The Problem with the Concept of “Peace” in Islam
Given the contemporary image of Islam as violent, and the current grip that extremist Islam has on the image of Islam, it’s a little difficult to explain that Islam has a preference for nonviolence and forgiveness. But Islam has a long history of reestablishing harmony and solving problems through genuine reformation including the moral courage to sincerely forgive others.
The interpenetration of Islam as a religion and the resolution of secular problems is a core theme in the Islamic definition of peace. Peace in the Islamic tradition is related to God and reflects a higher reality. In the Koran peace is affirmed in many aspects of the language and as a condition of paradise. It is something the innermost person yearns for and it is related to wholeness attained through the relationship with the divine. Now, peace in Judaic or Christian traditions is also a higher-order reality and integral to the primary religious precepts of these religions. But the contemporary problem with conflict resolution in Islam is just such a notion of the divine because the most recalcitrant tension is that peace has been defined as Islamic peace. And making relationships and having a sense of community is based on sharing Islamic principles. Thus there is an inconsistency between theory and practice where both sides, Islam and the West, have arguments between principles and practice and conflict is rooted in these disagreements between how to express and practice the divine. So in extremist Islam jihad is an effort aimed at the more abstract religious principles of the Islamic community and its maintenance (according to the practitioners of this strand of Islam) but it is a practice that justifies violence. Hence, the Muslim extremist and the religious Christian or Jew – or even the secular person – holds the same sense of peace as being integrated into the community but the conflict results from the practice of violence which is justified in one case but certainly not in the other. The jihadist “practice” is not considered acceptable as an expression of the holy Koran by either some other Muslims or group.
There is considerable overlap between the Western conception of peace and the Islamic one but the overlap is not complete. Even the role of acceptable legal precepts and wisdom is valued in Islam above the capricious decisions of dictators or force of the military. Islam has always held its military and check and rejected abuses of power. There is a tradition of positive peace based on the actual practice of justice and not only the absence of arbitrary rule. There has been a long tradition of Islamic scholarship and wisdom, even wisdom in the Western tradition, but the relationship between reason and religion has maintained which is one difference between Islam and the West. This leads to an important difference between Islam and the West which is that reason in the West has been elevated to a more “correct” way of thinking. Passion in Western conflict management is considered disruptive and in need of control. A fundamental difference that accounts for the difficulty and intractability of conflicts between Islam and the West is the thorough integration and wholeness of the concept of peace with religious precepts. Peace is not only the domain of secular social science but peace begins with God and his attained as God calls everyone to the “house of peace.” Peace in Islam is patterned on harmony and religion based integration. The word jihad means to strive for the divine, but from a contemporary Western Islamist perspective has been corrupted by the inclusion of justifiable violence.
Islam also has a tradition of cooperation and coexistence with groups that were either divergent or even antagonistic toward Islamic precepts. There is a discursive tradition in Islam which refers to the “house of peace or truce” and includes issues concerning limits on war, truce with non-Muslims, and general concerns about managing conflicts. But the more dichotomous thinking of fundamentalists currently holds sway because military ideas about jihad have moved to the forefront. It remains true that a conception of peace and conflict management cannot be separated from Muslim discourse. Even the idea of individual freedom in Islam is based on the attainment of freedom as a result of being at peace with and integrated into the broader religious community. Individual freedom clearly is not synonymous with “doing whatever you like.” Rather, individual dignity emerges from the maintenance of harmony between individuals and God. There is in contemporary Islam a tension between using religion to justify violence and actual conflict dynamics. Conflicts are typically rooted in political and economic grievances, but religion is used to intensify attitudes and rally support. Nuance and issue complexity are lost as the discourse gets simpler and adherents become more radicalized. Currently Islamic fundamentalist leaders have made the claim that Muslims are occupied by non-Muslims in foreign lands and oppressed by various transnational governments. Casting such a wide transnational net is unusual and is typically interpreted as exceptional religious vocabulary used to justify violence. But from a dialogue and conflict management perspective using such religious discourse is not unusual. Moreover, the West must approach Islam with respect to pragmatic conflict dynamics (economic, political, and social issues) – including exploring the relationship between the conflict and Islamic principles – in an effort to meet group secular needs while maintaining harmonious relationships within the community. The West after a long period of engagement can turn this tradition to its advantage and the advantage of all.