CRUCIBLE: Global Bullying

QUEZON CITY (MindaNews / 3 July) – In an international school near the University of the Philippines in Diliman, there is an advertisement plastered on its wall with a picture of Caucasian boy that reads: “Mom, I am not bullied here.”

The slogan speaks volume of bullying phenomenon in many schools worldwide. In the United States, for instance, the problem of kids bullying another has become connected with the issue of gun law. Shooting spree in schools involving minors is becoming rampant. President Obama said it is a shame that the US does not have a gun law. The problem has become serious that age of children engaged in bullying and shooting becomes younger and younger.

The trend of bullying has spread to many countries; hence, the advertisement in that international school. It is worrisome given that schools should supposedly be the place where children are taught with knowledge and honed with moral values including developing interpersonal relationship with other students and other people. That school would surely want to attract parents to enroll their kids there, impressing that it is a bullying-free school.


But, what if the phenomenon of bullying in schools is just a mirror of “global bullying” that is increasingly becoming a daily occurrence in many parts of the world these days? What moral suasion can communities speak of to stop bullying in schools when the international community suffers with the phenomenon of global bullying?

These questions are raised to amplify contradictions in modern society where laws including International Law crafted to supposedly regulate international society are rendered irrelevant by big powers engaged in global bullying.

I have a talk with an Indonesian scholar teaching Comparative Law in Australia in our meeting in Malang, Surabaya in Indonesia few days ago. I inquired on him the relevance of International Law given the increasing geopolitical tensions in the world today. He replied that what is critical is the question of power. Then I threw an old adage in politics: “might makes right.” He alluded into the fact that in understanding International Law, one should have a good grasp of geopolitics.

We raised this issue in light of the fact that the contradictions have become so intense that the supposed powers responsible for regulating international society are generally the ones involved in major conflicts and disputes in many parts of the world these days.

As we noted last time, the United Nations is structured in such a way that the UN Security Council particularly the so-called Big Five have the monopoly in practically setting world agenda and how conflict and disputes amongst states and nations be resolved. The Big Five were products of the Second World War. By virtue of their standing – their political, economic, and military might – they are vested with veto powers that are so crucial in shaping world politics. They are supposedly enjoined to pursue the cause of peace and restraint the scourge of war. But if major conflicts and disputes in many parts of the world are triggered or are being engaged or involved by big powers like the United States, Russia, China, Britain, and France, and few more others then what moral suasion could the United Nations speak of in terms of regulating world affairs?

At least in school, when there are kids bullying another there are authorities, say, a principal that could discipline a child. He probably calls the parents to help student handle his or her psychological problems. And in school, there are grade levels – that means students are expected to grow not only academically but psychologically as well as shown through their grades. These can be the standard to reform students including those engaged in bullying. As s/he graduates, school is eased with problem with kids bullying another – that is, if no new bullies come and enroll anew.

Big fish eats small fish

In international community, there is no such thing as working structural gradation as mechanism to reform certain states or nations, or say, an effective international arbiter that could somehow discipline errant states including big powers causing problems with other countries. International legal institutions do not have power to compel big powers, say, China or Russia to settle disputes with others like the Philippines or Ukraine. In rare but unusual instances, big powers usually resolve their conflicts through devastating wars like the World War I and II. This point speaks thus of the problem we are now facing. In practically all regions, big powers – past and present – are now involved in, one way or the other, bullying another states and other nations. The basic dictum big fish eats small fish is the name of the game.

Let us highlight the Big Five members of the UN Security Council: the United States, Great Britain, France, China, and Russia.

The history of the United States since the birth of Pax Americana, has been well chronicled by many scholars in terms of how colonialism and imperialism have been made entrenched in many parts world from Latin America to Southeast Asia, and so on. For instance, US defiance against the United Nations especially how pertinent UN Resolutions of both the General Assembly and Security Council relative to the Arab-Israeli conflict have been set aside if not rendered irrelevant speaks how said international body has long been undermined by the dictum of “might makes right” than the rule of International Law.

It is the same with Great Britain. Her history as an imperial power continues to cast dark shadow on her present standing where she could not just shake off and align with present reality. A case in point in recent history is, when the US launched the second invasion of Iraq and removed Saddam Hussein from power; Britain willingly backed up America and supported nonchalantly the lies about a non-existing Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) and the non-existence Saddam-al-Qaida connection. To top it all, the lie was pontificated in the hall of the United Nations with the international community blatantly duped right on the face. Even when the lie was eventually unmasked as there was no such thing as Saddam’s WMD and Saddam-al-Qaida terror link, the UN could simply shrug off her shoulder without even lifting a finger to sanction the perpetrators behind the invasion of a sovereign country like Iraq. That role of Great Britain is, like in the past, crucial as today’s Iraq continued to descend into chaos.

It is similar with France. Indo-China, for instance, continued to suffer with the remnants of French colonialism. This is not to mention the Arab world that suffered the same onslaught from French colonialism whose colonial imprint remains as the source of inter-state tensions in the region. The Sykes-Picot Agreement inked between France and Great Britain in 1916 is responsible in the carving of different states in the Arab world with the collapse of Ottoman Empire. It eventually facilitated in the entrenching of Zionist project in Palestine and the disintegration of the Levant, whose remnants continued to impact in the current tensions amongst Arab states, the Kurds, Turkey, and others until these days.

For its part, China is actually a new player in modern international community, although her history as a civilization went as far as eons ago. Thus, its current history of colonialism and imperialism is distinct from the rest. In fact, China may be viewed as moderate compared to imperial experiences of other big powers as China did not have ample role in the First and Second World Wars – two major world events responsible in catapulting the United Nations.

The Confucian philosophy of concentric circle underlines the relation of China with other countries. While she hardly engaged in a kind of direct imperial control, China treats other nations like tributary states; hence they are always viewed with lower standing by Beijing. China’s 9-dash line looks like swooping fish net of the whole South China Sea. Such a claim backed by muscle flexing does not only prove China’s disrespect on claimant States like the Philippines, Vietnam, and others. More fundamentally, it exposes the limits of International Law where China proves even more boldly the old adage “might makes right.” Indeed, China’s robust economy inevitably translates into political and military power.

Russia, on the contrary, follows a more traditional act of bullying other states like Ukraine and other former Warsaw pact countries. Russia is hardly able to shake off its Cold War past. It should not be forgotten that the continuing political instability and Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan was the result of Russia’s invasion in the early 80s. The US balance of power strategy against USSR in that period spawned international terrorism in Central Asia and other regions until these days.

The increasing bullying advances of Russia and China are simply responded by the US through posturing and rhetoric, giving false hopes among weaker allies like the Philippines and Ukraine. Apart from attending her domestic problems, the United States takes her interest as primordial than others – not even her purported allies. Indeed, big powers have their own politics, their own culture, and their own priorities and ways.

Taghut and urwathu l-wutqa

In this regard, we are very much concerned with how global bullying mirrors kids bullying in school. We could hardly distinguish which are reflection or shadow. To say the least, it is probably the latter day signs or akhir zaman that we are made to witness this kind of contradictions in both small and big things.

In the past, Islam had a long experience living with empires and dynasties. There were also transgression by different caliphs and dynasties and their use of absolute power to control other areas. Fact is that those powers were simply phantom or shadows; they did not become perpetual in such a way that the Muslim world continued to live with empires. They were subjected to the basic law of civilizations – that is, their inevitable rise and fall.

It is because, in our view, Islam is very strong in calling the believers to abhor claim for absolute power. As we had articulated before, the Qur’an is very strong on the concept of taghut, a politically loaded term that speaks of how power is taken absolutely. And that the Qur’an is also very strong on the need to grasp what is referred to as the urwathu l-wuthqa or “trustworthy handhold” or handle with the Qur’an emphasizing the need to separate the two so that one can delineate acts of taghut or transgression and acts consider as urwathu l-wuthqa. In Suratu l-baqarah, the Qur’an says:

“Let be no compulsion in religion: Truth stands out clear from error: whoever rejects Evil and believes in God hath grasped the most trustworthy hand-hold, that never breaks. And God heareth and knoweth all things (256).”

In our previous discourse, we speak of taghut as based etymologically from the kalimat or word tagha or taghawa or taghaya, which has very wide shade of meaning including a metaphysical one. It is the reason why according to some commentators Adam (AS) slipped from Paradise because he was seduced to commit transgression (tughyan). It does not mean that Adam (AS) was condemned because he was able to ask for forgiveness. But yet, the seed of Adam’s fall continued to be reflected or carried over by his descendants. It is captured by the concept of shajaratu l-khuld wa l-mulk laa yabqa or the “tree of immortality and power that never ends.” Hence, when Adam (AS) and his wife asked for forgiveness then they were given respite as they were given subsequently the hidayah (guidance). The Qur’an says:

“We said: Get ye down all from here; and if, as is sure, there comes to you guidance from Me, whosoever follows My guidance, on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve (Baqarah: 38).”

It is the reason why man’s creation does not mean that he is condemned because he has already given the huda – guidance – and its instrumentalities like prophethood (nubuwwa) and revelation (kitab) and so on. Therefore, man in Islam embraces the world. He is not afraid of the world because he has been enjoined to hold on to urwathu l-wuthqa, the “trustworthy handle.”

There is a hadith (Prophetic tradition) accordingly where a sahabah (companion) had a dream and thereafter consulted the Prophet. Accordingly, he told the Prophet that he was in a garden and he was holding a particular pillar. Prophet Muhammad (SAW) interpreted that the garden he saw is Paradise and the pillar he held is the urwathu l-wutqa. Then, the ulama (scholars) of tafsir speak invariably of urwathu l-wutqa as iman or faith; some say it is Islam; others say it is shari’ah or law, and so on and so forth. To say the least, the distinction between taghut and urwathu l-wutqa is very much emphasized in the Holy Qur’an.

It is probably the reason why when Jamaluddin al-Afghani, the early initiator of Islamic revival, initiated reform together with Muhammad Abduh, then, they launched the magazine entitled “Urwathu l-wutqa.” That is, to rally the Muslim world around the notion of trustworthy handle or handhold, which the Qur’an says: “that never breaks.”

Beyond utopia

In the reading of scholars regarding world affairs, we could not be too idealistic as we might envision a utopia that is not forthcoming. Fact is international arrangement of nation-states is posed with problems and the envisioning of just world order is actually far-fetched. Hans Morgenthau in his “Politics among Nations” writes:

“We have seen that international peace cannot be preserved through the limitations of national sovereignty and we have found the reasons for their failure in the very nature in the relation among nations. We concluded that international peace through the transformation of the present society of sovereign nations into a world state is unattainable under the moral, social, and political conditions prevailing in the world in our time. If the world state is unattainable in our world, yet indispensable for the survival of that world, it is necessary to create the conditions under which it will not be impossible from the outset to establish a world state.” (563)

Morgenthau may be viewed as too pessimistic in the shaping of the world order, but he is simply a realist. He accepts the limitations of what he refers to as world state. What is important is the imperative of what he refers to as the creation of conditions, at least, to stabilize relation among nations. And the creation of these conditions is not something that is unknown in the Islamic experience. According to Majid Khadduri a known expert on Islam and International Relations, it will make sense for the world community to be able to learn from the experience of how Islam and Christendom resolved their rivalry and facilitated the birth of a new relationship that paved into the birth of nation-state system.

The condition that Khadduri speak of is very much what Morgenthau has been saying. Let us quote Majid Khadduri in his introduction and translation of the “Islamic Law of Nations” of Imam “Shaybani’s Siyar,” a classical text in Islamic international relations. This is what he says:

“Islam as a way of life stresses moral principle, apart from religious doctrine and the relation among nations…The stress on moral principles in intercourse among nations does not imply the re-introduction of religious doctrine in the conduct of states. The historical experiences of Christendom and Islam demonstrate that the fusion of religion or of any form of ideology with the foreign conduct of states can become dangerous indeed. Divergent ideologies can hamper the development of relations among nations on the basis of rules and practices derived from their historical experiences and their common interest. It is unfortunate that when Islam and Christendom, following a long period of competition and rivalry, finally learned to divorce ideology from the principles and practices governing their foreign relations, both find themselves confronted by the rise of new ideology which have its followers appear to insist on re-introducing in the intercourse among nations. Islam’s past competition and present co-existence with Christendom should be food for thought indeed to countries seeking to enforce ideology into relations between nations during the crisis through which the community of nations is currently passing.” (70)

Khadduri did not expound about the threat of what he refers to as “new ideology.” But if we could assume, it must be the birth of perspectives inimical in forming precisely the conditions that he and Morgenthau speak of. This must be present in Western countries as it is also present in the Muslim world today. A UK-based progressive, Tariq Ali, in one of his works speaks of the fact that today’s problem is not a “Clash of Civilizations” but it is the rise and “Clash of Fundamentalisms” that evolved from both Islam and the West altogether. This is probably what Khadduri speaks in terms of threat of new ideology that defines the affairs of the world today.

Given that the crux of the matter is claim for absolute power where big powers are the foremost representation where they create conditions that serve as impetus for crisis spinning off into another crisis, it is important that we should have a view on how Islam treats or relates with power so that proponents of Islamic thought would not also create their own contradictions and fall into the same morass in claiming absolute power.

The late Dean Majul had contemplated on this subject few years ago. In his paper, “The Qur’anic Concept of Power and Conflict in Human Life and Society,” Majul writes:

“To Islam, it is the desire, or better still, acting with the desire for immortality on earth as well as that for absolute power – a power unaccountable to Allah (SWT) as the source of all power – that is the root of much evil and conflict in the life of the individual and society. Now, there are manifold forms of power: physical, intellectual, political, economic, military, etc. There is the power that can be exercised on physical objects as well as power over other human beings and groups. In general, it maybe defined that power, in its operational aspects, involves a relation, that is, x is said to have power over y, if and only if, x can make y do or become what x wills y to be. Assuredly, there is nothing wrong with power as such since it has been given to such by Allah (SWT). What Islam condemns is attempt at absolute power or abuse of power.”

This encapsulates the conditions that Morgenthau and Khadduri speak of. By the way, we simply do not mean here by religion in the traditional sense. It can also be transformed or used in fact as representation of economic power. The claim for control of power and strategic resources can thus constitute as “religion” of certain states and nations. In this regard, Majul writes further:

“Moreover, Allah (SWT) prohibits commercial monopolies by the rich (Q.59:7). Thus, by analogy, it behooves rich and powerful nations not to take advantage of poor nations; neither should they try to monopolize the earth’s resources for their and their allies’ sake benefit. The exploitations of nation by nation through the control of natural resources or banking techniques are gross violations of the trust. Pollution of the atmosphere by heavily industrialized countries in their efforts to gain more economic power as well as encouraging other developing countries to deplete their natural resources are two important instances of the abuse of the earth and the skies as trusts given to human beings.”

We are thankful to the late Dean Majul for being able to articulate in simple terms the ill effects of misplaced power and how they permeate in every facet of society – whether among schools kids bullying another or big powers bullying weaker ones.

[MindaViews is opinion section of MindaNews. A revised khutbah delivered at the UP-Institute of Islamic Studies on 20 June 2014. Julkipli Wadi is Associate Professor of Islamic Studies, University of the Philippines Diliman.]