The Value of Human Life


twilight of empire
This is an excerpt from the recently re-released 'Twilight of Empire' (Perceval Press), featuring a new foreword by Howard Zinn. This piece was written soon after the occupation began, but we feel it still has resonance.


The ongoing U.S. occupation of Iraq presents a special challenge for Muslims who self-identify as socially and politically progressive. The challenge is to speak out, rise up, and act against the unilateral American display of unbridled military power, as well as against acts of violence by some Iraqis toward that same American might or perceived Iraqi sympathizers. This double critique arises out of the Qur'anic view that to save the life of one human being--any human being--is to have saved the life of all humanity, and to take the life of a single human being, any human being, is as if to destroy all of humanity [Qur'an 5:32].

At the heart of a progressive Muslim identity is a simple assumption, the notion that all human life on this planet--Muslim and non-Muslim, female and male, civilian and military, poor or rich, "North" or "South," gay or straight--carries exactly the same intrinsic worth. This essential value of human life is due to the presence of Divine spirit in all of humanity, the same spirit that, according to the Qur'an, God breathed into each and every human being [Qur'an 15:29 and 38:72]. By starting from this premise of the worth and dignity of each and every human life, progressive Muslims move to affirming the sanctity of each human life and the right of each community to a notion of global justice that allows them to realize their vision of prosperity, dignity, and righteousness, as long as that vision does not come at the expense of any other community. We have to be clear about this point: our task is not to "humanize" Iraqis--one can only humanize something that is not already fully human. The Iraqis, exactly like us, already possess their full God-given humanity. If we have failed to see and interact with Iraqis on a human level, if we have not listened to their cries, seen their tears, mourned their deaths, it is because they have been presented to us as inhuman, subhuman, or nonhuman.

Progressive Muslims oppose the occupation of Iraq on many fronts. First and foremost, the horrific tactics followed by the Bush administration, including the bombing of heavily populated urban sites, have lead to a large number of civilian casualties. Following in the footsteps of Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Dalai Lama, we reject this unleashing of violence against the poorest peoples of the earth. The perverse pleasure that the Pentagon and State Department derived from their death fantasy, described as Operation "Shock and Awe," does indeed shock the sensitivity of those who see Iraqis as fellow human beings with hopes and dreams and loves and joys of their own that are every bit as precious as our own. The Bush regime repeatedly attempted to persuade/delude us that this operation would be accurate and precise, that these bombs are very "smart." So-called "smart bombs" used in a misguided policy of deliberate cruelty result in nothing short of indiscriminate massacre.

The loss of human life on the Iraqi side affects Muslims powerfully, leading directly to an increase in vehement anti-Americanism all over this world. The American presence in Iraq, coupled with U.S. support of an Israeli regime bent on brutal oppression of Palestinians: these lead to a volatile and dangerous rise in hatred of America and Americans all over the world. While many Americans may wish to see ourselves as upholders of freedom and democracy, many people all over the world--and increasingly large numbers of Muslims--see the U.S. as a supporter of many forms of exploitation, domination, and oppression.

Muslims see themselves as part of a grand spiritual community (the umma) that stretches from Indonesia to Morocco, from South Africa to the U.S. That the word umma is itself derived from the word "umm" meaning "mother," gives an indication of the closeness and spiritual affinity among Muslims of various backgrounds: the bonds of faith are as strong as those shared by the children born to and nurtured by the same mother. It is for this reason that the ongoing wave of Muslim casualties all over the world has been so devastating for American Muslims to bear. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have each resulted in civilian casualties far greater than that of September 11, yet the loss of these lives has hardly been engaged by the American media or government with the same humanity that we have treated the loss of American life, both military and civilian. The most accurate estimate of the civilian casualties in Afghanistan comes from Marc Herold, who states that "between 3,125 and 3,620 Afghan civilians were killed between October 7 [2001] and July 31 [2002]." There have also been large-scale casualties in Iraq. The most recent estimate by the Associated Press puts the number of Iraqi civilians who died in the first month of the 2003 war at 3,240. Other independent evaluations of the Iraq casualty count put the number even higher, between 6,139 and 7,849. When pressed to explain such a high number of civilian deaths in a war that was represented as being conducted through "precision targets" and "smart bombs," General Tommy Franks responded: "We don't do body counts." For American Muslims, this callous disregard for Muslim civilians--coupled with the pomp and circumstance that surrounds the rightly joyous occasion of rescuing American prisoners such as Private Jessica Lynch--can only be explained as arising out of the different worth attached to American as opposed to Muslim lives. It is this much resented double standard that Muslims in both this country and beyond see as an unspoken and unjust aspect of American foreign policy.

And yet as progressive Muslims, we cannot and will not limit our engagement simply to the evils of the American government. We have a moral duty to also speak up against the culture of violence that now pervades segments of Iraqi societies, a violence that is unleashed against UN workers, fellow Iraqis and yes, American soldiers. No just ends can ever be attained through violent and unjust means. The ends are the very fruits of the trees of our means, and the poisoned tree of violence can never lead to delicious fruits of dignity. In addressing American violence before Iraqi violence, I am specifically following in the footsteps of Martin Luther King Jr., who stated: "I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today, my own government." Our task is to do more than condemn: we must work with Iraqis in finding a way to voice their righteous rebellion of resistance--indeed, their jihad--against the American occupation in a nonviolent way. This is a great challenge, but I believe that we have no choice but to follow every skillful nonviolent means necessary. (Yes, Buddhist ethics of nonviolence can be combined in Malcom X-ian urgency in a progressive Muslim agenda.)

It is this simultaneous critique of U.S. military might (disguised as "the coalition") and Iraqi violent outbursts which leaves progressive Muslims in an isolated space in the middle. And yet it is from this space in the middle that we reach out to all of humanity. In doing so we recall the Qur'anic injunction that states that notions of social justice ('adl) and spiritual excellence (ihsan) are indeed connected. May we bring some healing into this much-fractured world. May that healing begin with you and me, at this very moment.

Amin ...

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