OPINION: How Should Muslims Respond to Violence?

Roozbeh Jabbarizadeh, Iran editor, organizes his thoughts about the pressure on Muslims to respond after violent acts.


Through the course of terrorist incidents and violent war episodes in which the offenders assert, or it is assumed, they are motivated by Islamic convictions, a great part (presumably a vast majority) of Muslims observably try to react to a triple pressure:

1) As members of civil societies, they share the same consternation, abhorrence, and grief with other citizens.

2) As Muslim members of those societies, they feel either ashamed or offended for being identified with aggressive ideologies that have brought about these miseries, and feel forced to engage in apologetic or polemic response to this identification.

3) As members of a religious society and at an intellectual level, at least some of them seem to feel the threat, for their religious self-identity, of the ideologies that play up intolerant interpretations or components of shari’a, highlight its internal conflicts, and induce polarization within Muslim society and about Islam globally, so that taking sides becomes unavoidable.

For many Muslims, it is important to react to this situation by joining the social campaigns against violence and terrorism. Apart from the general difficulty of finding the appropriate course of action, however, Muslims are faced with additional problems hindering their contribution to anti-violence campaigns both at the level of their intra-religious relations and that of collaborating with non-Muslim activists:

1- In the air of distrust around them, Muslims need to convince the world and each other about the coherence of their anti-violence cause with their Muslimness. What should be their reasoning approach? The answer differs according to different Muslims’ conception of the religion and their relation to it, and this disagreement tends to affect their consensus about their common goal: i) it may be argued, typically by devout –though not necessarily orthodox- Muslims, that genuine Islam renounces violence. But this will need an explanation for several arguably harsh rules of shari’a (particularly in criminal and family law) whose genuineness has been rarely doubted and to which violence extremists appeal ii) one may argue that her anti-violence cause is independent of her religious beliefs and assert that the former will override the latter if a tension arises. Though persuasive on its own terms, this argument cannot directly be used on behalf of Muslims as Muslims since it is premised on potential disobedience and unfaithfulness to shari’a, so further justification is necessary iii) it can finally be argued that the values that Muslims rely on in rejecting violence do not come from religion, but are not in conflict with it either because religion or, more accurately, its temporal content can, and ought to, be reconciled with what believers at any given time deem morally or rationally necessary. But where should the line between the divine, non-contingent essence of the religion and its temporal content be drawn, and how can the former be safeguarded from arbitrary goal-oriented readings that are to serve the latter? The divergence of psychological and theological premises of the three approaches makes it nearly impossible for any of them alone to represent all Muslims who reject violence, much less Islam in abstract. But do Muslims need, for uniting against violence, to unify their reasoning approach?

2- Involving Muslims’ religious identity in their anti-violence activities need not be a matter of their choice. Even if they be satisfied with acting merely as undistinguished members of the anti-violence civil society movements rather than forming an ‘intra-religious battlefront’ with shari’a-based rationale and strategies, they still have to tackle relational problems arising from their Muslimness: those of being accepted as members of civil anti-violence movements without having to conceal their religious identity (though without stressing it either). This may be an issue because when social movements that aim to fight extremist ideologies themselves slip towards extremism or accept being led by their most extremist strata (which history shows to be always a real possibility), it tends to seem both more convenient and more benefitting to use broad, easily definable labels for the parties to the confrontation: Islam (or for that matter Islamism when it is defined as an uncompromising belief in, and a resolution to materialize, what real Islam is; a definition on which extremists on both sides agree) v. Western Civilization can be used as a slogan to derive the silent support of a pacifist (hence presumably passive?) majority  belonging to, or is in any manner associated with, Western culture and its fundamental values. But naturally there is no place for Muslims in this schema, even if they have affinity for the West as well, and they have to be asked to stay out at the best-case scenario. The main drawback here is not that the movement will lose the contribution of great population of peaceful Muslims, but that the strategy of action contradicts the values (like peace, diversity, and freedom of religion) which it is trying to defend.

Arguing for the peaceful nature of their religion, Muslims often quote maxims of shari’a underscoring the value of tolerance and freedom of belief. Solidarity among Muslims is also seen as a highly valued purpose of Islam. Western societies generally see pluralism and diversity of thoughts as their fundamental values. The present time seems to be, for both Muslim society and Western civil societies, one of those moments at which these fundamental values have to be weighed against other interests which are assumed essential for survival or ‘purity’ of the society. For Muslim groups, the challenge is to determine how far they are ready to go for uniting with each other in their defense of peaceful Muslimness in the face of their serious disagreement beyond this point about the religion and their relation to it. For Western societies, it is to decide how far they will remain faithful to their fundamental principles despite external and internal extremist forces that increasingly strive to make the departure from those principles the only practical option for them to keep secure and thriving.


The views and opinions expressed are the author’s own, and do not necessarily reflect the views of SHARIAsource.