Saddam’s execution was by far one of the most shocking political events of my lifetime. He was a man that had without doubt exceeded the bounds of even the cruellest imagination, and had carried out unspeakable and revolting acts against an entire nation for decades. However, when he was about to meet justice, the moral ground which his victims occupied, for a split-second was shaky. Just a moment of wavering – of heat of the moment chants, and unsavoury mobile phone videos – detracted from the moral authority they held.
This is a people who have suffered immeasurably and what processes and values they upheld were to their credit. Their emotions and reactions were completely understandable. But the global community had hoped for more – had hoped to see a moral choice made by the Iraqi people to carry out justice with the ultimate dignity and etiquette. We wanted to see an exercise in moral intelligence in spite of the emotional pull to behave otherwise. We felt that despite their unimaginable suffering and position, they could have risen above the simplistic emotional and political pull. We willed them to show a higher level of discernment.
All human beings, including Muslims, even at the height of emotion and pressure are required to show courage that underpins moral intelligence in making the right choices. A Muslim is duty bound to uphold the right course of action no matter what voices whisper on either side, no matter who the voices are from or what they say, or of the emotions welling up inside.
Showing this discernment, exercising this moral intelligence is no easy matter. And it becomes ever more difficult with lines being drawn in black and white all around us. Bush’s famous “you are either with us or with the terrorists” laid down the gauntlet. His opponents were equally stark. They created a face-off between them with no space in between. It is not a referee that is needed to prise these two playground bullies apart, but the wisdom of moral intelligence to create an alternative, to voice that alternative and to stand up and push it through.
It takes insight and courage to be able to create a voice that asks questions, that challenges and that uses moral judgement to discern what the truth is, what is the right course of action.
The rhetoric of the War or Terror grows ever more insidious. Terrorists and extremists are held up as representatives of the wider Muslim community. Dispatches on Channel 4 ran a programme entitled “Undercover Mosque”. The theme was “a reporter attends mosques run by organisations whose public faces are presented as moderate…” but which then went onto ‘expose’ the extreme views of the Saudi backed, trained or inspired speakers. (How do you ‘expose’ something that has been prevalent for years and years and public domain knowledge?) By creating a context that these people claim to be moderates but in fact hold abhorrent and hate-filled opinions, all Muslims that claim to be moderate, or in fact any Muslims at all, immediately become suspect.
How should Muslims respond? The extreme views of those particular individuals shown on the programme – and most Muslims come across these views every day and disagree vehemently with them – these extreme views are clearly outside the parameters of Islam, contradicting it both in letter and in spirit. These are views that need to be roundly and forcefully rejected. But how to do this without supporting the devious subtext of the programme which tries to paint all Muslims with the same brush?
This is the dilemma that faces Muslims when responding to the constant onslaught from the media and from politics. The Muslim community needs to make changes and be critical of itself. But the extreme Muslim views have painted this into a black and white choice – support Muslims and be with the Muslim cause, or be against it. To criticise, to challenge is to find yourself (or so they have Muslims believe) attacking your own values. And when Muslims turn to look at Bush, Blair and their allies and counterparts, they only re-inforce the same message: you are with us or against us. If Muslims disagree with this view, they are forced into the extremist camp. The face-off is stark, and the trap is hard to navigate out of. Muslims are trapped in a double whammy, into the monochrome of black and white choice, and of a voice that has been usurped by people who leave no room in between for the shades of grey that constitute humanity.
The debate over the veil was the same. The irony of the whole debate was that most Muslims actually disagree with the veil. But by declaring war on the veil, there was an obvious subtext of a war on Muslims. Stuck in this double whammy of the black and white of the debate from both sides, Muslims were challenged to crystallise an alternative choice. They felt their hand was forced.
We needed to have the courage, and space to step back and use our moral intelligence to assess – in both cases – what was inherently right and what was inherently wrong. In the veil debate Jack Straw took away this space. But equally Muslims need to be firmer in resolve and discernment and not be goaded into making judgements and decisions by the parameters in which extremists from all sides have defined the world. Those who draw these lines include the Bush’s and Blairs of this world, as well as the media, politicians and those Muslims who hold shocking and abhorrent views.
We have to stop letting people tell us what we are or what we are not, or what we should or should not do. Islam recognises that most of the space that human beings inhabit is to a backdrop of shades of grey. Muslims need to recognise that the limits that Islam lays out are only at the extreme edges, when all other social constructs break down. The basis for interaction amongst human beings is not the letter of the law, but the spirit of humanity – tolerance, respect, interaction, duty of care, exercise of justice, forgiveness and compassion. Interaction and determinations are based on these values rather than by partisan views.
Ali ibn Abi Talib, the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammed gives this advice: “Do not look to the person to find the truth, find the truth first and then look to see who follows it.” Exercising our judgement based on the spirit of Islam, the true spirit of Islam, not the Islam that the media has caricatured, needs to be done by assessing where truth lies. Locating the truth and then voicing it are the most important things.
We should not immediately recoil and reject the words from one side without careful analysis: we should not run to defend those who claim to hold the truth without exercising discernment. We must reclaim for ourselves the right to discern the truth and then identify who that is.
It may be that no-one is upholding the truth. We must uphold that truth, we must pursue it, we must voice it and champion it, even if it goes against received wisdom or ingrained rhetoric. This is the only way to exit the double whammy and create a long term path to a solution.
Muslims need to get out of the corner they are sadly painted into: where there appears to be a need to defend some untenable and frankly wrong position held by some Muslims, because those attacking have the subtext of denouncing and maligning all Muslims. But this is not a corner: there is a clear way out, but it is by no means easy. By showing dignity, justice, and self criticism alongside humanity, compassion and understanding and fairness, we will free ourselves of this double whammy and allow us to face down these sensationalist, vile and hate-filled attacks which masquerade under the guise of ‘revealing’ Muslims as ‘evil’ and ‘anti- democracy’.
This does not mean being moderate, weak or watered down. Quite the opposite: it requires courage, voice and moral intelligence. These are the essence of what makes Islam as described in the Qur’an, the ‘middle’ path or the ‘moderate’ way. Those who claim that being the voice of the middle path means we are kow-towing are oh-so-wrong, so very wrong.
The middle path is the straight and reasoned path, the choice taken independent of outside pressure and influence. It is the self-made decision based on moral intelligence and self belief. It is not weak, it is strong, brave, courageous – to face up to extreme views on both sides and assert that the intelligent moral choice lies not in the screaming black and white extremes, but in the voice of the human compassion, conscience and reason. In these shades of grey, we can create meaningful voices and dialogue. When we move to the blackened extremes and the light fades, that is where we find ourselves blinded.