in the service of their political ambitions and causes. However, Islamic elites’ construction of martyrdom has reflected the historical experience of Muslim communities and contemporary situational factors. Hence, the martyrdom construct is not created in a vacuum. For instance, radical Islamists’ legitimisation of contemporary martyrdom operations is based on their radical interpretations of the Quran and their empathy with the plight of oppressed Muslim communities, such as the Palestinians. I have argued that the Quran does not sanction the use of martyrdom operations, and it is unethical for radical Islamists’ to espouse an Islamic justification. Nonetheless, a key question for examination is: Why does this radical interpretation of the Quran resonate with some Muslim communities? Offering some suggestions is beyond the scope of this short essay, although I believe examining the situational factors of these communities may offer a starting point.

Ethics of Understanding

I believe a viable alternative to radical Islamists’ martyrdom construct, and use of political violence, is dialogue and understanding of the Other’s actions. I argue for an ethics of understanding that demonstrates a willingness to engage with the adversary (the Other) and understand the Other’s actions. Importantly, this engagement or dialogue between the parties offers an implicit humanisation of the Other. However, understanding the Other, does not mean each party should accept the Other’s reasons or justifications. Rather, understanding elucidates the importance of the Other’s perspective and working towards a viable solution for both parties.

Religious leaders who appeal to the monotheistic God, Allah or Yahweh for legitimacy should understand that all their followers believe in the same higher being and are members of the same humanity.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Grand Ayatullah Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah: Views on Women in Islam

Grand Ayatullah al-Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah, Lebanon's senior Twelver Shi'i religious scholar, is widely respected across the country's sectarian lines [Lebanon has 18 recognized ethno-confessional sects, generally but not always based on religious affiliation, regardless of members' religiosity or lack thereof]. Much maligned by Shi'i rivals, Fadlallah presents himself, justifiably, as a leader for, as one of his representatives put it in 2008, "modern Shi'is," those who seek a religious guide who understands both religious and temporal issues, and someone who is in touch with his constituency, rather than being aloof, as is the case with other grand ayatullahs. Fadlallah has also been criticized by his Shi'i rivals, and some conservative Sunni scholars, for his progressive views on the rights and status of women and interpretation of certain Shi'i religious practices, such as intercession, and views on certain historical, or claimed historical, events. He is also, to my knowledge, the only senior Twelver Shi'i religious scholar who has condemned the barbaric cultural practice of the, as he says, "so-called crimes of 'honor.' " He sponsors and funds many social service institutions.

Women in Islam: An Interview with His Eminence, Grand Ayatullah al-Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah

The societal attitude towards the woman, and the woman's right to defend herself if she is attacked, and the issue of inheritance, and the possibility of the woman to lead the nation, those were some of the issues that the French journalist, who is preparing for her book "The woman in Beirut", discussed with His Eminence, the Religious Authority, Sayyed Muhammad Hussein Fadlullah.

An introduction by Sayyed Fadlullah:

You are welcome. I would like to say, from the very beginning, that since I started my Islamic career, I have encouraged the woman to work to develop her mind, her heart, and her abilities. We notice that the common view about the woman is that she is a passionate person; whereas the man is a rational one. We do not agree with this point, simply because the person, in general, whether male or female, represents a unity of the intellect where both the mind and the passions intermarry. We have an equation, which we always repeat: we should give the mind a dose of emotions to emphasize tenderness and softness, and at the same time, we should give the heart a dose of the mind to enable it to balance.

Like the man, the woman is a complete human being, lacking nothing in her humanity

We always emphasize the saying that: like the man, the woman is a complete human being, lacking nothing in her humanity.

Most importantly, if she empowers her mind, she would over-excel man. The same happens when the man empowers his mind, he would over-excel the woman. On these bases, we welcome your questions, and you are free to ask any question you want, because we believe that it is the freedom of opinion that makes us reach the truth.

The social attitude towards the woman:

Q: Some of the Lebanese believe that the woman's role is restricted to her children: raising and teaching them, and that she does not have any other outside role. Do you agree?

R: We believe that the woman is a complete human being in the sense that she and the man complement each other physically to produce a human being. She also shares the man the development of the sources that elevate the person's standards of living.

We believe that motherhood is a message in itself. It has the greatest role in the making of a human being, developing him, and preparing him, so that he could be an effective and productive one.

Likewise, fatherhood is a message and a responsibility, and just as fatherhood does not restrict the father's relations to his children, so does motherhood; the mother's relations should not be restricted to her children only, even though her relations with her child are tighter and stronger, due to breast feeding and nurturing.

Neither the fatherhood relationship nor the motherhood relationship is restricted to the children.

Therefore, we believe that the woman has the right to learn and to attain the highest certificates. Her education would be a great benefit to her children, for she would raise them according to a methodological approach. Moreover, through her studies and researches and through her participation in teaching, the woman could be an effective participant in the development of knowledge, not only on the academic level, but also on the level of the society as a whole.

In our Islamic heritage, we always narrate how Fatima (a.s.), the daughter of our Prophet Muhammad (p.), acquired the knowledge from her father. She used to learn from him and think about what she had learned, and work on developing what she acquired. Accordingly, Fatima (a.s.) had her own classes in which she used to teach others what she had learned from the Messenger of God (p.). Fatima (a.s.) started from the belief that Islam appreciates knowledge and that knowledge is a value that elevates the humanity of human beings. We believe that the more the person learns, the more human he becomes and thus, his awareness rises. We have a religious saying by Imam Ali (a.s) in which he said: "The value of every person is in what he knows". It means that man's value is in the experience and the knowledge he possesses. Knowledge in Islam depends on two sources: The first is the intellectual contemplation, and the second is the realistic experiment. Therefore, knowledge moves in two directions: The internal, through the intellectual equations that motivate man, and the external, through the movement of researches, induction, and experimenting.

Islam considers knowledge a value that elevates the person's humanity

Therefore, I believe that it is the woman's right, just as it is the man's right, to get the highest levels of education. This is mentioned in the Holy Quran: "and say: O my Lord! Increase me in knowledge" (Taha:114).

Therefore, it is the person's responsibility, whether man or woman, to acquire the highest levels of education. Knowledge is limitless, so the person should not stop; he/she has to resume his/her education until reaching the highest levels. The woman's intellectual abilities are not different from those of man's, as primitive people used to think. Her mind is not less than the mind of the man. On the contrary, her mind develops, like the mind of the man, as long as she reads, contemplates, and carries out experiments. If these elements exist, then the woman might exceed man and over-excel him. Everything depends on how she develops herself with knowledge, education, and thinking.

Therefore, the woman, as a daughter, complements with the other members of her family, under the supervision of her father and mother. She is also the wife who complements her husband in the process of building a family. The woman, as a mother, plays an integral role in developing her children and making them effective members in their society. She is a human being as well, who participates with all the human beings in elevating the value of life.

Furthermore, motherhood is not the woman's prison. On the contrary, it is considered one of the elements of giving, sacrifice and dedication; it is also an educational movement that, when added to the previous elements, elevates her humanity.

There is a point I would like to mention: The marriage contract does not make the woman a property of the man and the responsibilities that this contract imposes on the woman are imposed on the man as well.

For example, the marriage contract obliges the man to satisfy his wife sexually; similarly, it obliges the woman to do the same. Moreover, the marriage contract does not force the woman, legally, to either do the house work, raise her children, or breast-feed them. Most importantly, the woman's work and even raising her children are legally considered a paid work.

Islam considers woman's work to her husband and children as part of her humanitarian personality

If Islam asks the woman to give from herself to her husband and children, it is because of the humanitarian side of the relation, not because of the legal side. Needless to remind, in this respect, that the humanitarian side must come before the legal side. God says: "And He has put love and mercy between your (hearts)". (Al-Room:21).

It is love and mercy that rule the marriage relationship, away from any legal issue of duties and obligations. Islam confirms that the human relations move in two circles. First, the circle of the law that identifies the duties and obligations among people and between one person and another.

Second, the humanitarian circle which rises from the moral values that motivate the person to give, even if he is not required to, according to the law.

Some people might wonder about the meaning of this verse: "Men are the protectors and maintainers of women". (An-Nisa: 34).

They might interpret it as men are the supervisors over women. The same is mentioned in the Christian teachings, which say that man is the head and the crown of the woman. However, the words "protectors" and "maintainers" mean, in Islam, the "managing"; it is the man's responsibilities to manage the businesses of his home; he is the one who spends. But it is, of course, very natural and normal to discuss home issues with his wife and ask for her opinions. God says: "Live with them on a footing of kindness and equity" (An-Nisa: 19). "Living with them on a footing of kindness" means that everyone should respect the other, respect his mind and respect his opinions in all life's issues as well.

Maintenance in Islam means Management

Q: Is this applied to the Fatwa which you recently issued that the woman has the right to defend herself if she is attacked by her husband?

R: In the Fatwa we issued, we intended to clarify the Islamic position towards the right of defence. The Quranic verse says: "If then any one transgresses the prohibition against you, transgress ye likewise against him". (Al-Baqara: 194).

If the man attempts at exploiting the woman's weaknesses and there is no other way to prevent him from attacking her, then she has the right to face him in the same way to protect herself against his violence.

The man might sometimes feel the pride of his machomismo. So, he might break either her hand or her leg or cause her severe physical damage.

Therefore, in this case, she has the right to face him with the same weapon he is using.

Some men rejected this fatwa, claiming that that it shakes marital life. I replied that it is man's violence that shakes this relationship.

I advise the woman to protect her family; however, if there is no other way by which she can defend herself, she has the right to train herself and to possess the power that enables her to wage a counter-attack.

I believe that self defence is a human right for any person, whether male or female. Just as the woman has the right to defend herself, so does the man, if his wife is stronger than him; for example, if she is a judo or a karate player. I ask the woman to get trained because the man, even in the developed western countries, usually exploits woman's weak body, either to rape her or to deny her rights.

The universal violence against women.

Q: In France, for example, on a daily basis, there is a dead woman due to a violent attack against her. What do you say?

Defending one's self is a common right for both men and women

R: On the religious level, I strongly disapprove of this violence. Most importantly, I consider such deeds as a sin that God will punish for.

There are also certain cases in the Eastern countries, in general, and in the Arab world, in particular. These cases are known as the crimes of honour. A woman is killed just for an accusation of having an illegal sexual relationship with another person. Even if this accusation has not been proven yet, the father, the bother, or the husband immediately kills her without resorting to the law in a public trial. I have issued a Fatwa prohibiting such acts. Any case like that shall be subjected to the law and we shall take into consideration the surrounding circumstances of the accused, and the accusation might prove to be baseless.

As a result, I have issued a fatwa rejecting the laws of all the Arab countries that lessen the penalty against he who commits a crime of honor.

I have also said in all our Fatwas that it is neither the right of the father, brother, husband, nor any of the relatives to force a woman to marry a person she does not want. If this marriage is forced upon the woman due to certain social pressures, it is an invalid marriage and the woman has the full right to to go and marry the person she wants. The element of choice and agreement is essential in the conclusion of the contract, for both the man and the woman.

In my Fatwas, I confirmed that the adult woman, whether married or unmarried, is, legally, independent financially. Neither her husband nor her children have the right to confiscate any of her money. The same is applied on the father and the brother. She is totally independent financially.

She is also independent in her choice of marriage; she can marry the one she wants. However, we advise her to consult those who have experience, knowledge, and honesty, so as not to be deceived emotionally. The woman is also free in the way she wants to manage her businesses, her property, and her inheritance. Neither the husband nor her parents are allowed to force her to deal with a certain bank unless there are certain legal rules that force her to help her father and mother.

We have issued Fatwas prohibiting the so-called crimes of honor

The equality of inheritance between the man and the woman

Q: Sayyed Al-Khou'i issued a Fatwa saying that the woman doesn't have the right to inherit from a land or a building?

R: I believe that the woman can inherit the same like the man. Some jurisprudent authorities exclude the wife, but all the religious authorities do not differentiate, in the case of inheritance, between the daughter, the sister, and the man. As for the following verse: "Allah (thus) directs you as regards your Children's (Inheritance): to the male, a portion equal to that of two females " (An-Nisa: 11), it is based on the consideration that the male is responsible for the dowry and for supporting the wife. Thus, this difference between the man's and woman's shares provides a balance with the expenses the man has to pay.

Therefore, we believe that if a person leaves one daughter and there were no father, mother or children, she can inherit everything; the same case is applied on the sister. However, some other religious authorities express reservations:

They believe that the wife can inherit from everything except from a land. If there is a building, she can inherit from the value of the building and not from the building itself. However, our legislative opinion is that there is no difference between the wife and the husband.

Just as the husband inherits his complete share from the wife, whether a land or any other thing, so does the woman; she inherits her share, whether it is a land or any other thing.

The woman has the right to practise politics and she is independent in her political decision.

The legitimacy of the political leadership for a woman.

Q: Do you support the woman's work in the political and educational fields, seeking to develop herself?

We consider that the woman is the same as the man, so she can practise politics. She has the right to vote for whoever she wants; neither her husband, nor her father or brother can force her to vote for a certain person. She is independent in her political decision, as well as in her choice to the person she sees good to her country. She also has the right to be elected and to be a candidate and a member in the parliament, and a representative of the people, if she earns the required number of votes. She can also hold any position in the civil service, including the position of a prime minister.

There is no objection against woman's holding the highest political leadership of the nation.

Although some religious authorities express their reservations about the woman being the leader of the nation, there is another opinion which we do adopt. We are not against this matter, if the woman is qualified to manage the affairs of the state. She can also participate in the economic and engineering businesses, as well as in all of the scientific fields.

Q: The woman has two personalities; she is the female and the human being at the same time.

R: As to her personality as a female, she is the wife in her marital life, where she can dress whatever she wants, and beautify herself the way she wants. However, outside this sphere, she can not do the same.

She can not go out and mix with other people the way she does at her home. Such behaviour might hurt her and hurt the human side of her, just like what is happening nowadays, especially in the media that pictures women as a means of pleasure and temptation.

There is the personality of the human being in her as well. This personality enables her to perform all life's responsibilities.

In this case, she is like the man who has the personality of the male and the personality of the human being as well.

The role of the personality of the male is restricted to his home and marriage, especially in the sexual relation; whereas the role of the human being covers all life's issues.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Struggle Within: Radicalization, De-Radicalization, & the Mujahid

Afghan and Arab mujahideen

The Struggle Within

By Thomas Hegghammer

The National; Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates [February 13, 2009]

The film Recycle delves into the conscience of a jihadist – and brilliantly troubles our ideas about Islamic radicalism, writes Thomas Hegghammer.

In the mid-2000s, one of the most pervasive buzzwords in counter-terrorism circles was “radicalisation”, referring to the process by which more or less ordinary individuals become terrorists. Scholars and analysts around the world pored over biographies of militants, deployed statistical tools and conducted in-depth interviews, all in the hope of finding the drivers of radicalisation so that policymakers could address them. Some important discoveries were made, among them the fact that people are usually drawn socially into radical circles before they adopt a radical ideology, rather than vice versa. But no one really found a clear answer to the question: What produces terrorists?

In the past few years, the focus has shifted to deradicalisation – the idea that individual militants, if treated a certain way, can abandon violence and revert to a normal life. The deradicalisation idea has proved immensely popular with policymakers, who have seen prisons fill during the war on terror but realise detainees cannot be held indefinitely. Many countries have launched deradicalisation programmes for detained jihadists. One of the most famous of these was developed in Saudi Arabia, where foreign observers have been flocking to study “soft” Saudi counterterrorism. Described as “Betty Ford clinics for jihad”, the Saudi rehabilitation centres apply a combination of therapy, instruction, family pressure and financial incentives with seemingly encouraging results. More recently, however, the return of several Saudi former Guantanamo detainees to al Qa’eda’s ranks has raised fears of recidivism.

Scholars are only beginning to understand the complex dynamics of radicalisation and deradicalisation. They disagree widely, especially over the relative importance of religious ideology versus material grievances. But one thing seems clear: joining and leaving militancy is not a “switch on, switch off” process. Rather, an individual’s progress into and out of jihadism consists of numerous small steps along several possible paths, always intimately tied to social context.

The complexities of radicalisation and deradicalisation are magnificently captured in Recycle, a prize-winning documentary by the young Jordanian filmmaker Mahmoud al Massad. Recycle follows Abu Ammar, a Jordanian veteran of the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan, in his daily struggle to make ends meet in the city of Zarqa near Amman.

Filmed over a period of several months in 2005, this fly-on-the-wall documentary draws an intimate and touching portrait of a man struggling to reconcile his own conflicting ideals and aspirations in a harsh existence defined by poverty, authoritarianism and regional conflict. The film offers a unique and intellectually stimulating look into the grey area of semi-radicalism in which many young men across the Muslim world find themselves today.

Abu Ammar is a plump, bearded man in his forties who makes a living collecting and selling used cardboard. Seven days a week he drives around the streets of Zarqa in a small pickup truck, ordering his sons out to look for cardboard in any shape or form. Abu Ammar has two non-working wives and eight children to feed, and employment opportunities are scarce for unskilled and unconnected labourers like himself. He used to run a small shop together with his father, but the store had to close after the two had a falling out and stopped speaking to each other.

Abu Ammar

His existence is a humble one now, but Abu Ammar was once a jihadist who moved among legendary figures in the Arab Afghan community. In the late 1980s Abu Ammar travelled to Afghanistan to fight the Soviet occupation along with several thousand other Arab volunteers. Like many, he believed he had an inescapable religious duty to help fellow Muslims under attack by non-Muslims. He soon became a kind of jihadi secret service agent, working as a bodyguard for senior Arab and Afghan mujahidin leaders in the Pakistani city of Peshawar, the headquarters of the resistance effort. Abu Ammar notably guarded Abdallah Azzam, the Palestinian-Jordanian preacher who is widely seen as the spiritual father of the Arab Afghans. By around 1990, however, the jihad was over. The Russians had withdrawn, Abdallah Azzam had been assassinated and the jihadi community in Peshawar was plagued by infighting. Abu Ammar returned to Jordan.

Although he never returned to the battlefront, Abu Ammar remained a Mujahid, or holy warrior, at heart. In the film, we see him constantly discussing religion and politics with his friends, debating the rulings and dilemmas of jihad in the current political context. Since it is 2005, the main issue is of course the jihad in neighbouring Iraq, although Abu Ammar sees the Muslim nation as challenged on many other fronts as well. Abu Ammar is struggling to make up his mind over how he and other Muslims should respond to these challenges. He sees resistance to US occupation of Iraq as a legitimate jihad, but he has reservations about the indiscriminate tactics used by the foreign fighters. On one point he is certain, though: in these tense times it is not permitted for Muslims to reside in non-Muslim lands.

Abu Ammar is also a deeply religious man. Studies show most jihadists are driven by some combination of three factors – religion, politics and adventurism. However, each of these motivations may be “weighted” differently from one person to the next. Some are in it mainly for the adventure, others are politicos in religious garb. For Abu Ammar, piety is paramount. He cares deeply and sincerely about the theology of jihad and will not bend rules for political or military expediency. He has read extensively on jihad – not the contemporary propaganda circulating on the internet, but rather the classical Islamic literature.

Abu Ammar is in fact planning to write a book on jihad himself. For this purpose he has collected thousands of slips of paper, which he keeps in big rubbish bags in his store. The slips contain quotes from the theological literature as well as ideas and sayings of people he has encountered over the years. In the evenings he goes to his “office”, pulls out the rubbish bags and types away at an old computer. He seems to have been doing this for years; he does not know when the book will be finished nor how it will be published. The writing in itself seems enough. This is jihad bi’l-qalam – jihad by the pen. There is something eerily strange – perhaps geeky – about Abu Ammar’s meticulous collection of the paper slips. In a recent study examining the prevalence of engineers in radical Islamist groups, the social scientists Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog contend that there is a certain engineering mindset, characterised by an aversion to ambiguity and a penchant for social conservatism, that is attracted to religious radicalism. Although he is uneducated, Abu Ammar seems to embody some of these traits.

Dead Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan

Abu Ammar’s faith and past experience in jihad are clearly a source of dignity in an otherwise gloomy existence. Even on camera, he exudes a certain inner calm and stoicism that you would not expect to find in a destitute fundamentalist. In the few months that we follow him, he faces a series of tribulations that would send most other men into depression. At one point he loses nearly all his savings when he buys several cars to sell in Iraq, only to be robbed at gunpoint by Shiite militias upon arrival in Baghdad. When suicide car bombs go off at three hotels in Amman in November 2005, he is caught in the dragnet and detained for several months, although he has nothing at all to do with the operations. Then there are more mundane frustrations, like being stood up by camel milk vendors at 6am in a remote location. But Abu Ammar keeps his calm. He even makes the occasional understated joke.

Abu Ammar lives in Zarqa, an industrial city immediately to the north-east of Amman infamous for its high unemployment levels, poverty and social ills. Alcoholism, glue-sniffing and idleness are widespread in a youth population with few prospects for social mobility. Zarqa is a well-known hotbed of Islamist – and, formerly, leftist – radicalism. This does not mean everyone in Zarqa is a radical – in fact, the director of Recycle, Mahmoud al Massad, is also from there. But the city is nevertheless the capital of Jordanian Islamism. When the preacher Abdallah Azzam fled his native Palestine in 1967 he settled in Zarqa, and many of his relatives who fought with him in Afghanistan still live there. The family of the jihadist ideologue Abu Muhammad al Maqdisi is also from Zarqa. Since 2003, Zarqa, along with the city of Salt, has produced the bulk of Jordanian jihadists in Iraq.

But most famous of all is Ahmad al Khalayla, better known by his nom de guerre, Abu Mus’ab al Zarqawi, which literally means “Abu Mus’ab from Zarqa”. As the leader of al Qa’eda in Iraq, al Khalayla introduced spectacularly brutal tactics which earned him the nickname “the slaughtering sheikh” before he was killed by a US missile in June 2006. The Amman hotel bombings were also of his making.

In Recycle, Abu Ammar and his chain-smoking friends discuss al Khalayla’s story at length. As a young man, the “slaughtering sheikh” was entirely unremarkable, so much so that the interviewees cannot remember whether he was a “clerk in the town hall” or “worked on a bus”. Al Khalayla was also entirely undevout before heading to Afghanistan in 1989 – by all accounts he was a jihadist driven more by adventurism than religion. Fifteen years later he was the second most wanted person on the planet. In a morbid sense, there is social mobility in jihad.

Recycle challenges a number of common misperceptions of radicalisation. One is that radicalism has nothing to do with poverty. It clearly does, though the relation is neither direct nor uniform for all types of militancy. Another misperception is that jihadism is a monolithic ideological phenomenon. In fact, there are important disagreements between jihadists over where, how and against whom to fight. Abu Ammar represents what one might call “classical jihadism”, which advocates private involvement in other Muslims’ struggles for national liberation, using conventional means. Thus Abu Ammar was happy to wage guerrilla warfare in Afghanistan, but he condemns Osama bin Laden’s international terrorism. Bin Laden represents the “global jihadist” current, which uses all means in all places in its fight against the West. Meanwhile, the jihad in Iraq has presented a dilemma for classical jihadists such as Abu Ammar; although the country is clearly occupied by non-Muslims, most of the fighting has been between Shiites and Sunnis, and the tactics have been extremely brutal.

The film also prompts a few sobering insights into the challenges and limits of deradicalisation. For one thing, in communities like Zarqa, occasional involvement in classical jihadism is viewed as entirely legitimate, if not commendable. No amount of therapy can change the values of a community. Another point is that rehabilitation programmes are extremely resource-intensive; you need a very high “GDP per jihadi capita” to carry them out properly. Saudi Arabia can afford to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on each detainee; countries like Jordan or Egypt cannot. Finally, deradicalisation is probably easier to achieve under certain social conditions. In Saudi Arabia, the authority commanded by religious clerics is higher, and family structures are generally stronger, than in many other Muslim countries, Jordan included. Most “reformed” Saudi jihadists are reined in by their families and the threat of social exclusion. Abu Ammar, in contrast, is not particularly bothered by the break with his father, and at no point in the film does he engage with the views of Jordanian clerics.

Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, a Palestinian-Jordanian who is perhaps the most influential Sunni jihadi scholar and ideologue living today. He was al-Zarqawi's teacher, but later fell out with him over the extreme violence used by the latter in Iraq. Al-Maqdisi has been criticized recently for "moderating" his views by more militant jihadis. See the excellent coverage by Dr. Hegghammer & Co. at the Jihadica blog, as well as a recent story from The Christian Science Monitor.

In other words, what makes Abu Ammar a compelling character on screen is also what makes him – and so many militants – a vexing phenomenon for those seeking to unlock the dynamics of radicalisation: he is a man with a mind of his own. He is an idiosyncratic figure who does not fit into any of the popular stereotypes or academic models of the radical Islamist. This distinguishes Recycle from the reconstructed or fictional accounts of radicalisation found in films such as Paradise Now or The War Within, and it adds a caveat to the hard-charging academic discourse on the roots of militancy. Recycle shows us radicalism in all its frustrating ambiguity.

Thomas Hegghammer is a fellow at Harvard Kennedy School and a senior research fellow at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment. He is one of the brilliant new scholars focusing on Sunni jihadi movements and Islamist (Muslim political movements, not always militant) in Saudi Arabia. Hegghammer is one of the authors of the excellent blog Jihadica.

Friday, March 27, 2009

الجهاد، الحرب المُقدَسَّة، و الشهادة في شيشان (Jihād, Sanctified War, and Martyrdom in Chechnya)

فنّ الشَهيد وَ المجاهد

This is Part III of my "preview" series about my current research project, tentatively titled "The Art of the Martyr & Mujahid," about martyrdom, resistance, and in the case of some groups terrorism (defined as intentional targeting of civilians, or wanton disregard for civilian casualties, committed by non-state and state actors). The theme is "Sanctified War in Chechnya."

Roadside bomb used to destroy a Russian Army armored vehicle

Images taken from the web site of the KavKaz Center, a Chechen web site sympathetic to the jihadi elements of the Chechen resistance movement.

Below (in marigold) is a slightly modified mission statement from a Facebook group I founded years ago dedicated to covering, or providing a forum, for the discussion of Chechen rights and their abuse by the occupying Russian forces. Special thanks to my friend and colleague Bilal for helping me with the translation of the text in the first poster, and particularly for pointing out aspects of Arabic poetry, such as the flexibility of the form of the last word with regard to meter, a subject unfortunately quite unknown to me.






Since being colonized in the eighteenth century by the Russians, Chechens have suffered under a systematic campaign of discrimination and were forced to deny their cultural identity. Resistance to Russian imperialism began early by the mid-18th century and continued throughout the 19th under heroic Chechen leaders such as Imam Shamil. Under the rule of the Russian-dominated Soviet Union Chechens who resisted were arrested, tortured, and either deported or murdered. During the rule of Joseph Stalin, the Chechens were forbidden from speaking their own language and a campaign of Russification began.

In 1994 Russia invaded Chechnya in order to crush a growing independence movement. During the two-year-long conflict, Russia destroyed vast swaths of the country, leveled the capital city of Grozny, and killed tens of thousands of Chechen civilians. Hundreds of thousands of others were forced to flee Russian forces. After suffering an embarassing stalemate despite their technological and military superiority the Russians were forced to withdraw.

Claiming that they were acting against Chechen terrorists, Russia invaded Chechnya again in 1999 on the orders of President Vladimir Putin. Russian forces remain there to this day and have managed to set up a puppet regime. Russian forces in Chechnya have committed horrible atrocities including murders of civilians, summary executions without any legal recourse for suspected dissidents, rapes, and torture. Russian forces have also kidnapped Chechens for interrogation, which often includes torture, and have robbed civilians of their property.

Certain Chechen groups, particularly those influenced and supported by foreign elements who have attempted to erase Chechnya's history of Sufi Islamic mysticism, have committed atrocities as well. Crimes such as Beslan, the Moscow Theater, and other similar attacks on civilians carried out by loyalists of individuals such as Shamil Basayev are strongly and unconditionally condemned. There is no justification for such actions. Attempts to erase the historical and cultural connections of many Chechens to Sufi Islamic mysticism despite erroneous claims that it is "un-Islamic" are also strongly condemned. The first great Chechen resistance leader, in the 19th century, was the brave Naqshbandi Sufi leader Imam Shamil.

However, as even the U.S. Department of State recognizes, not all Chechen separatist groups are involved in terrorism and some are legitimately fighting for Chechen rights against an increasingly (re)Imperialist Russia and its Chechen puppets.

While the world's attention is focused on Palestine and Lebanon, the suffering of the Chechen people is often forgotten.

You may join the Facebook group HERE.

Read Amnesty International's brief about human rights abuses in Chechnya HERE.

For scholarly studies and a journalistic account of the Chechen conflict, see HERE , HERE, and HERE.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

An Army of Extremists: Militant Rabbis & Religiously-justified War

The Israeli army's chief rabbinate gave soldiers preparing to enter the Gaza Strip a booklet implying that all Palestinians are their mortal enemies and advising them that cruelty is sometimes a "good attribute". The booklet, entitled Go Fight My Fight: A Daily Study Table for the Soldier and Commander in a Time of War, was published especially for Operation Cast Lead, the devastating three-week campaign launched with the stated aim of ending rocket fire against southern Israel. The publication draws on the teachings of Rabbi Shlomo Avner, head of the Jewish fundamentalist Ateret Cohanim seminary in Jerusalem.

An Army of Extremists
How some military rabbis are trying to radicalize Israeli soldiers.

By Christopher Hitchens
Slate.com [March 23, 2009]

Recent reports of atrocities committed by Israeli soldiers in the course of the intervention in Gaza have described the incitement of conscripts and reservists by military rabbis who characterized the battle as a holy war for the expulsion of non-Jews from Jewish land. The secular Israeli academic Dany Zamir, who first brought the testimony of shocked Israeli soldiers to light, has been quoted as if the influence of such extremist clerical teachings was something new. This is not the case.

I remember being in Israel in 1986 when the chief army "chaplain" in the occupied territories, Rabbi Shmuel Derlich, issued his troops a 1,000-word pastoral letter enjoining them to apply the biblical commandment to exterminate the Amalekites as "the enemies of Israel." Nobody has recently encountered any Amalekites, so the chief educational officer of the Israeli Defense Forces asked Rabbi Derlich whether he would care to define his terms and say whom he meant. Rather evasively—if rather alarmingly—the man of God replied, "Germans." There are no Germans in Judaea and Samaria or, indeed, in the Old Testament, so the rabbi's exhortation to slay all Germans as well as quite probably all Palestinians was referred to the Judge Advocate General's Office. Forty military rabbis publicly came to Derlich's support, and the rather spineless conclusion of the JAG was that he had committed no legal offense but should perhaps refrain in the future from making political statements on the army's behalf.

The problem here is precisely that the rabbi was not making a "political" statement. Rather, he was doing his religious duty in reminding his readers what the Torah actually says. It's not at all uncommon in Israel to read discussions, featuring military rabbis, of quite how to interpret the following holy order from Moses, in the Book of Numbers, Chapter 31, Verses 13-18, as quoted from my 1985 translation by the Jewish Publication Society. The Israelites have just done a fairly pitiless job on the Midianites, slaughtering all of the adult males. But, says their stern commander-in-chief, they have still failed him:

Moses, Eleazer the priest, and all the chieftains of the community came out to meet them outside the camp. Moses became angry with the commanders of the army, the officers of thousands and the officers of hundreds, who had come back from the military campaign. Moses said to them, "You have spared every female! Yet they are the very ones who, at the bidding of Balaam, induced the Israelites to trespass against the Lord in the matter of Peor, so that the Lord's community was struck by the plague. Now, therefore, slay every male among the children, and slay also every young woman who has known a man carnally; but spare every young woman who has not had carnal relations with a man."

Moses and Eleazar the priest go on to issue some complex instructions about the ritual cleansings that must be practiced after this exhausting massacre has been completed.

Now, it's common to hear people say, when this infamous passage and others like it come up, that it's not intended to be "taken literally." One also often hears the excuse that some wicked things are done "in the name of" religion, as if the wicked things were somehow the result of a misinterpretation. But the nationalist rabbis who prepare Israeli soldiers for their mission seem to think that this book might be the word of God, in which case the only misinterpretation would be the failure to take it literally. (I hate to break it to you, but the people who think that God's will is revealed in scripture are known as "religious." Those who do not think so must try to find another name for themselves.)

Possibly you remember Dr. Baruch Goldstein, the man who in February 1994 unslung his weapon and killed more than two dozen worshippers at the mosque in Hebron. He had been a physician in the Israeli army and had first attracted attention by saying that he would refuse to treat non-Jews on the Sabbath.

Goldstein, who, like a very large percentage of Israeli settlers, was an American who moved to the small and militant Israeli Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arba outside of the Palestinian city of Hebron, south of Jerusalem, is buried in the settlement, where his tomb has become a shrine to the militant Israeli Jewish right and extreme right, who will be amply represented in the next Israeli government headed by Likud Party chief Binyamin Netanyahu. The Old City of Hebron, where several dozen radical Israeli settlers live, is generally under constant curfew (for its longtime Palestinian residents), which leads to stark scenes such as streets devoid of life, save for groups of defiant-or-happily oblivious small children, in my personal experience in a visit to the city in July 2003, playing soccer. Militant millenarian settlers, Israeli soldiers, and Border Police roam the streets at will.

Now read Ethan Bronner's report in the March 22 New York Times about the preachments of the Israeli army's latest chief rabbi, a West Bank settler named Avichai Rontzski who also holds the rank of brigadier general. He has "said that the main reason for a Jewish doctor to treat a non-Jew on the Sabbath … is to avoid exposing Diaspora Jews to hatred." Those of us who follow these things recognize that statement as one of the leading indicators of a truly determined racist and fundamentalist. Yet it comes not this time in the garb of a homicidal lone-wolf nut bag but in the full uniform and accoutrement of a general and a high priest: Moses and Eleazar combined. The latest news, according to Bronner, is that the Israeli Defense Ministry has felt compelled to reprimand Rontzski for "a rabbinal edict against showing the enemy mercy" that was distributed in booklet form to men and women in uniform (see Numbers 31:13-18, above).

Israeli Jewish settlers

Peering over the horrible pile of Palestinian civilian casualties that has immediately resulted, it's fairly easy to see where this is going in the medium-to-longer term. The zealot settlers and their clerical accomplices are establishing an army within the army so that one day, if it is ever decided to disband or evacuate the colonial settlements, there will be enough officers and soldiers, stiffened by enough rabbis and enough extremist sermons, to refuse to obey the order.

Israeli settlers

Torah verses will also be found that make it permissible to murder secular Jews as well as Arabs. The dress rehearsals for this have already taken place, with the religious excuses given for Baruch Goldstein's rampage and the Talmudic evasions concerning the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. Once considered highly extreme, such biblical exegeses are moving ever closer to the mainstream.

It's high time the United States cut off any financial support for Israel that can be used even indirectly for settler activity, not just because such colonization constitutes a theft of another people's land but also because our Constitution absolutely forbids us to spend public money on the establishment of any religion.

Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair and the Roger S. Mertz media fellow at the Hoover Institution in Stanford, Calif.

The Israeli government frequently claims, generally with little to no proof, that Palestinian groups use "human shields." It probably is true in some cases. However, the saying about the pot calling the kettle black seems
to apply too.

Israeli Army Rabbis Criticized for Stance on Gaza assault

Some Israeli soldiers say military rabbis cast the offensive against Hamas rockets as a fight to expel non-Jews.

By Richard Boudreaux
Los Angeles Times [March 25, 2009]

The winter assault on the Gaza Strip was officially portrayed in Israel as an attempt to quell rocket fire by militants of Hamas. But some soldiers say they also were lectured about a more ambitious aim: to banish non-Jews from the biblical land of Israel.

"This rabbi comes to us and says the fight is between the children of light and the children of darkness," a reserve sergeant said, recalling a training camp encounter. "His message was clear: 'This is a war against an entire people, not against specific terrorists.' The whole thing was turned into something very religious and messianic."

[This statement is nearly the same as those found in the "War Scroll," one of the Dead Sea Scrolls, produced by the millenarian Jewish splinter group the Essenes during the lifetime of St. John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth, who lived at Qumran in the Judaean Desert. Sections of this scroll speak of a final, apocalyptic battle between the "Sons of Light" and the "Sons of Darkness," in which the Essenes (the "Sons of Light") would be victorious. For more information click HERE.]

As armies elsewhere use chaplains, the Israeli military inducts rabbis to serve religious soldiers. Their traditional tasks include ensuring that kitchens are kosher and religious services are available.

But soldiers now going public with allegations of misconduct in Gaza portray the military rabbinate as a corps of self-appointed holy warriors whose sermons and writings demonized Palestinians.

"The army itself is a battleground of conflicting ideals in Israeli Jewish society," said Avi Sagi, a Bar-Ilan University philosophy professor who in the 1990s was a co-author of the military's code of ethics, which obliges soldiers to avoid killing innocents.

On one side, he said, are universal values that call for respecting all human life equally and are largely shared by Jews who seek accommodation with the Palestinians. On the other side are more nationalistic passages of the Torah, cited by religious thinkers who liken the Palestinians to Old Testament invaders and place a premium on Jewish life.

In the Gaza conflict, the argument has focused on how to fight Islamic militants who for years have fired rockets indiscriminately at Israeli communities, causing scores of civilian casualties.

Maj. Avital Leibovich, a military spokeswoman, denied that the military rabbinate takes sides. Army rabbis violated a directive to "stay away from politics" in Gaza, she said, but they were few in number and acted on their own.

'Well organized'

In testimony reported by Israeli news media and in interviews with The Times, Gaza veterans said rabbis advised army units to show the enemy no mercy and called for resettlement of the Palestinian enclave by Jews.

"The rabbis were all over, in every unit," said Yehuda Shaul, a retired army officer whose human rights group, Breaking the Silence, has taken testimony from dozens of Gaza veterans. "It was quite well organized."

The army, which conscripts almost every Israeli Jew at 18, has been dominated for most of its history by secular officers. But over the last 15 years, as secular Israelis have soured on the occupation of Palestinian territory, religious nationalists have taken over senior positions in elite combat brigades.

With them have come hundreds of volunteer rabbis, who teach at pre-military academies for religious youths and serve side by side with the troops.

The rabbis' role in Gaza came into focus last week along with testimony from soldiers who said that loose rules of war led to unwarranted civilian deaths and property destruction.

The testimony reported by two Israeli newspapers was the first such criticism to surface from within the army since the assault ended Jan. 18, leaving an estimated 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis dead. Most Palestinian casualties were listed as civilians.

The army chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, said Monday that he did not believe soldiers shot Gaza civilians "in cold blood." He added that "isolated cases" of misconduct, if proved, "will be dealt with individually."

Responding to newspaper photos, the army also condemned soldiers who wore T-shirts depicting a pregnant woman in a rifle's cross hairs with the slogan "1 Shot 2 Kills."

Celebrating the Assault on Gaza

During the Gaza offensive, critics contend, rabbinical propaganda was part of a broader effort to legitimize Israel's decision to use overwhelming force.

Legal opinion

Before the assault, the army's legal office issued an opinion saying that Israel was entitled to use artillery against civilian neighborhoods from which Hamas was launching rockets.

And after the 22-day operation, a Tel Aviv University philosophy professor with close ties to the military, Asa Kasher, said the decision to shell Gaza's cities stemmed from an anti-terrorism doctrine he had helped draft a few years ago. It stated that in Gaza, as in other areas the army does not control, there is no justification for endangering soldiers' lives in order to avoid killing civilians in the proximity of targeted militants.

That doctrine appears to be at odds with the military code, which obliges the army to avoid civilian casualties, and it was never formally adopted. However, it was echoed in religious terms in literature distributed in Gaza by military rabbis.

"Our ancestors did not always fight with a sword and at times preferred to use a bow and arrow from a distance," one text read.

"Actions must be taken from a distance in order to spare our soldiers' lives."

The reserve sergeant, an observant Jew who spoke to The Times on condition of anonymity, said that he and a fellow soldier in his 15-man unit were troubled by the "children of darkness" sermon, but that other troops seemed receptive.

In one of several postwar testimonies given at a left-leaning military institute, a squad commander identified only as Ram complained that army rabbis tried to press what he called a "religious mission" on his men.

"The military rabbinate brought in a lot of booklets and articles and their message was very clear: We are the Jewish people, we came to this land by a miracle, God brought us back to this land and now we need to fight to expel the non-Jews who are interfering with our conquest of this holy land," Ram said.

As a commander, he said, he tried to explain to his men that "not everyone in Gaza is Hamas [and] wants to vanquish us [and] that this war is not a war for the sanctification of the holy name, but rather one to stop the Kassams" -- a type of rocket fired from Gaza.

Danny Zamir, director of the institute that elicited the testimonies and leaked them to Israeli papers, was quoted in a transcript as voicing dismay that Israeli nationalists, like their Hamas enemies, are using faith to justify violence.

"If clerics are anointing us with oil and sticking holy books in our hands, and if the soldiers in these units aren't representative of the whole spectrum of the Jewish people, but rather of certain segments of the population, what can we expect?" he said.

Ofer Shelah, military correspondent for the newspaper Maariv, said the rising profile of religious nationalists in the army has helped them in two showdowns with the high command.

After Israel withdrew its settlers and soldiers from Gaza in 2005, graduates of two pre-military academies associated with the settler movement said they would refuse to obey future orders to disband West Bank settlements. The army threatened to cancel its certification of the schools, then backed down.

During the Gaza assault, the chief military rabbi, Brig. Gen. Avichai Rontzki, was called in to answer criticism that his department was distributing war propaganda. He denied knowledge of it, and a subordinate was given "a slap on the wrist" by the Defense Ministry, Shelah said.

Rabbi David Hartman, a leading Jewish philosopher who has lectured thousands of officers at his Shalom Hartman Institute, said the religious nationalist belief in holy war is still a minority view in the army.

"But it has to be fought with a rational religious ideology that takes into account the living reality of two peoples," he said. Otherwise, he added, "you have these rabbis volunteering in the army, and it's not necessarily the people the army wants. There's a vacuum, and it gets filled by crackpots."
Militant Israeli settlers roam the streets of the Palestinian city of Hebron

The "JDL" is the Jewish Defense League, a militant Jewish group