A woman walks past a graffiti mural depicting scenes of fighters painted along Palestine Square in the Iranian capital Tehran. Photo: AFP
Asian Angle
by Chandra Muzaffar
Asian Angle
by Chandra Muzaffar

Palestinian rights activists show why the Muslim world’s struggle for justice is best served by non-violence

  • Non-violent advocates of Palestinian rights have advanced their cause much further than the territory’s ‘suicide-bombers’ and missile operators have
  • Muslim historians have exaggerated the role of battles and heroes without taking into account the religion’s emphasis on peaceful struggle for justice

Islam’s deep affinity for peace is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that the word “Islam” implies peace through engaged surrender to God, to the Divine Will.

There are a number of passages in the Koran that demonstrate its commitment to peace, especially the peaceful resolution of disputes. The Prophet Mohammed’s life and struggle also offer numerous instances of his inclination towards peace. It is well known that he even delayed the conquest of Mecca, much to the chagrin of his followers, to minimise violence and bloodshed.

However, the Koran and the Sunnah (the Prophet’s example) – great as their influence may be upon the lives of Muslims – do not tell us how Muslims have tried to uphold Islam’s teachings on peace in real-life situations.

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To gain some insights into this, one has to analyse conflicts and wars and how Muslims have responded to these with the aim of achieving peace. The conflict that has had the most profound impact upon Muslims in contemporary times is of course the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land since 1948.
The peace that the Palestinians enjoyed under Ottoman rule was shattered when small groups of Zionist Jews from Europe acquired Palestinian land, protected by the mandate given to Britain to administer Palestine following the first world war.

Colonial Britain went beyond the mandate and, through the Balfour Declaration of 1917, promised Jewish groups in Europe that it would help them establish a “Jewish home” in Palestine. This accelerated Jewish migration.

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Right from the beginning, Palestinians – both Muslim and Christian – protested against this demographic intrusion from Europe. It is significant that at this stage of the Palestinian struggle their resistance was largely peaceful, taking the form of rallies and mass meetings.

It was only after the second world war, on the heels of the Nazi holocaust against the Jews in Europe which had dramatically increased Jewish migration to Palestine, that Palestinian resistance became more militant. This was largely in response to the forced eviction of hundreds of Palestinians from their homes and villages. In some instances, massacres accompanied the expulsions.

After the state of Israel was established in 1948 by the UN, and as more Palestinian land was lost to Israel, some members of the Palestinian resistance movement became even more desperate and resorted to senseless acts of violence such as hijacking planes, killing schoolchildren and targeting shoppers.
Palestinians attend the Islamic Jihad group rally on August 25 to pay tribute to their fighters who were killed in the latest round of fighting between Israel and Gaza militants in the Shejaiya neighbourhood. Photo: dpa

Israel in the meantime annexed much of the remaining 22 per cent of Palestinian land comprising mostly the West Bank and Gaza in the June 1967 war. The Palestinian struggle was now at its nadir.

The post-1967 scenario has given rise to at least two trends within the Palestinian movement. The first is a realisation that it may not be possible to regain all lost Palestinian land. This is not only because of the strength of the Israeli armed forces but also because of overwhelming US support for Israel. Negotiating with Israel and working towards a two-state solution may be a more pragmatic approach.

The second is a growing sense that the over-reliance on weapons and force is the real problem. Instead, a whole array of peaceful methods of confronting Israel must be developed. In a sense, the first Intifada – December 1987 – evolved from this awareness.


Free from war: Gaza children fly kites with portraits of peers killed in conflict with Israel

Free from war: Gaza children fly kites with portraits of peers killed in conflict with Israel
At the forefront of the Intifada were stone-throwing youths. They had no other weapon. Despite this, confrontations between Palestinian youths and the heavily armed Israeli forces often descended into violence, leading to significant loss of (disproportionately Palestinian) lives. Since then, new forms of protest that are more peaceful, and simultaneously more effective, have emerged.
One of the most significant is the Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Proclaimed in July 2005 by Palestinians themselves, it seeks to persuade businesses or other entities that have any links with the West Bank to review their position to ensure they are not contributing towards the oppression of the Palestinian people in any way. It has had some success in getting several Europe-based enterprises to withdraw their investments from the West Bank. A few European academic bodies and civil society organisations have also heeded the BDS call.

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In similar vein, the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) has been able to put across the Palestinian case through agencies of the UN. A special committee on Palestinian rights within the UN has been active in articulating its interests.

Most importantly, Palestine since November 29, 2012 has a legal status within the UN framework as a non-member observer. It gives the Palestinians representation of sorts, albeit without the ability to vote.

By carving a tiny niche for itself within the UN and by mobilising businesses and other entities in civil society, the advocates of Palestinian rights have advanced their cause much further than its “suicide-bombers” and missile operators have. This shows that the struggle for justice is enhanced considerably when the means it employs are non-violent. That means cannot be separated from ends is a fundamental moral principle embodied in Islam and in all religious philosophies. The cause of peace is best served through peaceful methods.

Media in front of destroyed building after a deadly 30-hour siege by al-Shabab jihadists, an al-Qaeda-linked group, at Hayat Hotel in Mogadishu, Somalia on August 21, 2022. At least 13 civilians lost their lives and dozens were wounded in the gun and bomb attack. Photo: AFP
Though this principle has some adherents in the Palestinian struggle today, it does not have much traction in other conflict zones in west Asia and North Africa – in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, Iran, Somalia and Libya. This is not surprising, because the victim’s conception of how a struggle should be carried out is more often than not shaped by the oppressor’s practice and performance.

Besides, in many historical records of wars and conflicts, Muslim historians have exaggerated the role of battles and heroes without taking into account the larger context. It has been forgotten that the sum total of the battles that the Prophet was involved in did not amount to more than three days of his entire mission of 23 years! And yet a great deal of emphasis is given to his battles while ignoring his bigger, largely peaceful struggle for justice and compassion.

It is this mindset among Muslims, perpetuated by the mainstream religious teachers, that has to change if peace spawned by justice and compassion is to emerge as the defining essence of the life and character of the Muslim today.

Dr Chandra Muzaffar is the president of the International Movement for a Just World (JUST). He was professor of Global Studies at Universiti Sains Malaysia, Penang (2007-2012) and Professor of Inter-civilizational Dialogue, University of Malaya (1997-1999). This article was first published on the website of the Asian Peace Programme (APP), an initiative to promote peace in Asia housed in the Asia Research Institute, NUS.