by Rev. Frank Julian Gelli
‘The children of the Turks should not be killed, because they are innocent.’ So taught Spanish theologian Francisco De Victoria in his epoch-making lectures on just conduct in warfare. A moral milestone – note that Victoria spoke in the 16th century, when the Turks were Catholic Spain’s deadliest enemies.
Is it not obvious children are innocent? Not to all. As late as WW2, Allied realpolitikers claimed that German children would grow up to be Nazis and therefore could be lawfully massacred in obliteration bombing. And they were.
The innocent still need defending. The terrorist slaughters in Nairobi and Peshawar have killed babies, children and pregnant women. Innocent ones. Consider the etymology: from Latin nocere – to hurt. In here meaning ‘without’. Hence the in-nocent are not hurting anyone. They are the harmless ones. Not necessarily in a subjective moral sense, mind. Wicked kids exist but that’s irrelevant. Victoria appealed to the natural law, a standard intelligible to all rational beings. The innocent pose no direct, immediate threat to combatants, hence, unlike enemy soldiers, they should not be directly targeted and killed.
The Somali shabab are aggrieved, rightly or wrongly, because of Kenya’s intervention in their civil war. They did not, however, choose to attack the military but civilians – the innocent. Similarly, the Pakistani Taleban seek revenge for US drone strikes but why then blow up Christian worshippers at Mass? Again, children and babies? What crimes had the little ones committed? What threat did they pose? What ‘moral’ argument could there be for such barbarism?
‘Collateral damage’ could be invoked, perhaps? Like with drone strikes? It certainly won’t wash with the Peshawar outrage. Nairobi? Since when is a shopping centre a military base? No, it was intentional, deliberate massacre of the innocent. The perpetrators stand guilty of that.
Moral principles are all very well – in actual warfare generals & troops do not look up a moral or theological rule book. That is why just war criteria probably have never stopped or even humanised any war. Virtue comes crucially in. ‘Virtue’ in the Aristotelian sense. Character formation. Good habits, traits of righteous character. (As in the best, old English public schools…) A just warrior will then not be a stickler for abstract doctrines but a moral agent for whom certain actions will never be right. The virtuous fighter need not deliberate theoretically about right and wrong. He is just the kind of man for whom certain actions are intrinsically wicked. Never to be done or even contemplated. Such as the direct killing of the innocent.
Warning: not all Islamists should be tarred over with the same brush. Italian journalist Domenico Quirico was held hostage for months by Syrian rebels. It was an odyssey of pain. The cruelties, fake executions and the humiliations he and his fellow sufferers undergone in captivity make grim reading. Even children showed them no pity, treated them spitefully. However, he says the only rebel group which dealt with them fairly, to the point of sharing their food with the prisoners, was… Jabhat al-Nusrah. The al-Qaeda guys. Strict, rigorous Islamists, abiding by the commands of their faith, they handled the Christians with honour and respect. An anecdote that makes you think.
Watching on TV the slaying of the innocent, ‘Islam can’t be a religion of peace!’ some will scream. Pope Benedict once said that Islam certainly has many elements of peace but that it also contains other elements. Par contre, a critic as perceptive as Bernard Lewis writes somewhere that there is nothing in Islam intrinsically to predispose it towards violence or terrorism. And, speaking autobiographically, the priest has heaps of Muslim friends who are as benign and as law-abiding as the average Methodist worshipper. Truth is, the roots of terrorist rage and mayhem are complex. They cannot be simplistically ascribed to one of the world’s great religions.
Nonetheless, to contend, like asinine PM David Cameron, that the Shabab are not Muslims is ridiculous. Since when is Dull Dave is an alim, a Muslim scholar, one entitled to pontificate on Islamic credentials? To do Takfir al-Muslim? To declare anyone an infidel? I can almost hear the Umma’s roaring laughter! There are established procedures in schools of Islamic jurisprudence to declare someone an unbeliever – David Cameron hasn’t a clue about them.
Despite that juristic tradition, there are many Islamic trends and sects. (Maybe there are many ‘Islams’.) Some of which anathemise each other with great passion. The finger is sometimes pointed at Wahhabi and Salafi ideologies, emanating chiefly from Saudi Arabia. Narrow sectarians they may be but they are surely part of Islam. Pity there is no Muslim Pope, no universally accepted al-Azhar institution in Sunni Islam, to lay down authoritatively who is and who is not acting as a Muslim. Hence the Shabab and the Taleban brigade have as much right as any peace-loving, mild and quietistic Sufi to speak and act in their religion’s name.
The Almighty will judge the terrorists and human laws must pursue and punish them. However, could one also show them how they are spiritually and morally mistaken in their murderous path? Maybe that is not possible, any more than you can argue rationally with a suicide bomber. A hardened heart cannot be reached but…the priest might dare.
‘O people of violence, do you really know your own sacred history? Have you heard of the Prophet Muhammad at Taif? Historian at-Tabari tell you of it. How the pagan mob, the rabble was stirred up against him, hounded him out and threw stones at him? Wounded, exhausted and downcast the Prophet sought shelter in an orchard. There, instead of calling down Allah’s wrath against his enemies, Muhammad actually prayed for his persecutors: ‘Oh God, do not punish them, because they do not know I am your Prophet!’
The forgiving Muhammad. The man of peace. Would your Prophet have been happy with his followers murdering the innocent?
I think not.
FATHER FRANK’S RANTS — Rant Number 555 24 September 2013