Is a Theology of Liberation Necessarily a Theology of Peace?

But perhaps the most pressing problem in Engineer’s liberation theology is his sweeping discourse of peace, which he equates wholly with Islam. According to Engineer, the Qur’anic term jihad has nothing to do with violence (Q. 9:24; 22:78; 49:15),[1] pointing out that when the text does refer to fighting (qital), it is used in a decidedly defensive context (Q. 22:39).[2] Peace is a sacred theme that envelops the Qur’anic worldview, which describes God as salam (‘peace’) and Paradise as a celestial abode in which the faithful will enjoy ‘peace and security’.149 Muhammad—whom Engineer calls the

‘Prophet of Non-Violence’[3]—embodied these teachings of peace. The Prophet refrained from wars of aggression and, whenever possible, would opt for a non-violent resolution to conflict. That is, whatever battles the Prophet waged, Engineer maintains, were defensive in nature, necessitated by contextual circumstances.[4] While Engineer’s emphasis on peace is clearly meant to counter popular perceptions of the faith as inherently violent, particularly within the Indian context, this idea of Islam as being a religion of peace has become, as we have already seen in this book, a powerful, apologetic discourse amongst Muslims since 9/11.[5] Indeed, the similarities between the language of liberal Muslims in the USA and that of Engineer in India are striking. The debate over the meaning of Islam is a compelling case in point. This term, Engineer writes, is drawn from the three-letter Arabic root s-l-m and means salam (peace), thus proving that Islam is a religion of peace.[6] As Esack has shown, precisely the same linguistic argument was circulated widely within liberal American Muslim circles following 9/11.[7] This theological discourse not only essentializes Islam as being a message of peace and only peace, dismissing militant interpretations as being outside the fold of the faith, but is also at odds with historic understandings of the term. The word islam, interjects Esack, has for centuries been understood by Muslims as submission—that is, submission to God—and though the word salam is derived from the same three- letter root, it is blatantly inaccurate to conclude that the two terms therefore share the same meaning, for in Arabic a host of distinct, even contradictory, words can be formed from the same root.155 The larger point that Esack seeks to make here is that despite liberal Muslims’ incessant claims to authenticity, their discourse was profoundly shaped by the context of 9/11.

Engineer’s Islamic discourse of peace raises a crucial question concerning the very meaning of liberation theology: namely, is a theology of liberation necessarily a theology of peace? He stresses that peace ought to be attained not by fighting, but by entering into political agreements with one’s opponents.[8] With regard to Kashmir, for example, Engineer maintains that, notwithstanding the genuine grievances of the Kashmiri people living under Indian military rule, there is no justification for armed struggle and thus the use of violence.[9] He rehashes the same argument when discussing the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Twinning violence and ‘falsehood’ on the one hand and non-violence and ‘truth’ on the other, Engineer implores Israelis and Palestinians to partake in peaceful dialogue in order to resolve the conflict.[10] What is missing in his analysis, therefore, is the critical acknowledgement that a simplistic language of peace is often propagated by the oppressive status quo as a tool of pacification, as a means of maintaining the way things are. In terms of the Israeli occupation, for instance, the Palestinian intellectual Edward Said (d. 2003) has deftly argued—in Peace and its Discontents: Essays on Palestine in the Middle East Peace Process (1995)—that the US-brokered peace plan in the early 1990s was a set of treaties conceived completely on Israel’s terms, designed to quell indigenous resistance and to further divide and impoverish the Palestinian people.[11] Because the Palestinian national struggle in general and the First Intifada (1987-93) in particular constituted a threat to ongoing Zionist colonization, and because Israeli security was a cornerstone of American imperialism in the region, peace became policy. In contrast to Engineer, Esack, as was seen in the preceding chapter, exhibits an acute awareness of the collusion between the status quo and rhetorics of peace and stability—a discourse that was championed by the South African regime, portraying anti-apartheid activists as threats to the peace. To borrow Esack’s own words:

When peace comes to mean the absence of conflict on the one hand, and when conflict with an unjust and racist political order is a moral imperative on the other, then it is not difficult to understand that the better class of human beings are, in fact, deeply committed to disturbing the peace and creating conflict. Along with other progressive forces in South Africa, I affirmed the value of revolutionary insurrection against the apartheid state and conflict as a means to disturbing an unjust peace and a path to just peace.[12]

My point here is not that there is no legitimate role for peaceful protest, that languages of non-violence are the preserve of the privileged. On the contrary, expressly non-violent civil disobedience has historically been used—and continues to be used—as a robust moral argument on the part of the oppressed, most memorably in Ghandi’s involvement in the Indian liberation movement and his guiding principles of ahimsa (non-violence) and satyagraha (passive resist- ance).[13] Nor, for that matter, do I wish to simplify, to idealize armed struggle. Rather, my argument is (a) that peaceful resistance is only possible in certain contexts, that it presupposes a set of circumstances and, conversely, in contexts of manifest injustice, of radical power asymmetry, armed struggle can become the only meaningful channel for resistance; and (b) that there is a fundamental difference between ‘peace (as conflict resolution) and pacification (as, in effect, the victory of the stronger party).’[14] In the context of the latter, a theology of peace can actually act as a theology of suppression, silencing the marginalized by providing religious justification for the preservation of the status quo. The central question that the liberation theologian needs to raise, then, is whose peace—that of the powerful or the powerless? To put it another way: are we simply interested in categorical calls for ceasefire, thereby ignoring the significant power differentials that will continue to exist between oppressor and oppressed, or in a truly just and lasting resolution to conflict, entailing a structural reconfiguration of the status quo?

  • [1] Engineer, On Developing Theology ofPeace in Islam, 27.
  • [2] Ibid, 31. 149 Engineer, Islam: Misgivings and History, 6.
  • [3] Asghar Ali Engineer, The Prophet of Non-Violence: Spirit of Peace, Compassionand Universality in Islam (New Delhi: Vitasta Publishing, 2011), 3.
  • [4] Ibid, 13-15.
  • [5] Safi, Progressive Muslims, 24. This apologetic claim that Islam equates to peacehas also been made by well-intentioned non-Muslims. See, for instance, Amitabh Pal,‘Islam’ means Peace: Understanding the Muslim Principle of Nonviolence Today (SantaBarbara, California: Praeger, 2011).
  • [6] Engineer, Islam and Liberation Theology, 150.
  • [7] Esack, ‘In Search of Progressive Islam Beyond 9/11’, 95. 155 Ibid.
  • [8] Engineer, On Developing Theology of Peace in Islam, 33.
  • [9] Asghar Ali Engineer, ‘Kashmiri Youth and Prospects of Peace’, Secular Perspective, 1 September 2006, available at: accessed 12 August 2016.
  • [10] Engineer, ‘Israeli Aggression and the World’.
  • [11] Edward Said, Peace and its Discontents: Essays on Palestine in the Middle EastPeace Process (New York: Vintage Books, 1995), 90.
  • [12] Esack, ‘In Search of Progressive Islam Beyond 9/11’, 85.
  • [13] The role of non-violence and its moral authority in liberative struggle hasgenerated a considerable literature, inspired largely by Gandhi as well as MartinLuther King Jr’s leadership of the American civil rights movement. See, among others:Adam Roberts and Timothy Garton Ash, Civil Resistance and Power Politics: TheExperience of Non-Violent Action from Gandhi to the Present (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009); Gene Sharp, The Politics of Nonviolent Action, 3 vols. (Boston:Peter Sargent Publishers, 1973); James A. Colaiaco, Martin Luther King Jr.: Apostle ofMilitant Nonviolence (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988); and M.K. Gandhi, NonViolent Resistance (Satyagraha) (Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, 2001).
  • [14] James McDougall (in discussion with the author). McDougall, a postcolonialhistorian of North Africa, credits the Palestinian historian Abdel Razzaq Takriti forthis insight.
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