Declaration of Peaceful Intent

A reader draws my attention to a video in which the Australian activist, Harry Richardson, challenges a Muslim community leader to adopt his Declaration of Peaceful Intent, which is to state that he renounces the Quran’s violent commands as not applicable to today:

I,………………………………………… (name)

understand that there are commands in the Quran which compel Muslims to kill, behead, crucify or commit unprovoked violence against non-Muslims, Jews, Christians, atheists or apostates from Islam. I fully, completely, unequivocally, 100% reject, and refuse to practice or teach any of these commands. I believe these commands from Allah are not applicable, not relevant and should not be practiced in any form in today’s world by anyone.

“Surely you wouldn’t have a problem signing this declaration, would you?” asks my challenger. The question isn’t rhetorical. The declaration asks you to give your name, address and signature, presumably so both Muslim extremists and white supremacists can drop around for a chat. Hmm, I think I’ll give that a miss.

If I am perfectly honest, I think my adversary will have difficulty finding anyone to sign Mr Richardson’s so-called Declaration of Peaceful Intent in its current form, given the way it is framed: the signatory is asked to agree that there are “commands” which “compel”, and further, to commit “unprovoked” violence.

But of course, this is not the position of Muslims everywhere. It is true that some Muslims believe that verses of the Qur’an can be read as isolated commands, hewn of all context, be it the preceding verses or the book as a whole. However, that is certainly not the position of all. For example, Surah al-Tawba is held by most to refer to a historical episode between the Muslims of Medina and the hostile Meccan forces who breached the peace treaty of Hudaybiyya. That is the position of many scholars of tafsir such as Razi, Zamakhshari, Baydawi, Nasafi and Biqai, and of many contemporary scholars too.

Contextually these verses are not talking about initiating “unprovoked violence” but about responding to a specific group of people that declared war on them. A Muslim who holds this position, therefore, is not going to find himself able to sign a declaration which states the very opposite.

Let me be clear: I hold the view that war should always be a last resort. Generally speaking, war is seldom a good thing. My view is that peace is the optimal state for any society and we should strive to avoid war at all costs. I also believe that this is the overall intent of the Qur’an, when read as a whole and in context: fight only those who fight you, and do not transgress the limits. I categorically reject the doctrine of abrogation, which allows aggressors to ignore verses which clearly call for restraint.

And yet, all that said, I am not going to deny any nation on the planet the right to self-defence or to resist oppression, which are rights granted them under International Law.

And we can be pretty sure that if Britain or Australia did come under military attack from another nation, nobody would object to the prime minister, head of military or the nation’s newspapers calling for a harsh and unforgiving response to those aggressors. I think we can all understand that speech in times of warfare differs to that in times of peace. Otherwise Britain would not celebrate Winston Churchill.

On the other hand, we should always oppose expansionist, offensive warfare, whoever the perpetrator. That is why, on my blog, I have frequently called out offensive wars perpetrated by Muslims. I am very well aware that empires and dynasties have exploited religious texts to further their objectives, and that many still do. It doesn’t mean that it is right.

But if you take this approach, you have to apply it across the board. Justice demands that we use the same measure for everyone. You cannot say that it only applies to your enemy, and that our own side is free to do as it pleases.

On his blog, Harry Richardson presents a very whitewashed version of Australian history in an article critiquing multiculturalism.

I wonder, where is his acknowledgement of Australia’s frontier wars, which saw British settlers engaged in offensive armed conflict with indigenous Australians for 150 years? Where does he rail against the doctrine of terra nullius which was used to deprive indigenous Australians of their property rights and enabled the establishment of a white supremacist state in Australia. The policy famously known as the Stolen Generations was being practiced until 1970. As recently as 2007, the Australian government sent its army into so-called indigenous areas under pretexts later found to be entirely unfounded. But as far as Mr Richardson is concerned, none of this happened: instead, British settlers peacefully migrated to Australia and assimilated into the indigenous culture, without imposing their way of life on the people who had lived there for thousands of years (Mr Richardson says they were migrants originally too).

But of course we Brits fare no better. How many of our wars since 1500 could be considered defensive? Okay, ancient history, so let’s take the last 100 years, when we have been perpetually engaged in conflict in one theatre of war or another. Sure, we have always engaged in defence of our “interests” but that is not the meaning of defensive war. True, WWII was defensive, at least in its European context. But note that it was here that the British invented the term “Terror bombing”, in which the mass killing of civilians was legitimised as a means to defeat the enemy — 37,000 in Hamburg and 25,000 in Dresden — a tactic then taken up by Germany to equally devastating effect in its bombing raids on Britain.

I mention these points not to absolve Muslim aggressors of their crimes. As I have said, I call out both. I just wonder where is the Declaration of Peaceful Intent for British and Australian forces which are currently engaged in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria? I imagine that both my friendly rival and Mr Richardson consider these conflicts Just Wars, which are therefore legitimate. So be it. But you can’t very well demand pacifism of your enemies when you are engaged in military conflict yourself, and with vastly superior firepower at that, and when you espouse military doctrines such as Shock and Awe. There’s a parable in the Christian Gospels I was raised on concerning a speck of dust in your brother’s eye which is instructive in this regard.

For my part, I will gladly declare:

  • A Muslim (or indeed anyone) should only fight those that fight them, and if they do, they should not transgress limits. A Muslim must not be an aggressor.
  • In a legitimate war, Muslims (or indeed anyone) must engage specifically with those who fought them, i.e. soldiers in combat. Targeting civilians is absolutely out of the question. I don’t subscribe to the principle of collateral damage; civilians should never be deliberately targeted in any conflict.
  • If the army they are fighting ceases hostility, then likewise the Muslim (or indeed anyone) should also cease fighting. If they incline to peace, then likewise the Muslim should incline to peace.
  • I dislike war, but I acknowledge that sometimes it is necessary to prevent aggression, oppression and greater harm, and that in those cases warfare has to be described in uncompromising terms.

Of course my declaration of peaceful intent will not satisfy my detractor, because it is conditional. Conditional on the same measures being applied to everyone. Those conditions will not be viewed as rights bestowed in International Law, but as childish whataboutery. For it helps no one to talk about illegal invasions of sovereign nations, thousands of miles from home that posed no threat to ourselves, nor of the deployment of napalm to defoliate whole jungles, or white phosphorous to destroy dense cities. It helps no one to talk of the 123 million people who died in the wars of the last century, of 42 million victims of genocide and mass killing, or 27 million civilians classified as collateral damage. It helps no one to speak of Britain’s Operation Gomorrah, Germany’s Blitzkrieg or the United States’ Manhattan Project.

No, what matters is what a random blogger who works in web development and wouldn’t hurt a fly thinks of Mr Richardson’s Declaration of Peaceful Intent. If he will not sign it, what could it possibly mean: that he is secretly planning our downfall, in-between mowing his elderly Christian neighbour’s lawn and fixing his computer again? Or just that he thinks the declaration is flawed and founded on false premises, and a very one-sided view of the world which takes no account of the actual realties for billions of people around the world. Maybe a better course of action would be to ask the CIA to stop funding militant Islamist groups in its unending proxy-war with Russia. That would be a better outcome all round.

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