As the year began, the world was shaken by the horrific attacks of one of the world’s strongest military machines upon one of the world’s weakest people. After so many hundreds of lost lives, Gaza lies in ruins.
Besides the sadness and despair such occasions bring out, there is also a great deal of outrage and frustration. Understandable frustration at the inconsistencies of the world. When deranged Muslims in another part of the world kill innocent civilians through acts of terror, British Muslims are expected to stand up and apologise on their behalf. We all have to condemn the violence in unequivocal terms – and so we should. Yet here in Britain as in other parts of the world we saw rallies defending Israel! Pragmatism always involves a balance of ethics and politics, but when politics so crudely override our ethical and moral positions there is disaster ahead. This should not detract from the courageous voices from the Jewish community that did speak out, and spoke out strongly.
But not only does the wider world need courageous leadership, Muslim communities do too. Faced by oppression and weakness in too many places, we seem to have settled for a default position – that as long as ‘they’ do this to us, ‘we’ could do that to them – that goes against the grain of Islamic teachings. Not only are the ‘we’ and ‘they’ artificial constructs, but also the logic of ‘an eye for an eye’ is an incomplete picture of the teachings of the Qur’an. The Qur’an paints a picture of a higher ethical position that should elevate Muslims’ conduct, “The good deed and the evil deed cannot be equal. Repel evil with that which is better; then indeed, he between whom and you there was enmity, will become as though he was a close friend.” (Qur’an, 41:34).
This is not a naïve instruction to a naïve people – but is about breaking the cycle of hatred and providing an example to the world. It is easy for people to show moral courage in the good times. It is when the going gets tough, that these teachings really matter. The Qur’an again: “…and let not the hatred of others toward you make you swerve to wrong and depart from justice. Be just, that is closest to piety; and fear God. For God is well-acquainted with all that you do.” (Qur’an, 5:8).
These are not just lofty ideals that are impossible to reach, but were lived, albeit by few. Our history shows examples of great moral courage even in the theatre of war. Salahuddin Ayyubi (Saladin) is noted for his chivalrous relationship with his enemy, Richard the Lionheart, during the Crusades. When King Richard developed a dangerous fever, Salahuddin offered treatment by despatching his own physician. He also sent fresh fruit, and snow to cool the food and drink, as treatment. When Richard lost his horse in battle, Salahuddin sent him a replacement.
This level of unimaginable moral example is what made Muslims stand out when they were at their best. It is why the Prophet (p) was respected by even his enemies. We should be like this not because we are weak, or to appease, but because it is the right thing to do.
In light of the above standard that Islam sets, it is very concerning that we can see signs of the crisis in the Middle East spill over to the UK. Attacks upon Jewish persons and places of worship have increased in the last few weeks – as have attacks on Muslims too. As a number of recent statements have shown, we must ensure that while we maintain a robust criticism of Israeli policy, we do not in any way allow the situation to be abused by troublemakers to stoke up anti-Semitic or Islamophobic sentiments. Our leaders need to give strong and clear direction to channel anger, frustration and energy towards constructive action, in a way that does not risk re-enforcing a sense of victimhood and helplessness, on the one hand and aggression on the other; not least because extremist tendencies could use such sentiments for recruitment.
This is easier said than done and is why figures such as Martin Luther King, Ghandi and Nelson Mandela have gone down in history for showing courageous leadership that is sharply critical, but nevertheless charts a clear path to peace and reconciliation. For a people that don’t always have access to the heights of military and economic power – if we do not abide by the power of our convictions and character – we have nothing.