We’ve heard a lot in the past week or so about the British Muslim Mohammed Emwazi, so-called Jihadi John, and the relations of those he has executed in the course of his commitment to the group calling itself Islamic State have varied in their reactions to discovering his identity. Some want to ‘put a bullet between his eyes’, but a few others reminded us that If we only trade hatred, hatred is all that results. There is no end to it. Indeed, said one, the whole series of events is a tragedy for everyone, Jihadi John included.
There is a great truth here. First of all, even if we think only of our own wellbeing, forgiveness has been shown by psychologists to be better for us than vengeful thoughts, hatred and harbouring grudges. Our own happiness, and even our physical health, benefit from the positivity of forgiveness. Those who have come emotionally whole out of Nazi concentration camps, hijacking situations, kidnaps, or the loss of loved ones to the violence or carelessness of others, generally do it by, in one way or another, forgiving those who have wronged them or their loved ones, and moving on with their lives. Holding on to the negativity of hatred, resentment and the desire for revenge, even where this masquerades as a desire for justice, leaves us stuck in the mire of the traumatic experience itself. Only by forgiving, even if it is a long process (and it can be), and by focusing on the future hopefully rather than looking back to a painful past, can we make something of the life we still have.
The interesting thing is that the tragedy of Islamic State and its brutal executions does indeed encompass Mohammed Emwazi. His reaction to his treatment by British security forces, who suspected him (rightly or wrongly, there is no way of telling) of possible involvement in extreme Islamism and tried to recruit him as a spy or informer led him not only to lose confidence in the authorities (as injustice frequently does) but to seek revenge. Whatever radicalisation he had already undergone became magnified, and his bitterness led him straight to Islamic State. He was not able to forgive the actions of those he felt had treated him unjustly in order to move on in the life he had in this country, where his employers and neighbours valued him and where he could have been a success. Instead he went out to Syria to join the jihadists.
Partly, I think, this happened because Islam does not encourage overmuch forgiveness, especially of ’outsiders’, i.e. non-Muslims. There is, indeed, a stark contrast between Islam and Christianity here – not between the historical actions of the two, I hasten to say, for Christians have sadly been as apt as Muslims or anyone else to strike back if threatened, at least since the era of the Crusades. But where Muhammad and his early followers, when threatened with persecution by their surrounding neighbours, embarked on jihad, a holy war against those who encircled them (and this was purely defensive in the beginning), Jesus went to the cross, forbidding his disciples to defend him with the sword, even defining, in his trial before Pilate, his kingdom as ‘not of this world’ simply because his disciples did not take up arms. And on the cross, he forgave those who had killed them, on the grounds that they did not really know what they were doing.
Muslims are doing much heart-searching at present. Islamic State are claiming that their new territory is the beginning of the events that will usher in the end of the world (when, I believe, it is Jesus who will return to judge and rule, not Muhammad), and for devout Muslims this must be attractive. No wonder the disaffected and pious are liable to be radicalised, when all the West can offer instead is material wealth, moral relativism and the worship of celebrity. But at the same time, most Muslims, particularly those who have access to global media and can view Islamic preoccupations with some perspective, do not actually want the barbarism and fundamentalism that Islamic State and other Islamist groups represent. They know that the world has in fact moved on from that kind of brutality, and they are comfortable with that. The problem is that for Sunni Muslims at least the Koran is set in stone. It can only be read correctly in the original Arabic, not in translation. There can be no interpretation, no movement from its original emphases – though there has of course been much explanation and extrapolation by scholars over the centuries. What Muhammad did, what he taught, is paramount, and Muhammad was a child of the 7th century. How then should today’s Muslims respond to the twin challenges of extremism and Western culture – is there a Middle Way?
Perhaps there is. Jesus is, after all, one of the Muslim prophets, as are the Old Testament prophets of Judaism. Jesus is considered, indeed, second only to Muhammad himself. Perhaps there is something that today’s Muslims can learn from him, even if they reject the Christians view of his place in God’s plans – something about forgiveness and turning the other cheek. I very much hope so.