[Originally published in Hürriyet Daily News, with readers' comments]
A horrendous massacre took place in Itamar, occupied Palestine, a week ago. A terrorist broke into a house of a Jewish settler family and killed five of its members mercilessly. The victims include a 3-month-old whose throat was slit, a 3-year-old who was stabbed in the heart and an 11-year-old who was butchered and killed by a knife.
I condemn the murder, and the murderer, with all my heart. I am no fan of Israeli settlers, and oppose their very presence on the Palestinian soil, but none of that can ever justify a monstrosity like this. Nothing, simply nothing, can justify the killing of innocents.
The rules of Jihad
That is not just common sense and universal conscious — it is also an Islamic principle. The Islamic doctrine of war, or jihad, has become quite notorious lately, for it is constantly exploited by those who commit terrorism in the name of Islam. Yet in fact, making a distinction between the combatants and the non-combatants among the enemy and respecting the lives of the latter has been a key principle of jihad since the beginning of Islam.
This comes from the very core sources of the Muslim faith. First, the Quran ordered believers to “fight in the Way of God against those who fight you, but do not go beyond the limits.” (2/190) Then the Prophet told his troops, “Do not kill the old, the infant, the child or the woman.” Accordingly, Islamic scholars built a doctrine of jihad, which took great pains to differentiate between the enemy and the innocents within the enemy. As the all-eminent Bernard Lewis puts it:
“Fighters in jihad are enjoined not to kill women, children and the aged unless they attack first, not to torture or mutilate prisoners, to give fair warning of the resumption of hostilities after a truce and to honor agreements.” (In “Crisis of Islam,” 2003, p. 30)
As Lewis adds, this principle led the medieval Islamic jurists to create a literature of jus in bello, or rules of a proper conduct of war. For example, many of those jurists limited or banned the use of mangonels and catapults, for these war machines inflicted indiscriminate casualties on the enemy.
In other words, even what the Westerners call “collateral damage” these days was a matter of concern for Muslim scholars of the Middle Ages. It is therefore ironic, and sad, that some of today’s Muslims — a tiny minority, to be sure — are willing to inflict not just “collateral” but also intentional damage on the enemy noncombatants.
I believe that what drives those militant Muslims, and terrorists such as the one who committed the massacre of Itamar, is a zealous hatred of their enemy rather than a pious observance of Islamic law. In other words, they attack innocent lives not because their religion tells them to do that — it actually tells them not to do that. They rather attack out of loathing, which is rooted in their political misfortunes.
Most arguments that try to justify jihad on civilians reflect that political incentive. Those who sympathize (or at least “understand”) attacks on Israeli civilians typically say, “They kill our children, too.” Or those who justify al-Qaeda’s attack on American civilians argue, “They pay taxes to their government, so they are responsible as well” — as if any American citizen has any other choice.
Yet the very hatred we see in these arguments seems to be something that the Quran warns Muslims believers against. A key verse declares:
“Do not let hatred for a people who debar you from the Masjid al-Haram incite you into going beyond the limits. Help each other to goodness and piety. Do not help each other to wrongdoing and enmity. Have fear of God.” (5/2)
The people who debarred the early Muslims from the Masjid al-Haram (the Kaaba) were the pagans of Mecca, the deadliest enemies of Islam. Yet God told Muslims not to “go beyond the limits,” even against them.
And that is something that all Muslims, and especially the radicalized ones, need to ponder in this day and age. They might have many reasons to be frustrated with the West, Israel, or the oppressive forces in their own countries. But none of those frustrations can justify doing things that are evil in nature.
What those evil acts only do, beyond harming innocent lives, is to stain either Islam or the Muslim causes they supposedly serve. The Palestinian cause, for example, has been only damaged by the massacre at Itamar. The terrorist of that doomed night stabbed not just the Jewish innocents, but also the innocence of his own struggle for a free Palestine.