Issues and events that provoked Muslim emotions emerged one after another throughout this year i.e. the Danish caricature of the Prophet Muhammad, the death of innocent civilians caused by Israel military’s attack in Lebanon, the speech delivered by Pope Benedict, the veil issue in the United Kingdom.
It is unlikely that such provocative incidents will not recur again. This is because globalisation has not only increased the opportunity for people to know each other but also raised the risk of conflict. Also, the black sheep in all societies who antagonise others will continue to exist; while peaceful coexistence is desired, it is always the result of a process. In that respect, it is normal for instability and conflict to precede.
Responses towards the caricature incident saw Muslims expressing themselves in various ways, from violence like rioting, arson and death threats to non-violence like petitions and economic boycotts.
Given the circumstances, a few questions may be asked. How should Muslims all over the world respond to such provocations? What are the guiding rules that can be discerned from Islamic teachings that could help Muslim civil societies respond to future provocations? How do we ensure that the commendable position taken by Singaporean Muslims is sustained in the future or continue to be founded on a firm foundation, rather than to external factors such as government intervention?
Let me share my 4-4 (four-four) formula.
Four guiding rules
There are four guiding rules. The first is the rule of peaceful or non-violent response. The reason behind this is the very belief held by Muslims that Islam means peace and tranquility. The best way for Muslims to manifest their belief is through deed and action. Hence any act of aggression and violence would not only be inconsistent with their own belief but a disservice to the religion.
The second is to uphold the rule of law. This is because Islam places great emphasis on orderliness in every matter. This can be seen from how various rituals in Islam would be nullified should Muslims fail to observe them in their correct order. Also, Islam prohibits the transgression of any rule (The Quran, 2:229).
Although the verse specifically prohibits transgression of the syariah, its application in the context of the existing legal system is just as relevant if the laws do not contradict the teachings and principles of Islam, such as in observing traffic regulations. Admittedly, some legal systems do not share the philosophy of Islam. Nevertheless, this is not a justification to totally reject all existing laws or to live in total disregard of the laws. Failure to operate according to the laws will cause lawlessness in the society, which is a greater harm and invite negative perceptions towards Muslims.
The third rule is the rule of discrimination. This means that any response should be directed only to the protagonist, not others. This is because in Islam, “And whateverany human being commits rests upon himself alone; no bearer of burdens shall be made to bear another’s burden” (The Quran, 6:164). Targeting non-protagonists is unjust and contradicts the fundamental pillar of justice in Islam. Even in jihad, Muslims are commanded to discriminate between combatant and non-combatant, and only the former is a legitimate target. The application of this rule in the context of a civil action is therefore more important.
The fourth is the rule of proportionality. The Quran says, “The recompense for an injury is an injury equal thereto (in degree): but if a person forgives and makes reconciliation, his reward is due from Allah” (The Quran, 42:40). Islam allows Muslims to repel evildoing but the religion does not allow them to do it in a way that will cause an equal or greater evil or injustice. A disproportionate response is both a transgression and an extremism that are forbidden in Islam.
In light of these rules of response to the caricature incident, Muslims could then question the appropriateness of punishing a dairy or biscuit company for an act committed by a privately owned newspaper company. The economic boycott is a legitimate means of action and it is used by many civil societies all over the world. But in the context of the caricature incident, Muslims could ask, how could Islam be seen as a “mercy for the universe” (The Quran, 21:107) by boycotting a dairy product company, if such an act could result in the loss of income for thousands of unrelated individuals who have families and children to support and feed? It is clear that being Danish does not make one a legitimate target for retaliation.
Muslims should also understand the nature of state-media relationship in the European context where the media is usually free of government intervention. To proportionate the Danish government some blame for the provocation raises the question about proportionate and discriminate response.
Non-violence is not the only criterion for action. As has been described above, a non-violent response can still be regarded as illegitimate in Islam if it is not in accordance with the law of the land, or is discriminatory and disproportionate.
Four options – must it be “an eye for en eye”?
Islam allows a range of responses to provocation and insult depending on its gravity. However, “an eye for an eye” is never the one and only available option. Islam enjoins Muslims “to repel (Evil) with what is better” (The Quran, 41:34, 23:96). It also calls to “forgive them, and overlook (their misdeeds)” (The Quran, 5:13). Sometimes a response can be to “turn away from the ignorant” (The Quran, 7:199) – to ignore the act. Lastly, of course, is to “retaliate with the like of that with which you were afflicted” (The Quran, 16:126).
The above four options is not in any order of priority. Each should be chosen based on the context and other considerations. But the point is that Muslims should not see their response in just one particular way but to have a strategic view by considering various options or a combination of these options which would provide greater benefit to them.
Debates relating to the Danish caricature do show up the gap in understanding between the Muslim world and Europe. Closing this gap could not be achieved by asking Europe to understand Muslims and Islam only. Responses on the street to the provocation do show that Muslims also need to understand Europe and the changing international environment objectively.
To ensure that the responses of Singaporean Muslims remain commendable in future, efforts should be made by Muslim leaders to socialise and institutionalise these responses so they will be entrenched and become part of the culture of Muslim civil society groups.
Although the rules and options mentioned are deduced from the teachings of Islam, they are equally useful for non-Muslim civil society groups to consider.
The article above is an improved version of my article published in The Straits Times (Singapore), titled “Provoked? Four rules to guide Muslim response”, 25 March 2006.