It is high time that the dogma of jehad is made to stand the scrutiny of reason. And that needs to be done not only because the trump card of jehad is played indiscriminately, but also because the notion that war can be holy simply because some religious authority calls the faithful to battle needs to be exposed for what it is. The hypocrisy of advocating bloodshed in the name of a religion that purports to be a religion of peace has already gone on for too long.
The apologists for jehad have been singing different themes in its defense. Notable among them is the theory that wars to defend religious interests, if endorsed by the State, qualify to be holy wars. In the given Afghan scenario this leaves only one question to be settled: Is the Taliban a State or not? If it is, it has the right to call for jehad. What underlies this approach is the tendency in Islamic thought to absolutize the State, which is integral to the pretensions of a theocratic State, outside of which such a thesis looks positively anomalous. In a host of Islamic countries this synergy between religion and the State still serves to reinforce un-democratic regimes.
There are two fundamental issues in respect of the idea and practice of holy wars. The first is whether or not the concept of holy wars, even if it has isolated scriptural sanctions, is spiritually and morally tenable. While the scriptures of Semitic religions -Judaism, Christianity and Islam- may be forced to endorse the idea of holy wars, the fact remains that there is much in these scriptures that expressly prohibit bloodshed and aggression of any sort. The advocates of holy wars read their scriptures selectively to secure a semblance of legitimacy for what otherwise is an indefensible idea.
Consider this example by way of illustration. The idea of holy war is present in the Old Testament, which is common to Jews and Christians. And the idea is introduced in respect of the need to re-possess one's homeland as in the case of the Jews returning from Egypt to Canaan which was then in the hands of Philistines and Amalekites. The returning Jews were, apparently, required by Yahweh to repossess the land completely. In doing so, however, they overlooked the more cardinal passage at the beginning of the Old Testament that all people and all tribes are equally the children of God. The earth is the Lord's and God is not partial to any tribe or community. The Jews, of course, did not make any effort to harmonize the new teachings with the old. If they had, the history of Palestine would have been vastly different! The idea of Dharma Yudh (or holy war) that turns fighting into a duty mightier than all kinship ties is the Hindu counterpart of the holy war, and is equally liable to misuse.
The second issue pertains to the authority for declaring holy wars. That a Maulana who sets up a theocratic state, via the ruthless route of bloodshed and oppression, has the religious right to call a jehad just because he happens to head the State is a repugnant thought. Most obviously, the purport of this jehad is not to defend one's religious right, but to justify the right to harbour a terrorist and his outfit that exports terror and the threat of terror routinely to other parts of the world. It is time the Muslims of the world, as well as all others whose religions endorse the idea of holy wars, came out in the open and rejected both the un-democratic idea of jehad and its horrible abuse in unequivocal terms.
That leaves us with the question, "Is there such a thing called 'holy war'?" More pointedly, by what religious consideration can a war be deemed holy? Can bloodshed and mass murder be justified, much less canonized, from a religious perspective even in the face of grave provocation?
Of course, there is such a thing called 'holy war'. But that war, is the war against oneself, based on the universal truth that the demons of meanness, violence and injustice lurk within oneself. The topmost priority in spirituality is given to bringing the will of the individual into harmony with the Divine Will that is beyond all partisan sentiments. A true Muslim, thus, is one who has surrenders his will to the Will of Allah, the Compassionate. Gurudev Tagore, to take another example, prayed to God that He may strike at the root of penury in his heart and give him the "strength to surrender his will to God's Will in love".
This authentic holy war, directed against the degradation and depravity of the self, has two further theatres of operation. The first of these is the duty to combat the degeneration of one's own religious community. Only those who battle the moral and spiritual perversions of their own nature and personal outlook will have the courage to see the need to reform their own community. Others harbour the communal notion that one's religious duty is to defend the rot within one's own religious fold and to attack similar evils in others. As a matter of fact, the main purport of the communal agenda is to deflect attention from the decay within the religious establishment concerned. Given this mindset, the enterprise to reform others becomes a popular and profitable business; whereas reforming one's own community is deemed a subversive activity to be putdown promptly.
The second theatre of a spiritually legitimate holy war is the struggle against injustice, oppression and inequality in the social arena. It is common knowledge that communal elements patronize the forces of injustice and exploitation. Those who are in the grip of truth and are mindful of the need to reform their own communities will not stop short of battling the forces of injustice in the social sphere. They are free to recognize the universal truth that the corruption of the individual and the religious constituency are the seeds of social and political corruption.
The authentic holy war is still relevant. But that war has to target the demons of mounting human suffering, man-made poverty and destitution and the systemic exploitation of the poor by the rich, both locally and globally. The crucial question that the global community needs to raise is this: If a global coalition to protect the American interests can be cobbled together, why not a global coalition to defend the interests of the human species? As long as the religions of the world refuse to unite in launching this only legitimate holy war, various unholy wars will continue to be advocated and unleashed in the name of religions, decoying the unsuspecting faithful into the sanctuaries of the gods of hate and destruction. The primary significance of the Taliban syndrome, at its symbolic and spiritual level, is the corruption of the idea of the holy war. It is this depraved idea that enables an archaic phenomenon to drag a whole nation to prehistoric times and expect the victims of this antediluvian fundamentalist vision to wage a so-called holy war whose outcome will only be the perpetuation of their own misery and enslavement.