Fighting Words

Reflections on Political Violence

When Mumtaz Qadri shot Pakistani politician Salman Taseer, he didn’t even bother to offer an excuse.

The late Punjab governor Salman Taseer

The best political speech I ever heard was delivered by the late Paul Foot, scion of one of England’s great radical and socialist families, at the Oxford Union in the late 1960s. The motion before the house was in favor of the African National Congress and its decision to renew “armed struggle” against the white supremacist regime in South Africa. By then, I knew enough about apartheid to be convinced that such a policy was justified almost by definition, but Paul wasn’t content with that. Using extraordinary skill and patience, he reviewed the efforts of the trade unions, the legal parliamentary opposition, the churches, the censored but still active press, and all the other constituents of “civil society” to resist or even to ameliorate the conditions imposed on the majority by a pitiless oligarchy and its iron-bound cult of racist and fundamentalist theology. He detailed the efforts of the ANC to make its case at the United Nations and other international forums and chronicled the heroism of its lawyers in defending both individual and communal rights before the rigged South African courts. To every attempt of this sort, as he demonstrated, the response had been increased repression and the confiscation of even more land, more rights, and more liberties. Having at one point laid down the gun, the ANC now had every right to take it up again.

What impressed me about this masterly speech was not so much the case itself, with which I already agreed, but the “decent respect to the opinions of mankind” that it exemplified. A decision to resort to violence was not something to be undertaken without great care—and stated in terms that were addressed to reasonable people. From his prison cell, Nelson Mandela had joined the great tradition of the French philosophes, of Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine, of Marx and Engels in 1848, and of Jawaharlal Nehru in the 1930s—of men and women who felt the historic obligation to make a stand and to define it. This is occasionally done by governments, as well, though usually in less lapidary prose: The Atlantic Charter of 1941 showed that Churchill and Roosevelt needed a credible and honorable statement of war aims (including the outline of a future United Nations). And sometimes it’s done by rogues and fanatics: The Irish rebels’ declaration of independence in 1916 and Fidel Castro’s address to the court in his History Will Absolve Me are full of ethnic mysticism and blood imagery in the first case and grand-opera self-dramatization in the second, but the words still have some power, and they testify to the same requirement: Those who advocate violence are assuming a great burden of responsibility.

Now look at the grinning face of Mumtaz Qadri, the man who last week destroyed a great human being. He did not explain. He boasted. As “a slave of the Prophet,” he had the natural right to murder Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab, not even for committing “blasphemy” but for criticizing a law that forbade it for Muslims and non-Muslims alike. And this sweeping new extension of the divine right to murder not only was not condemned by the country’s spiritual authorities; it was largely approved by them. No argument, no arraignment, no appeal—permission to kill anybody can merely be assumed by anybody, provided only that they mouth the correct incantations.

This is only one of the many things that go to make up the hideousness of Islamic jihadism, but I believe that it has received insufficient attention. Amid all our loose talk about Muslim “grievances,” have we even noticed that no such bill of grievances has ever been published, let alone argued and defended? Every now and then an excuse is offered, but usually after the bomb has gone off in the crowded street or the “offending” person has been eliminated. Sérgio Vieira de Mello was murdered, and the U.N. offices in Baghdad leveled along with him, because he had helped oversee the independence of East Timor. Many Australian tourists in Bali were burned alive on the same retrospective pretext. Or it could be a cartoon. Or an unveiled woman. Or the practice of the “wrong” kind of Islam—Ahmadi, for example, or Shiism. Or the practice of Hinduism. Or the publication of a novel. But the sinister, hateful thing about all these discrepant “causes” is precisely the fact that they are improvised and to a large extent unpredictable. That, and the fact that no effort is ever made to say precisely why the resort to violence is so immediate and its practice so random and indiscriminate.

It is true that we have Osama Bin Laden’s sermons and a few stray documents like the “charter” of Hamas. But none of these amounts to anything like a manifesto or an appeal to conscience or law or precedent. Aside from an obsessive and homicidal anti-Semitism (something that admittedly is a consistent and predictable theme), they appear to say little more than that unique privileges—including the right to immediate self-appointment as an executioner—attach to the followers of one version of one monotheistic religion.

Go back to the first days of the coalition presence in Baghdad. The Iraqi people had not been directly consulted about anything for several decades. But the new authorities promised a constitution and elections, and they unshackled the press and television. Might it not have been interesting to see what happened? To test this promise and, where it was wanting, to demonstrate against it and petition for the redress of grievance? The population never had a chance to try this novelty. It was a matter of days before experienced killers and bombers were hard at work, without so much as a leaflet being distributed. And our own willingness to rationalize such behavior on the part of Muslims allowed us to call professional assassins by the name of insurgent and to write that they were defending “Muslim soil.” For no obvious reason, we don’t seem to say this yet in the case of Mumtaz Qadri, but he could say it of himself and, according to his faith, that’s all that he needs to do.

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