CRUCIBLE: Life’s Primacy and Cultural Imageries since 9/11

QUEZON CITY (MindaNews/13 September) – There is a beautiful line in the Holy Qur’an, which many of us are very much familiar with that says:

“That if any one slew a person – unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land – it would be as if he slew the whole people: And if any one saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole people (Maida: 35).”

This sublime passage of the Qur’an ought to be given much reflection amid rampant killings in many countries particularly in the Muslim world today.

The 21st century should have supposedly provided us immense lessons: that past wars like World War I and II and other small and big wars that happened after them had undeniably shaped present history; yet, if they could have been avoided, history would still have taken a course of continuity although we would not know what kind or what form. The point is, big powers must have learned hard lessons after engaging in those two devastating wars, as they now prefer to engage in indirect, proxy wars and continue to wage low key and subtle “secret war.” In this regard, image-making or propaganda, while deeply rooted in political ideology and psychological warfare, have been utilized quite well even making it as the strongest form of political and cultural domination against Islam and the Muslim world these past several years.

This thought comes to mind in light of two major events that I consider significant this almost midmonth of September.

9/11 Image-making

Yesterday was the 9/11 13th year’s commemoration. It was used to coincide with President Barrack Obama’s declaration of US strategy against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or (ISIL). The 9/11 and the new US strategy speak volumes on how image-making and propaganda have been utilized especially so that the erstwhile World Trade Center also known as the Ground Zero is now replaced with a museum that displays various images about that fateful day of 9/11.

The message projected is that America is a victim. And anyone who’d visit the museum would develop a mental image of Islam or the Muslim world as inhabited by violent and bigoted Arabs, zealot Muslims and other politically charged labels representing too empirically-based and powerful cultural symbols couched in gripping religious and psychological stereotypes. This process of image-making and cultural representation has become essential part in the molding of America’s psyche about Islam and the Muslim world and will be continuously etched in America’s narratives and remembering in the coming years and decades. A year after the 9/11, we were able to visit New York and had the chance to linger around on then prohibited area of Ground Zero. It was clear to me then that the ashes and rubbles of 9/11 would be transformed into powerful symbol of America’s imagery not only against the perpetrators and all the attendant ideas and culture they represent but trademark of America’s ideals and power in the 21st century.

On the contrary, if we look at the Arab world and many parts of the Muslim world hardly had they moved forward since 9/11. In fact, many Muslim countries and communities retrogressed considerably since then. Killings and mayhem have been rampant with religion wantonly invoked as justifications. The new rounds of violence have gone beyond reason. Relics and sacred sites and many other important places of Islamic heritage were not spared; they were demolished, bombed, and flattened altogether. What had been there these past centuries were effaced forever.

The blatant display of violence and hatred emboldens even more the spread of cultural imagery and representation and the use of subtle propaganda that pressed even harder the Muslim world. From the look of it, the new US strategy as advanced is not wholly intended to eliminate the threat of ISIS. The aerial strike strategy has the angle to basically strengthen anew US hegemony in the heartland of the Middle East particularly in the post-Arab Spring period. It is to make Arab states around Iraq and Syria more constricted leaving them with less option but to hang on to America’s skirts thus rendering them into complete subservience while luring them to buy more weapons from the US and Russia and other European powers. In other words, the use of cultural imagery and representation, while attached to global power and domination is now fully utilized and is made to parallel with, and even playing as a more effective tool of, imperial and cultural domination in the Arab world.

This is one dimension of cultural imageries that I observed this month of September.

MILF’s reconfiguration

In different but related development, while the above imagery is relatively negative, I guess, Malacañang’s submission of the draft Bangsamoro Basic Law to Congress two days ago augurs well in terms of projecting a new cultural image of engagement with Islamic community in the Philippines. Where the Middle East suffers with propensity to regime change that spiraled to more chaos and violence, at least, the picture presented in the Philippines is that, an alternative route of doing peace with Muslim rebels is possible.

We have to note that the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) was born around the mold of Islamic state rhetoric like many other Islamic movements in the ‘60s, ’70, and ‘80s. With the changing landscape in the Muslim world, the MILF engaged in a subtle reconfiguration of Moro struggle by bringing it back to the frame of national liberation and the right to self-determination, while re-drawing it away from the highly accentuated and politicized religious struggle like many Islamic movements in vogue in many countries then. Hence, the MILF was able to shift its agenda and ideology away from the rhetoric of political Islam and “return” to the frame it previously abandoned when it broke away from its mother front, the Moro National Liberation Front in 1977. Thus, the image created is that Islamic movements do not always tread along the path of radicalism, and extremism, and so on. Whereas the Abu Sayyaf took the reversed course in the late ‘80s and was hardly able to sustain its cause few years after, the prospect of radical Islamic line now pursued by the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters and its political and military future remain to be seen. To say the least, if the government fails with its peace process with the MILF, it will have a hard time engaging the new cadres of Moro jihadists.

This development of MILF’s reconfigured stance is significant because, I guess, the 21st century gives premium to movements that advanced a struggle whose advocacy is protection of human rights with strong pro-life appeal. In fact, any movement that continuously uses violence could become object not only of physical assaults and intimidation from bigger powers; it could also be potential targets for stereotypical imagery and representation.

Hence, the two separate but analogous imageries yesterday and the other day gave us lessons particularly in addressing the questions: where do we go from here and what are the things we should avoid as an ummah in our future trajectory?

Although the context of the above Qur’anic injunction of saving lives is an imperative for the children of Israel to adopt a universal view about life and to avoid killing and violence, it nonetheless presents the universal creed on the primacy of life; and conversely, if lives are saved the whole of humanity is saved too. Such sublime verse of the Qur’an has universal import as Islam gives premium to sacredness of life. In fact, there is hadith (saying) of Prophet Muhammad (SAW) that one of the kabair or greatest sins is murder. Other kabair are, namely: joining partners in the worship of Allah (SWT); disrespect or undutiful to one’s parents; making false statement, and false witnesses. In other words, both the Qur’an and the hadith of Prophet Muhammad (SAW) abhor killing “unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land.”

We mention this as a background to the fact that there is a trend in warfare these days that, if it is avoidable, to limit casualties to very minimal number, although this is an ideal as we witnessed, for instance, Israel’s exceptional brutality in the new round of war and destruction in Gaza few weeks ago. The point is that, violence or any other form of extremism is being frowned upon generally. At times, violence can be used as a cultural image to destroy or to create an imprint in people’s psychology that would be etched for a long time in their consciousness.

Propaganda and maturity

The 9/11 is a classic example how a lemon has been transformed into lemonade in the United States. What was supposedly a negative event was transformed into America’s source of collective memory where a powerful image has been created to continuously project cultural representation not only amongst the perpetrators but even the source of their thought, their culture, their communities, and so on. That is how potent and powerful cultural imagery, cultural representation, and propaganda are. Even if particular event has already happened long ago, they could be utilized for certain ideological, political, and strategic purposes.

The other dimension is while the submission of the BBL, or at least the draft, would provide certain opportunity for the Moro struggle to be taken or be understood in new prism, we just could not help and raise questions in terms of the level of maturity not only those in the national government and the Moro community as well but also in terms of how ready they are in upgrading their understanding of Moro struggle and its new mode of engagement.

In our view if the majority is not ready to accept or accommodate and provide higher premium to new configuration of Moro struggle particularly the line now pursued by the MILF, then we might as well miss an opportunity to resolve the Mindanao conflict this time around. The MILF, by taking the parliamentary route away from its revolutionary past, shows that there is a way, a new path of Muslim struggle unlike what is happening in the Arab world these days. In truth, the Arab Spring should have ushered the birth of a new beginning in the Middle East. But the factors and forces in the Arab world are simply not ready to push forward the new vision of social change; so that, in few years time, that vision crumbled and was subsequently supplanted with the rise of groups like the ISIS opening therefore the Arab word to new era of big powers’ proxy wars and intervention.

This reflection is for us to learn higher principle of struggle that takes the primacy of life as core value and remind us to adopt new ways, if need be, in envisioning social change. It also reminds us not to tread into areas that could further press us hard or use us unscrupulously as source or pretext for cultural imagery and representation especially by powerful ones. It is also a message to perpetrators of hatred and violence to realize their pitfalls, to assess their assumption, to mend their fanaticism, and to return to the tenets that take life as sacred akin to the sacredness of humanity.

That beautiful line in the Qur’an about saving lives and avoiding killing represent Islam’s cardinal principle of life. It has to be continuously reflected so that we will take life as truly sacred as we become mature and calibrating with our actions.

[MindaViews is opinion section of MindaNews. A revised khutbah delivered at the UP-Institute of Islamic Studies on 12 September 2014. Julkipli Wadi is Associate Professor of Islamic Studies, University of the Philippines].