A Brutal Murder, Nonetheless
By Farish A. Noor
‘Tell me, what cause can remain noble when you start hacking off limbs in its name?’
From Peter Shaffer’s ‘Royal Hunt of the Sun’
The brutal slaying of the young Korean translator Kim Sun-il by the Iraqi group calling itself the Jama’at al-Tauhid w’al-Jihad has shocked the world, notably the communities of East Asia. While highlighting the failure of the US-led coalition to restore law and order in Iraq; and emphasising the vigour of local Iraqi resistance to the US-led occupation of that troubled country, the deplorable incident also raises many questions that the Iraqis, Americans and the global community as a whole are now forced to address.
Unlike the previous instances of hostage-taking and hostage-killing that has taken place in Iraq, the unfortunate kidnapping and subsequent murder of this helpless Korean translator is unique for a number of reasons.
For a start, Kim Sun-il, though a Korean working with and for the US-led coalition forces in Iraq, was a translator by profession. In his capacity as a translator he was in a position to play the role of bridge-builder and negotiator, albeit within the circle of those interested parties who have seen fit to rebuild Iraq in their own image.
Notwithstanding his professional obligations and duties there, his role as a translator is significant nonetheless, for he was still in the position to act as mediator and communicator between cultures and societies. The killing of a translator under whatever circumstances is tantamount to burning bridges, and as such is an act of violence of the highest order: It negates not only the life of the victim, but also the possibility of dialogue and reconciliation. Indeed, it signals the end of dialogue itself, opening the way to the deafening silence of conflict without speech or regard for the Other. In this sense, his senseless murder was an even greater act of violence with even greater consequences for the future.
Secondly, the killing of a South Korean has done tremendous damage to the image of Iraqis, and by extension all Arabs and Muslims in East Asia. Though critics of the war – this writer included – have expressed anger and disappointment with the South Korean government’s decision to lend its weight to Washington’s latest folly, it should also be remembered that much of the public outrage and anger against American unilateralism has emanated from Asia. Witness the demonstrations against the Iraqi invasion that erupted on the streets of Seoul, Tokyo, Jakarta, Manila, Bangkok and elsewhere. The opposition groups in Iraq have yet to understand that there is another world out there that exceeds the frontiers of their arch-nemesis, the USA. And they seem to labour under the false impression that the whole world is anti-Arab and anti-Islam, which is simply not true.
In the Far East, popular perception of Islam and Muslim concerns is more often positive, or at worse ambivalent. The Koreans, Japanese, Chinese and other East Asians do not carry the historical baggage of the Crusades or the religious conflicts between Europe and the Arab lands, at least until now. However the killing and kidnapping of Koreans, Chinese and Japanese workers by Iraqi groups have fed their home communities with a new stereotype: that of the irrational, hate-ridden and fanatical Arab-Muslim, whose only recourse is to the gun and the sword. Far from winning the support of other non-Western communities, the killers of Kim Sun-il and their brethren have driven them away. Less than an own-goal, this brutal killing was more akin to the act of shooting oneself in the head.
Thirdly, it should be noted that the supreme irony above all this is the fact that the murderers of Kim Sun-il were brazen enough to name their group the Jama’at al-Tauhid w’al-Jihad. Apparently led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, an alleged member of al-Qaeda said to be close to Osama ben Laden, this is the same group that claimed responsibility for the murder of the American worker Nick Berg and the head of the Iraqi governing council Ezzedine Salim.
Had it not been for the circumstances which can only be described as tragic, one might be forgiven for thinking that this was some sick joke on Arabs, Muslims and Islam in general. For the name of the group – the Jama’at al-Tauhid – alludes to a central tenet of faith in Islam, tauhid: the unity of Being and the oneness of God and creation. For centuries the central concept of tauhid has served not only as a moral, epistemic and philosophical compass for Muslim thought and Islamic theology, but also as an instrumental concept in the process of cultural dialogue and bridge-building between faith communities.
Tauhid is, in this sense, the essence of Islamic monotheism as well as Muslim normative religiosity and socio-political life. It was the concept of tauhid that countless Muslim rulers, jurists and theologians fell back on when trying to craft together the art and praxis of Islamic governance to deal with the challenges of pluralism and cosmopolitanism. During the peak of the Ottoman, Moghul and Spanish Caliphates, the unitary idea of tauhid – the oneness of God and the unity of all of God’s creation – was the idea that glued these societies together and kept the divisive centrifugal forces of sectarianism and communitarianism in check. For centuries Muslim theologians, philosophers, jurists and rulers emphasised the unity of all creation and the fundamental equality of the singular human race. Till today the concept of tauhid is being used by Islamist intellectuals like Sheikh Rached al-Ghannouchi as a platform for an inclusive, cosmopolitan Islam that binds societies together within a democratic framework.
Instead the Muslim world now has to bear the shame of admitting that in their midst there exist groups like the Jama’at al-Tauhid w’al-Jihad who cannot even grasp this fundamental tenet of Islam and who instead demonstrate their commitment to Muslim concerns by murdering translators. Shame on us all, for allowing a bunch of thugs and gangsters to usurp and hijack the discourse of Islam in such a crude and counter-productive way; and on top of that justify their detestable practices in our collective name!
Lest it be forgotten, tauhid is also linked to the idea and praxis of da’wa (to preach the message of Islam and to communicate the concerns of Muslims). Tauhid is the concept that saves Muslims from the over-zealous and counter-productive tendency of ramming Islam down the throats of others, for it is the idea of tauhid that reminds Muslims that all human beings are equal and are thus entitled to their share of respect and dignity. We do not communicate the message of Islam or the concerns of Muslims by murdering people, and the resistance groups in Iraq will never win the support of others if they choose the gun as their instrument of communication. How does one dialogue with a bullet or a knife? The Iraqi people have every right, even an obligation, to express their anger, frustration and disappointment – but this has to be done with tact, sensitivity and above all intelligence.
The irony of it all is that the senseless actions of the Jama’at al-Tauhid are devoid of any signs of intelligence, and have only increased their sphere of alienation rather than their sphere of association and inclusivity. The even greater irony of it all is that the defenceless victim of their barbarity was a man who could have played a crucial role in helping the world understand the plight of the Iraqis. As a translator, Kim Sun-il might have been given the opportunity to build a inter-cultural bridge, no matter how small, so that the plight of the Arab peoples might be better understood by his fellow Koreans and East Asians. That opportunity is now lost; the image of Arabs and Islam further sullied, and the security situation in Iraq made more critical.
In the midst of it all, the final question remains: Who was more Islamic in his conduct – the translator who might have served as peace-maker, or the murderer who hides behind the mantle of Islamic religiosity? This was a sad day for Kim Sun-il and his family, but it was a sad day for the Muslim world as well.