Dr al-Hindi, where is the evidence for what you do in God's name?


OPINION:Muslims fall into the trap of sanitising Islamic extremism as they condemn Israeli actions, writes Irshad Manji

IN GAZA a few years ago, I conducted an on-camera interview with the political leader of Islamic jihad, Dr Mohammed al-Hindi. With his finely trimmed beard and gracious manners, he symbolised the modern – and moderate – Muslim man.

But his interpretation of the Qur’an suggested something else. “Where,” I asked, “does it say that you can kill yourself for a higher cause? As far as I know, the Qur’an tells us that suicide is wrong.”

Through his translator, the physician assured me the verses endorsing suicide operations could be found “everywhere” in Islam’s holy book. I challenged Dr al-Hindi to show me just one passage. After several minutes of reviewing the Qur’an, then calling for help on his mobile, then looking through companion booklets, he told me he was too busy and must go.

“Are you sure you’re not pulling a fast one on me?” I asked. He smiled, clearly understanding popular American English. “I want to know that you’re telling me the truth,” I repeated.

Dr al-Hindi summoned two assistants to the office. With their backs to me, they flipped through the Qur’an. Minutes later, they presented a verse glorifying war.

But it had nothing to do with suicide. So I asked Dr al-Hindi yet again. He responded that Islam permits defensive aggression. “If a thief comes to your door and steals your money, isn’t it legitimate to protect yourself?” he said through the translator.

Still unable to draw the link between self-protection and suicide, I proposed this analogy: “If my boss steals my job and I kill myself because something that is mine has been taken away, am I a martyr?”

Horrified, the translator shook his head. “No, no, you can’t ask this.”

At that moment, my camera batteries died. This, the translator whispered, was a better outcome than me dying – which is what Dr al-Hindi would have arranged if I stayed in his office much longer. Both the translator and I hurried out. I’m reminded of this encounter as the world watches another crisis unfold in the Middle East, and otherwise liberal Muslims fall into the tribal trap of sanitising Islamic extremism as they condemn Israeli actions.

It would be far more helpful – to Palestinians if nobody else – for Muslims to ask questions out loud.

We have relied far too long on self-appointed “higher-ups” to do the interpreting for us. We Muslims have forgotten Islam’s own tradition of independent thinking: ijtihad.

For hundreds of years, three equations have driven mainstream Islamic practice. The rituals vary in Islam’s major sects, but the equations themselves apply across the board. First, unity equals uniformity. In order to be strong, members of the worldwide ummah (Muslim nation) must think alike.

Second, debate equals division. Diversity of interpretation is no longer a tribute to God’s majesty; it is threat to the unity that Muslims must exhibit in the face of those intent on dividing us.

Third, division equals heresy. Because division is the opposite of uniformity, whatever divides must be prevented. Most people – not just Muslims – could use more independent thinking. This point grabbed me at the Gaza office of Mohammed al-Hindi. As we left, I asked his translator why Dr al-Hindi would give me an on-camera interview, knowing that he could not find a single verse to prove his claim that the Qur’an justifies suicide operations.

The translator replied, “He assumed you were just another dumb western journalist.” Reporters from the West had never asked this veteran terrorist the most basic of questions: Where is the evidence for what you do in God’s name?

Maybe it is time that media joined Muslims in embracing ijtihad.

I would be happy to supply both groups with security tips.

Irshad Manji is director of the Moral Courage Project, a global leadership programme with New York University and the European Foundation for Democracy