In April 2012, an Arab-American Muslim from Massachusetts, Tarek Mehanna, was sentenced to seventeen-and-a-half years in prison after being found guilty of (among other things) traveling to Yemen in 2004 so he could get training to fight against U.S. troops in Iraq. (Several American Muslims have been convicted on similar charges.)
Mehanna’s case has renewed a debate among some American Muslims: If the U.S. invades a Muslim country, whose side are American Muslims supposed to be on? What religious responsibility do American Muslims have to assist Muslims whose country is invaded by the U.S.?
At his sentencing hearing, Mehanna told the Judge, “I watched as America then attacked and invaded Iraq directly. I saw the effects of ‘Shock & Awe’ in the opening day of the invasion – the children in hospital wards with shrapnel from American missiles sticking but of their foreheads (of course, none of this was shown on CNN). I learned about the town of Haditha, where 24 Muslims – including a 76-year old man in a wheelchair, women, and even toddlers – were shot up and blown up in their bedclothes as the slept by US Marines. I learned about Abeer al-Janabi, a fourteen-year old Iraqi girl gang-raped by five American soldiers, who then shot her and her family in the head, then set fire to their corpses. I just want to point out, as you can see, Muslim women don’t even show their hair to unrelated men. So try to imagine this young girl from a conservative village with her dress torn off, being sexually assaulted by not one, not two, not three, not four, but five soldiers. Even today, as I sit in my jail cell, I read about the drone strikes which continue to kill Muslims daily in places like Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen. Just last month, we all heard about the seventeen Afghan Muslims – mostly mothers and their kids – shot to death by an American soldier, who also set fire to their corpses. These are just the stories that make it to the headlines, but one of the first concepts I learned in Islam is that of loyalty, of brotherhood – that each Muslim woman is my sister, each man is my brother, and together, we are one large body who must protect each other. In other words, I couldn’t see these things beings done to my brothers & sisters – including by America – and remain neutral. My sympathy for the oppressed continued, but was now more personal, as was my respect for those defending them. … So, this trial was not about my position on Muslims killing American civilians. It was about my position on Americans killing Muslim civilians, which is that Muslims should defend their lands from foreign invaders – Soviets, Americans, or Martians. This is what I believe. It’s what I’ve always believed, and what I will always believe. This is not terrorism, and it’s not extremism. It’s what the arrows on that seal above your head represent: defense of the homeland. So, I disagree with my lawyers when they say that you don’t have to agree with my beliefs – no. Anyone with commonsense and humanity has no choice but to agree with me. If someone breaks into your home to rob you and harm your family, logic dictates that you do whatever it takes to expel that invader from your home.”
The Recitation (or Qur’an) instructs Muslims to fight those who fight them. “Fight in the cause of Allah those who fight you, but do not transgress limits; for Allah loveth not transgressors. And slay them wherever ye catch them, and turn them out from where they have Turned you out; for tumult and oppression are worse than slaughter; but fight them not at the Sacred Mosque, unless they (first) fight you there; but if they fight you, slay them. Such is the reward of those who suppress faith. But if they cease, Allah is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful. And fight them on until there is no more Tumult or oppression, and there prevail justice and faith in Allah; but if they cease, Let there be no hostility except to those who practice oppression.” (2:190-193)
Do these verses mean that Muslims should fight only if they are personally attacked, or should all Muslims fight when any Muslim is attacked?
Does an American Muslim’s view of the legitimacy of the American invasion of Iraq affect the religious analysis? Polling and anecdotal evidence show that most American Muslims believe that America was not justified in invading Iraq in 2003. If an American Muslim believes that the American invasion of Iraq was unjustified, does that create a religious obligation to fight American troops in Iraq?
Some American Muslims argue that an American Muslim is never religiously permitted to take up arms against U.S. forces. They say that citizenship is a treaty between an individual and his country, which implies a pledge by the individual to not attack his countrymen. They argue that Prophet Muhammad never waged war against hostile, oppressive, anti-Muslim Meccan forces while he was a citizen/resident of Mecca; he only waged war against Meccan forces after leaving Mecca and permanently moving to Medina. These American Muslims say that an American Muslim who wants to fight American troops in Iraq can only do so if he cuts ties with America and moves away (rather than pretending to remain a loyal American citizen).
Some American Muslims respond that this analysis, regarding the Prophet’s departure from Mecca prior to fighting Meccan forces, is off the mark. Their argument is as follows: The Prophet did not leave Mecca in anticipation of going to war against Meccan forces. He left Mecca to establish an Islamic state elsewhere, because Mecca was not prepared to become an Islamic state at the time. He left Mecca and hoped that he and the Muslim community would be left alone in Medina. (The Muslims raided Meccan caravans to recoup their losses relating to property left behind in Mecca, but the Muslims did not seek all-out war with Meccan forces.) The Muslims fought Meccan forces only when the Meccan army came after them at the Battle of Badr. That’s different from the U.S.-Iraq situation in 2004 (when Mehanna travelled to Yemen for training). The Prophet’s situation would have been more analogous to the 2004 U.S.-Iraq situation if Mecca had already been at war with another city, and if the Prophet had moved to Medina in order to join the fight against Mecca; then one could argue that American Muslims who wanted to help the Iraqis by fighting U.S. forces must move out of America. It would be interesting to know about the actions of those Muslims who lived openly or “undercover” in Mecca while Mecca was at war with Medina; were they “loyal Meccans,” or did they take any steps to assist the Muslims of Medina against Meccan forces?
It’s also religiously significant for some American Muslims that American law prohibits Americans from fighting against U.S. forces. Some American Muslims believe they have a religious obligation to follow the laws of the country where they live. They believe that Prophet Muhammad said, “It is necessary upon a Muslim to listen to and obey the ruler, as long as one is not ordered to carry out a sin. If he is commanded to commit a sin, then there is no adherence and obedience.” That takes us back to the above-mentioned verse from the Recitation; if an American Muslim is commanded to not help Muslims whose country is invaded by the U.S, is he “commanded to commit a sin”?
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