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Is All Morality Gone? Condemning ISIS, and Beyond, in a World of Suffering

Where do we stand with respect to suffering?

What do we have to say when hatred and violence finds a ready audience in global images, and love and tenderness are exiled to a private realm?

What does it mean to be rooted in a prophetic tradition of Amos, Jesus, and Muhammad in a world of almost overwhelming suffering?

What does it mean to be morally responsible for one another?

These are questions I sit with a great deal these days. No immediate answers do I have to offer, but the sitting with these inquiries, the grappling is itself part of my spiritual practice.

I am often reminded of the wise, challenging, pathos-filled words of the great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel:

“…morally speaking,
there is no limit to the concern one must feel
for the suffering of human beings,

that indifference to evil is worse than evil itself,
that in a free society,
some are guilty,
but all are responsible.”

Some are guilty.

All are responsible.

A woman holds a child after crossing the border from Syria into Turkey. They are fleeing from fighters of ISIS, who have surrounded the Kurdish border town of Kobani (also called Ayn Al-Arab), which ISIS has surrounded on three sides. Image by Carsten Koall/Getty Images.

I wonder what it means to be responsible in a world of ISIS, in a world of American Empire, in a world of one-fifth of humanity living in extreme poverty, in a world of sound bites where “if it bleeds it leads.”

I wonder if we can have a response more principled than simply saying that “the actions of ISIS do not really represent the vast majority of Muslims around the world.” True, but not enough. I wonder if we can conceive of a response that begins with the welfare, dignity, and honor of “the least of God’s children” (echoing the 25th chapter of Matthew), rather than covering the collective behinds of a Muslim North American population. I wonder if we could have a response to ISIS, to Israeli bombings, to Hamas rockets, to American drones that would begin by looking at life from the vantage point of families being bombed instead of the reputation of a community thousands of miles away.

Naiveté is not an option; I am not unmindful of the fact that there is a chorus of Islamophobes wondering why Muslims in America do not speak out against terrorist activities. It doesn’t seem to matter how many Muslim organizations vociferously condemn terrorism, the chorus of “we can’t hear you” grows ever louder. (Yes, I wonder if the more appropriate question is not why are Muslims not speaking, but rather why are people not hearing/listening.) So the conversation about moral responsibility and accountability has a political consequence for Muslims, when there is a chorus that wants to hold Muslims in America responsible for the actions of ISIS, Boko Haram, and al-Qaeda. This consequence is not abstract, but a matter of surveillance, profiling, harassment, hate-mail, and worse.

I even have questions about the appropriateness of Muslims pointing out how ISIS actions violate the spirit and the letter of Islam. What makes us think that ISIS is actually informed about the rulings of Islam, when some very conservative scholars of Islam in the West have reached out to them, only to be shocked at how little any of them actually know about Islam? I wonder why Islam has to be the right framework in countering ISIS (and beyond), as opposed to decency, compassion, human rights, etc.

Nevertheless, it is certainly true that Muslims worldwide have condemned in clear and unambiguous terms the atrocities of ISIS as violations of Islam. An open letter to the self-proclaimed leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was signed by religious leaders from Egypt, Jordan, Nigeria, United States, Turkey, Yemen, Palestine, Malaysia, Portugal, France, Indonesia, Morocco, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Italy, Bulgaria, Sweden, UK, Germany, Iraq, India, Bosnia, Pakistan, Sudan, Iceland, Mauritania, and Kurdistan.

Among other points, the lengthy letter states:

“It is forbidden in Islam to kill emissaries, ambassadors, and diplomats; hence it is forbidden to kill journalists and aid workers.”


“It is forbidden in Islam to harm or mistreat in any way Christians or any ‘People of the Scripture.’”

Arguably the most influential North American Muslim leader, Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, dismissed ISIS from the point of view of the prophetic tradition in a recent Friday sermon:

These types of initiatives deserve to have far greater publicity.

At his recent address at the United Nations, President Obama said something important:

“We have reaffirmed that the United States is not and never will be at war with Islam. Islam teaches peace. Muslims the world over aspire to live with dignity and a sense of justice. And when it comes to America and Islam, there is no us and them — there is only us, because millions of Muslim Americans are part of the fabric of our country.”

Yet, there is a second part of Obama’s speech that I am struggling with:

“Second, it is time for the world — especially Muslim communities — to explicitly, forcefully, and consistently reject the ideology of al Qaeda and ISIL.”

At one level, he is exactly right, of course. In fact, there is a Qur’anic notion of critique that compels Muslims to begin critique with one’s own self.

O ye faithful,
be you securers of justice,
witnesses for God,
even though it be against yourselves,
or your parents and kinsmen,
whether the man be rich or poor….

~Qur’an 4:135

Many Muslim commentators have noted the impulse that the mandate to speak the truth and stand up for justice in the sight of God begin with one’s own self, with one’s own family, with one’s own community. So yes, we as Muslims do have a moral responsibility to speak against ISIS, to speak the atrocities of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and the gender apartheid of Saudis.

And yet there are four factors that complicate the above for me, as I morally grapple with the implication of all of this.

1) First, I am thinking of the connections and disconnects between Islamophobia and anti-Semitism. A recent well-publicized op-ed about Netanyahu’s recent visit to the UN began with:

“Targeting and blaming Jews living in the United States or Europe for the actions of Israel is blatant anti-Semitism. For as a political state, albeit a ‘Jewish’ one, Israel clearly does not represent all Jews, nor does it embody Judaism.”

If you go to the above description and replace “Jews” with “Muslims,” you get a startling realization of what is happening on a daily level in America. Every American Muslim organization (and almost every community leader) has had to spend the better part of the last 13 years stating that we “hate and condemn” Muslim extremist actions in the Middle East. If targeting American Jews for actions of Israel is anti-Semitism, why should targeting American Muslims for actions of Muslim terrorist organizations be treated any different?

2) When you spend your life condemning, there is little time left to offer something constructive.

Muslims have spent so much time telling people what we are not (“not about terrorism, not about extremism, not about gender oppression, not about violence”), that there is little spiritual energy, time, capital, and resources left to state what we do want to be about: where does beauty, justice, love, community, transformation fit in. It is as if the best that some entity called “Islam” is allowed to stand for is simply “do no evil.” We have to hang on to the audacious faith that religion can be more than simply a condemnation of evil, but also serve as a force for good, for justice, for truth, for goodness.

3) I am mindful of the fact that much of the Islamophobic discourse of today holds Muslims in the West accountable for atrocities of ISIS. In that context, it makes a fundamental mistake: Heschel’s bold proposition is that few (ISIS) are guilty, all are responsible. The Islamophobic attacks (Bill Maher, Sam Harris) say: few (ISIS) are guilty, all (Muslims) are responsible. The Islamophobic comments of Maher and others fail to realize that in the prophetic tradition of Heschel, King, and Muhammad it’s not that Muslims are responsible, but rather that we — all of us — are all responsible. Yes, few are guilty, and yes Muslims have a Qur’anic responsibility to being by addressing questions of justice first and foremost to our own community before addressing anyone else. But in the prophetic tradition, all are responsible. We are all responsible. All of us, Muslims and Jews and Christians and Hindus and Buddhists and people of no faith and people of occasional faith, we are all responsible.

President Obama has been talking about the impressive international coalition to fight ISIS. I also wonder what responsibility all of us, yes Muslims but not just Muslims, have.

4) If Muslims have a responsibility to speak out against ISIS, and I believe we do, I wonder if President Obama’s framework would also leave any room for Muslims and indeed all of us to speak out with the same vehemence, with the same pain, with same urgent concern, about the victims of the American drones, about the victims of the allies of the United States? Can we mourn Palestinians? Can we mourn Mike Brown and Trayvon Martin? Can we mourn drone victims in Pakistan and Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia? Can we mourn the 2.5 million Americans caught in a penal industrial complex? Can we speak their names? Or is it that some human beings are relegated to the realm that Fanon called the “non-persons of history”?
I applaud formation of an international coalition to stop ISIS’ atrocities, yet I wonder where this international coalition was when 200,000 human beings have been slaughtered and millions more made homeless/refugees in Syria.

I wonder where this international coalition was when tens of thousands of people have been ethnically cleansed in Myanmar. I wonder where this international coalition was this summer in Gaza, when 500 children were bombed to death.

Mainly I wonder: what makes some human suffering worthy of forming an international coalition, but not all? What makes some causes so urgent that we need to accept our “responsibility,” but not all.

Let me end with another word of Rabbi Heschel.

“Is all mercy gone?”

In these days of suffering and brutality, I often hearken back to the prophetic tradition, one that rises “like a scream in the middle of the night.” I often go back in search of what the best of our Jewish, the best of our Christian, and the best of our Muslim faith has to offer us today, at this very moment of almost overwhelming global suffering. Where have those who stand in the footsteps of the prophets stood in times of such agony, and what is the cry of their heart?

Here is what I found in Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, as he introduced Martin Luther King in the famed April 4th, 1967 Riverside Church speech. Take out his reference to Vietnam and put in Gaza, put in Iraq, put in Syria, put in Pakistan, put in America, put in each and every single one of our governments. The voice of the prophets speaks to us now as it spoke to us then.

Rabbi Heschel stated:

“We are pierced to the core with pain, and it is our duty as citizens to say no to the subversiveness of our government, which is ruining the values we cherish…. The blood we shed in Vietnam makes a mockery of all our proclamations, dedications, celebrations.

Has our conscience become a fossil,
is all mercy gone?
If mercy, the mother of humility, is still alive as a demand, how can we say yes to our bringing agony to that tormented country?

We are here because our own integrity as human beings is decaying in the agony and merciless killing done in our name.
In a free society, some are guilty and all are responsible.”

Is all mercy gone?

We may not be guilty, but we, all of us, are responsible.

Some of us are going to seek to bring about this change, so urgently needed, by engaging the system from within the corridors of powers. Good.

Some of us are going to seek to bring about this change, so urgently needed, by pushing back against a broken dysfunctional system from outside, and daring to dream of another world that is possible. Good.

But we are all responsible.

The question is not, has never been, where God is.

The question is where are we, and what are we doing.

We are all responsible.

That responsibility begins with our own community, but can’t stop until it washes over the whole of humanity.

Is all morality gone?

I refuse to believe it is.

As long as there are those left willing to connect their own suffering to the suffering of others, who see their own humanity mingling with the humanity of others, who are wiling to perpetually expand their circle of concern to encompass all of us, there is hope for us yet.

The hour is late, the suffering is at hand, yet there is hope as long as there are a few human beings capable of every day compassion and courage.

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