The power of a dangerous idea: From Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi to the Arab spring, faith is inspiring the new peaceful protest.
December 16, 2011
The names Yahya Shurbaji and Ghiyath Matar might mean little to people outside Syria. Inside the country, however, they are considered heroes by many, having helped to inspire, organise and mobilise the non-violent protests against the despotic regime of Bashar al-Assad before being arrested, detained and, in the case of the 26-year-old Matar, tortured and killed in custody by Assad’s secret police in September.
In Daraya, the suburb of Damascus where they lived, Shurbaji and Matar pioneered the tactic of distributing roses, dates and bottles of water to young soldiers sent by the government to open fire on unarmed demonstrators. The former earned the sobriquet “the man with the roses”; Matar was nicknamed “Little Gandhi”.
What are the roots of this non-violence? In 1966, the Islamic scholar and philosopher Jawdat Said, born in Syria in 1931 and a graduate of al-Azhar University in Egypt, published a book called The Doctrine of the First Son of Adam: the Problem of Violence in the Islamic World. It was the first book to be published by a scholar associated with the modern Islamic movement that explicitly advocated a philosophy of non-violence. Said wrote his book as a counterblast to the writings of his contemporary Sayyid Qutb, the Egyptian radical Islamist theorist who is today considered to be the ideological forefather of al-Qaeda and modern Muslim militancy.
The Doctrine of the First Son of Adam revolves around Quranic teachings on the subject of non-violence and, specifically, the story of Cain and Abel, sons of Adam, in which the latter refuses to defend himself against the former even though he ends up losing his life. The Quran tells the story of how the two sons of Adam presented a sacrifice to Allah:
It was accepted from one but not from the other. The latter said: “Be sure I will slay thee.” “Surely,” said the former, “Allah doth accept of the sacrifice of those who are righteous. If thou dost stretch thy hand against me, to slay me, it is not for me to stretch my hand against thee to slay thee: for I do fear Allah, the Cherisher of the worlds. For me, I intend to let thee draw on thyself my sin as well as thine, for thou wilt be among the Companions of the Fire and that is the reward of those who do wrong.”
When confronted with an aggressor, Said argued, Muslims should react “like Adam’s firstborn son, who did not defend himself against the attacks of his brother”. The non-violent conduct displayed by the God-fearing Abel is, in Said’s view, “a position to be aspired to by all mankind, and adhering to it is one of God’s commandments”.
For Said, violence goes against the teachings of the Quran. His is a provocative view: that Islam and pacifism go hand in hand, rather than the traditional view of Islam as a religion of the sword, founded by a warrior-prophet. Said points to the example of Muhammad, not in Medina between 622 and 632AD, where he did take to the battlefield against pagan and Jewish tribes, but his 12 years as a prophet in Mecca (610-622AD), where he struggled non-violently against his oppressors.
Now in its fifth edition, Said’s book has been pored over by protesters on the streets of Damascus, Homs, Hama and Daraya – including Shurbaji and Matar. Their decision to renounce violence and opt for a strategy of civil disobedience and peaceful protest was an ethical and faith-based choice, rather than a pragmatic or tactical decision. “We chose non-violence not from cowardice or weakness but out of moral conviction; we don’t want to reach victory by having destroyed the country,” wrote Matar in one of his last posts on Facebook. “We want to arrive morally, so we will stick to this path until God works His will.”
Atheist intellectuals have long accused religions and faith groups of approving of and legitimating violence; of fomenting wars between peoples and nations. According to the neuroscientist Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason and Letter to a Christian Nation, there is a “deep link” between religion and violence. “Faith inspires violence in at least two ways,” he writes. “First, people often kill other human beings because they believe that the creator of the universe wants them to do it . . . Second, far greater numbers of people fall into conflict . . . because they define their moral community on the basis of their religious affiliation.”
Yet the Arab spring has surely undermined such claims, even if some secular commentators have attempted to divorce the protests from the religious backgrounds and beliefs of the protesters. The US conflict analyst Michael Shank has observed that there is an “implicit disbelief” in the west that Muslims “could ever organise non-violently and an explicit belief that protests in the Muslim world were inspired by external, non-Muslim sources”. One such “source” is the secular, US-based activist and academic Gene Sharp. Some western journalists claimed that his book From Dictatorship to Democracy, which served as a basis for non-violent campaigns in Serbia, Georgia and Ukraine, was the driving force behind the protests in the Arab world. (“Shy US intellectual created playbook used in a revolution”, read a headline in the New York Times in February.)
This isn’t just simplistic, but patronising, too. Credit should be given where credit is due. Arab Muslims have been at the forefront of the non-violent protests against the region’s tyrants and autocrats – and not just in Syria.
In Yemen, the hijab-clad Tawakkol Karman, one of the leading organisers of the non-violent struggle against the tottering dictatorship of the country’s US-backed president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, is a devout Muslim and a senior member of al-Islah, the country’s conservative Islamic opposition party.
In October, Karman became the youngest person, and only the second Muslim woman, to win the Nobel Peace Prize. “We refuse violence and know that violence has already caused our country countless problems,” she declared in an interview this year.
So what do Harris and the so-called new atheists make of Karman, one wonders? Or Shurbaji and Matar? This isn’t just about the Middle East or Muslims – yet it does seem strange that members of a faith group notorious for its suicide bombers and militant jihadists have been behind the most impressive and inspiring non-violent movement of 2011. The truth is that the doctrine of non-violence can be found at the heart of every religion because, as the Catholic priest and noted pacifist John Dear puts it, “Non-violence is at the heart of God.” In every major religion, he says, “We discover the root of non-violence.”
Take Christianity. “Blessed are the peacemakers,” Jesus proclaimed in the Sermon on the Mount. In Judaism, the most common greeting, “shalom”, means “peace”. In Islam, Allah is often referred to as “the source of peace” and paradise as the “abode of peace”. Meanwhile, ahimsa (literally, the avoidance of violence, or himsa) is a critical tenet of the ancient Indian religions Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism.
That is not to say that there aren’t verses and parables in almost every holy book that can be – and have been – used to justify violence and “holy war” against “infidels”, “sinners” and the rest. However, to refuse to acknowledge or engage with the non-violent tradition in each and every major religion is a sign of intellectual cowardice. Whether new atheists like to admit it or not, the messages of peace, brotherhood and non-violence can be found at the core of every faith…