Emory Report
March 24, 2008
Volume 60, Number 24


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March 24, 2008
My ‘greater jihad’ at campus peace vigils

Thee Smith is an associate professor in the Department of Religion.

In our religion department I’m privileged to teach at the nexus of multiple faith traditions, and to enjoy adventures in Jewish, Muslim and Christian trialogue. I say ‘adventures’ because it is exhilarating, sometimes scary, but mostly like a fascinating off-road wilderness trek to discover in another faith tradition something that enhances one’s own religious journey. That has been my experience with the Muslim teaching on ‘lesser’ and ‘greater jihad.’

The lesser jihad as I understand it (I’m no scholar of Islam but a studious reader and comparativist) is the struggle one wages externally to defend the faith in allegiance to Allah and in opposition to the enemies of God.

By now we are all familiar with the stereotypical version of such external struggle in the form of holy war. (It remains disputed whether acts of religious extremism by terrorists qualifies as ‘holy’ even in that sense.) However, Islam has always taught that there is a greater jihad: the interior struggle waged in one’s own soul to advance the believer’s moral and spiritual allegiance to Allah by defying all the forces that war against the soul’s integrity and commitment.

That’s what I experience at our campus peace vigils every Tuesday and Friday: my own personal, interior jihad. The specific jihad I practice has been described in more psychological (and perhaps more accessible) terms by Marshall Rosenberg. Rosenberg is one of the nation’s foremost trainers in “nonviolent communication” and he describes a key practice of NVC in terms that I call a kind of mental and emotional hygiene.

Before you engage in any activist venture, he coaches, be sure to cleanse yourself of any ‘enemy images’ that you harbor of your opponents. To the degree that you project such images onto those who differ on an issue, he claims, you will diminish your own ability to see and leverage the vantage points where their real human needs offer a nonviolent solution to the presenting conflict.

Real human needs, say what? But I don’t want to know their real human needs. I just want them to fulfill my need for them to change sides in our conflict; fulfill my need for them to side with me on the issues. I only want to know how to get them to change, not how to discover their humanity or their needs.

Precisely. Treating my opponents as ‘the other,’ objectifying them as literal ‘objects’ at my disposal, is precisely why I will fail to enlist them in my own interests because (as we are perennially learning) human beings resist becoming only objects. We resist, that is, becoming what Martin Buber called an “it.” To be human, on the contrary, is to insist on being also a subject in one’s own right; what Buber called a “thou” in his classic monograph, “I and Thou.” (Compare Kant’s maxim, “never to treat persons only as a means, but also as an end-in-themselves.”)

So there I am at the vigil reading the names of our war dead, or silently holding a banner, or actively handing vigil fliers to passersby and simultaneously, therein, practicing the interior jihad of refusing to regard pro-war advocates as enemies. Rather than indulge in enemy images, attitudes and passions, I struggle in my own mind to see fellow human beings whose genuine needs for personal and social, national and international integrity are being fulfilled through positions, strategies and policies different from my own.

It would be incumbent on me and my supporters, in the framework of NVC, to discover, display and compellingly offer alternative means to fulfill the real needs of such compatriots. But I will never engage that dimension of the issues by simply projecting enemy images onto them.

Walter Wink calls it ‘how not to become what you hate’ in his acclaimed study, “Engaging the Powers.” So that’s why I’m there every week as often as I can make it, joining STAND with ME (Members of Emory) every Tuesday at 1 p.m. and the Fearless Fridays folks at noon. Each week I experience for myself that, if I do something proactive with my impulse to disrespect, vilify or demonize my fellow citizens who support the war, then I will actually be waging peace at the peace vigils — first of all with those very same fellow citizens.

The alternative of course is the irony of fostering a peace vigil that is functionally ‘warfare by other means.’ Rather let peace begin within the peace advocates themselves, who will thereby be fortified to find resources that extend peace externally in ever-widening circles — from one’s more moderate fellow citizens to one’s more lethal opponents.

Yes, despite the prevailing stereotypes of peace advocates and nonviolence proponents as hopelessly naïve, I do in fact acknowledge that we have real, toxic or vicious or lethal opponents (not all of whom are foreign, I should add). I also insist however, with Gandhi and King, that our nonviolent orientation enjoins us to eschew rage and hatred toward such opponents. Instead the truly nonviolent goal is ‘willing the well-being of both victims and perpetrators in the fullest possible knowledge of the nature of the violation,’ as Marjorie Suchocki says in “The Fall to Violence.”

May your own jihads provide you, too, with rigorously informed, self-critical and challenging struggles, as have mine. And may our campus vigils be emblematic of a ‘new world order’; a nobler order of warriors who wage the greater jihad. Or with less grandiosity: maybe it will be enough if you and I respectfully acknowledge each other, other participants and passersby too, in the midst of all the conflicting views and opinions converging at our next vigil.