Friday, November 7, 2014

Fighting Back: It's alright as long as you're a Christian, right?

Somali-Americans at prayer in St. Paul, MN
Detail of image that ran in the Chicago Tribune print edition
October 23, 2014, entitled "Countering the pull of extremists:
A Somali-American  fights recruiters seeking youths to join
militants abroad" (See online version)
Here's one reason I am very troubled by the latest developments in Iraq and Syria, and in particular the high profile of ISIS: it seems to have provoked (or re-provoked) an expectation in Western society (particularly the U.S. and U.K.) that if Muslims want to be tolerated, they must demonstrate active and enthusiastic opposition to the choices of some of their young people to affiliate with armed groups in the Mideast.

(See, for instance, "How Muslims can halt extremism" by Junaid M. Afeef; "Let’s Talk About How Islam Has Been Hijacked" by Aly Salem; the #NotInMyName campaign; and the story of Abdirizak Bihi in St. Paul: "Somali American fights militant Islamist recruiters in U.S. heartland".)

I have three questions about this.

First, what is the letter of the law on youths joining militants abroad?

Second, what do our values tell us about youths joining militants abroad? In particular, is this a Muslim value? Is it a Christian value?

Third, what is the appropriate response to what's happening abroad? Is "do nothing" a better response than "go take up arms"?

These aren't easy questions to answer. But we need to try.

What is the law?

I am aware that many Muslims have been prosecuted in the U.S. on a range of charges, some relating to their desire to go and fight in struggles in other countries.

The document "Victims of America's Dirty Wars: Tactics and Reasons from COINTELPRO to the War on Terror" by Stephen Downs, Esq., raises a very good question: in fact, is it illegal to go and fight in other countries? Downs writes,

It is natural for American Muslims to feel strongly about the conflicts abroad that involve their ancestral homelands, where they have family and cultural ties. When they see their ancestral families and culture threatened in places like Chechnya, Kashmir, Palestine, Bosnia, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran, they naturally want to defend the people and culture they love, and believe that defending these people and culture will not in any way hurt the U.S. Romantic, idealistic, and self-sacrificing young men (and women) are often those most attracted to defend such foreign homelands. (See For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway.) Thus it seems particularly harsh that even unsuccessful attempts to attend training camps abroad by Muslims should be punished by long prison terms.

Americans in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade fought in the
Spanish Civil War (1936-39)
It appears to me that U.S. law says, in effect, fighting for a foreign country is not illegal, provided it doesn't involved fighting against the U.S. The website of the U.S. State Department says,

Military service in foreign countries, however, usually does not cause loss of nationality since an intention to relinquish nationality normally is lacking. In adjudicating loss of nationality cases, the Department has established an administrative presumption that a person serving in the armed forces of a foreign state not engaged in hostilities against the United States does not have the intention to relinquish nationality. On the other hand, voluntary service in the armed forces of a state engaged in hostilities against the United States could be viewed as indicative of an intention to relinquish U.S. nationality.

(See Advice about Possible Loss of U.S. Nationality and Foreign Military Service)

There has been bluster recently about taking away the citizenship of people who fight overseas. Steve Chapman explains, in "Even terrorists have a right to citizenship", why that would be unconstitutional.

(And by the way, if you're carrying a gun because you're on the U.S. payroll, or the payroll of a corporation which is, itself, on the U.S. payroll, that's another story. See The Invisible Soldiers: How America Outsourced Our Security by Ann Hagedorn.)

Of course, the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) passed by Congress after 9/11 allows the U.S. government a very sweeping definition of who is an enemy of the U.S.  Numerous other laws create penalties for anyone interacting with any group that has been deemed "terrorist."

The upshot is that, while there is today no practical way of fighting in a foreign struggle without running a very high risk of being prosecuted, in principle and based on our political theory, it remains a right of U.S. nationals.

What is the theology?

Muslim leaders are called upon to demonstrate active and enthusiastic opposition to members of their community fighting in a foreign struggles.

I can't help feeling that:

(a) This perpetuates the perception that Islam has a greater tolerance for violence than Christianity. In my opinion, there is ample material in both traditions for practitioners to justify a range of behaviors.

(b) This crushes what would otherwise be an opportunity for interfaith dialog -- a dialog about what the posture of what Muslim and Chrisitan communities of faith ought to be in the face of injustice.

"Onward Christian Soldiers"
FDR, Churchill, officers, and crew worship aboard
H.M.S. Prince of Wales during negotiation of the
Atlantic Charter (August, 1941)
(Click to view large image)
I was reminded of the truth of point (a) just a few weeks ago when I spent several hours watching a Ken Burns documentary about the Roosevelt political dynasty.  The documentary described Winston Churchill meeting Franklin D. Roosevelt on board a ship, to convince him to bring the U.S. into the hostilities in WWII. They held a Christian worship service during their time together on shipboard, with hymns specially selected by Churchill, including "Onward Christian Soldiers." (Watch the video!) As the two left the service together arm in arm, FDR turned to Churchill and said, "That is what we are, isn't it? Christian soldiers!"

Numerous Christian activists in the U.S. have expressed their opposition to the idea of "just war" -- an ideology based on the work of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. I want to lift up the words of Jack Gilroy, an activists who is currently serving a sentence for civil disobedience at a U.S. military base in upstate New York -- a place where U.S. military personnel guide drones that murder people in Mideast and South Asian countries. As Jack explains, generations of students in Catholic schools have been taught that "it’s okay to go to war and kill as long as you have good reasons provided by your country’s leadership." Among many other activities, Jack has written a play called The Predator which seeks "to quicken the moral juices" of everyone who has acquiesced in "just war" rationalizations. (See "How Communities Are Using the Play The Predator to Question Drone Warfare" on the Awake to Drones website.)

At the same time, faith-based activists oppose "quietism" -- the failure to act in the face of injustice. Which is worse, the believer who responds in violence? Or the believer who avoids the conflict completely?

Indignation at injustice

As a Christian trying to learn more and more about Islam, I am struck by the fact that there seems to be a great deal of concern in Islam for injustice, and particularly for the impoverishment of ordinary people.

"The Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan is home for 160,000 
refugees who have escaped the brutal Syrian civil war"
(Source: AFP/Getty on the Daily Mail website)
(Click to see large image)
I wonder if the outrage that many Muslims seem to feel at the suffering of other Muslims doesn't put us Christians to shame.

I wonder if the Muslim ideal of a prosperous ummah -- global community of believers -- isn't more faithful than my Christian acceptance of the fact that billions live in physical misery and spiritual despair.

I am thinking of this particularly after spending time about a week ago learning with others about the prophetic witness of the Roman Catholic bishop and liberation theologist Hélder Câmara. I can't resist quoting from the Invocation at the mass he commissioned, Missa dos Quilombos:

[I]t is important, Mariama, that the Church of thy Son not just say the words, not remain a cheering spectator.
It is not enough to ask forgiveness for the errors of yesterday.
We have to take the right steps today, regardless of what they will say . . . .
Enough of all injustice!
Enough of having some who do not know what to do with all their land, and millions without a handful of land to live on.
Enough of some having to vomit to eat more and 50 million starving in a single year.
Enough of some having corporations spreading over the whole world, and millions not having a corner where they can earn their daily bread . . .

I wonder if some of our Muslim brothers and sisters would be surprised to know that these words come from Christian leader. (I wonder if some of our Christian brothers and sisters would be similarly surprised.)

When, where, and how is the dialog between Muslim and Christian communities on these issues going to begin?

Related posts

Pastor Mitri Raheb emphasizes that people who are Christians, and people who care about Palestine, and people who fall into both categories, all need to care about the problem of Empire -- because that is the context in which Jesus found himself and because that is the context of Palestine.

(See How Shall We Live in the Face of Empire? (Reading Mitri Raheb) )

Perhaps the most troubling residue of the Syria crisis is that so much of our national discussion was centered on what our interests are, and whether we can force others to do what we want, and who our friends and who our enemies are. What's missing in all this is the question: what can we do to alleviate the suffering of the people of Syria?

(See Syria: Where Have We Ended Up?)

It's way too easy to launch U.S. missiles. (Maybe if it were a little more costly, challenging, or painful to carry out these attacks, they would at least require someone to give an explanation that makes sense first.)

(See AMERICANS: Happy As Long As They're Blowing Something Up )

The Predator challenges us with the question: What do we think about "Just War" Theory? In the introduction to the play, Gilroy says, "This play hopes to quicken the moral juices of Jesuit students who have been taught it’s okay to go to war and kill as long as you have good reasons provided by your country’s leadership." As the antiwar activist says near the end of the play, "No war is just."

(See How Communities Are Using the Play "The Predator" to Question Drone Warfare on the Awake to Drones website)

"Missa dos Quilombos" asked for forgiveness and sought healing for the legacy of slavery in Brazil. Dom Helder celebrated the Quilombo Mass. He said: "Mariama [Mother Mary], we aren't here to ask that today's slaves be tomorrow's slave masters. Enough of slaves! Enough of masters! We want liberty!" The beating of the drums was overpowering, they exploded like the screams of our souls!

(See Hélder Câmara and Liberation Theology 101: Where? When? Why? Who? )

Other related links

October 23, 2014 - "The Homegrown Jihadist Threat Grows" by Joseph Lieberman and Christian Beckner The Wall Street Journal illustrates how scare-mongering about "high tech recruitment by Islamic militants" creates an opportunity to call for more federal intervention in the speech, thought, and faith pursuits of U.S. citizens.

November 2, 2014 - "Convert to Islam Tests Boundaries of Germany’s Terror Laws" by Anton Troianovski in The Wall Street Journal: "More than 450 German residents have traveled to Syria to join or support Islamic militants, security officials said . . . . German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière said these travelers threaten domestic security because many will return home more radical and inured to violence."

November 3, 2014 - A drama is currently being played out in Chicago as federal authorities seek to detain a 19-year-old area man. The criminal complaint against Mohammed Hamzah Khan "alleged that he planned to meet in Turkey with a contact who would take him to Islamic State locations in Iraq or Syria. He allegedly told agents he expected his position to be 'some type of public service, a police force, humanitarian work or a combat role,'' according to "Officials: Siblings with Bolingbrook teen in bid to join Islamic State" by Jason Meisner in the Chicago Tribune.

November 28, 2014 - In Istanbul, Pope Francis addressed precisely the dilemma brought up in this blog post. On the one hand, he alluded to the concept that there are situations in which there is, or may be, justifications for using force, but he emphasized that the bigger need today is for "interreligious dialogue," and pointed to the "the solidarity of all believers" as an antidote to "irrational fears, which foster misunderstanding and discrimination." See: "In Turkey, Pope Francis Advocates Dialogue in Battling ‘Fanaticism’" by Sebnem Arsu in the Chicago Tribune