Between harb and jihad

Conspiracy theories about who killed Benazir Bhutto abound, which have only been further fuelled by Pervez Musharraf's feeble attempts to downplay the obvious security lapse that took place. Official sources were quick to point the finger at al-Qaeda, and named Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of the recently constituted Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, as the perpetrator behind the attack. Baitullah's response was just as swift, with his spokesman denying any involvement, and adding for good measure that "tribal people have their own customs – we don't strike women."

This short statement raises a handful of interesting, and crucial, questions. First, one has to assume that the spokesman was referring to killing during a period of conflict or jihad, for the Taliban in Afghanistan (presumably the role models for the Pakistani Tehrik) had been known to carry out judicial executions of women. But what of the mass killings that are perpetrated as a result of suicide attacks that typically occur in crowded areas, for which the Taliban have at times taken credit? Extremist elements have been quick to label, and justify, such incidents as mere manifestations of jihad. But do the killers only target areas frequented by men? Or does the decree against the killing of women only refer to targeted killing – in that female casualties as 'collateral damage' are acceptable, but to target a woman for execution, even during a period of war, is not?

Interestingly, when citing the prohibition on killing of women, the Tehrik's statement refers to tribal customs, as opposed to Islamic injunction. But this belief is nevertheless likely to have been derived from Islamic injunctions regarding what is referred to as jus in bello, or conduct in war. As such, in order to fully understand the Tehrik argument, these injunctions need to be analysed. Islamic diktat on jihad has often been misunderstood as a call to militancy for followers of the religion. The reality is more complex. First, 'jihad' need not refer only to actual armed conflict, but also to a moral struggle of any sort. To the extent that the term refers to conventional war, there are broadly three main conditions of jus ad bellum (just cause of war) in Islam: in cases of self-defence, to come to the aid of the oppressed or to fight for legitimate rights, and to put an end to tumult. The existence of these three conditions distinguish jihad from harb, the more commonly used Arabic term for war.

With regard to the conduct of jihad, the Koran speaks of not 'transgressing limits'. These limits were identified by the actions and pronouncements of the Prophet Mohammad, and included injunctions not to act treacherously, not to cut down trees, and, most importantly, not to kill children, old men or women. The treatise of the 8th-century jurist al-Shaybani is still more detailed in interpreting the injunctions of Mohammad, and explicitly states that the prophet prohibited the killing of women and minors during times of warfare. This tradition is particularly interesting given that, during Mohammad's time, women (whether Muslim or non-Muslim) were, even if not direct combatants, intricately involved in war efforts in terms of running supply lines and providing nursing care. Yet the injunction on the protection of women (as well as minors but also the elderly) in times of war is unequivocal.

The rules of waging jihad were formulated with conventional warfare in mind. There is little support in the Islamic tradition for what today is referred to as 'irregular' warfare, or conflicts waged outside the writ of recognised governments. Muslim jurists first dealt with the issue of irregular warfare during rebellions under the reigns of the third and fourth caliphs, and this discussion was in the context of a revolt against an Islamic state. The code of conduct for dealing with such upheaval, and with the rebels themselves, is referred to as the Ahkam al-Bughat (or rules), which stresses reconciliation between the two parties. The emphasis is on restoring social order, as well as avoiding strife.

As such, in the context of Islamic tradition, the Tehrik-i-Taliban's statement is correct – the killing of women is indeed prohibited in Islam. But in fact, this prohibition goes significantly farther, applying not just to assassinations but also to the targeting of non-combatants in general. Furthermore, there is no concept of jihad amongst Muslims, at least insofar as it is generally conceived; and armed warfare, when it is waged against others, must be undertaken only in specific circumstances. There has been enough bloodshed in the name of religion and tribal honour. If outfits such as the Tehrik can recognise and acknowledge one facet of Islamic teaching on the conduct of war, surely the remaining principles must also be relevant?

~ Safia Aftab is affiliated with Strategic and Economic Policy Research, in Islamabad.

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