KABUL, Afghanistan — Sometimes, when met with difficulty, what’s really needed is a new perspective.
A growing trend in studies of humanitarian aid is an emphasis on the incorporation of Islamic doctrine within its tactics, and an effort to find the religion’s points of convergence with International Humanitarian Law (IHL).
Traditionally, IHL has stressed a stance of universalism, so as to avoid conflict and partiality with regards to cultural relativism. However, experts in the field are beginning to realize that, when handled with sensitivity, accounting for certain religious and cultural nuances within those societies aided can be a greatly advantageous, as well as far more ethical, approach.
Particularly Islam’s Sharia Law, which when translated means “the path leading to the peaceful, watery place,” has been highlighted as a practice in desperate need of engagement with international aid organizations. Statistics indicate that a Muslim demographic predominantly populated a large proportion of assisted regions, such as the Middle East, Central Asia and Northern Africa. It seems intuitive, then, that humanitarian workers make an effort to immerse themselves ideologically as an occupational priority.
Unfortunately, it can’t be denied that those same regions – and specifically the countries of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan and Syria – have also proven to be the most dangerous for outside humanitarian workers. Sharia law has been surrounded with a bad reputation within international media as the root source of conflict, as it is too often invoked by militants to justify violent behavior. Boko Haram in Nigeria, oppositional soldiers in South Sudan and the Taliban in Central Asia are all timely examples of abuse perpetrated in the name of piety.
The conflict is further spurned by the fact that many Islamist militant groups actively reject IHL beliefs and legalities. This is mostly derived from a deep-seated mistrust of western intrusion, flowing from the wake of colonialism. Nigeria’s Boko Haram is actually named to mean “against all western education,” and follows up this threat by targeting privately-owned and NGO-built schools.
A vast majority of Islamic scholars and community leaders argue, though, that such extremism is innately antithetical to Sharia, whose major tenets conceive of a “global village” and advocate for sanctity of all life, compassion towards enemies and the preservation of human dignity. IHL and Sharia Law share these common foundations, and likewise the potential to be consciously activated together for similar ends.
An anonymous Palestinian IHL activist claims that true Islamic doctrine even goes beyond IHL in certain capacities in the protection of civilians, and that militant invocations of Sharia are based on deep misinterpretations of the Koran. As he tells IHL fighters whom he trains, “If you’re following Islamic law properly, you’re already satisfying IHL. They [militants]come to the conclusion that they don’t even know Sharia.”
The benefits of orienting humanitarian efforts and arguments around Sharia Law are vast. It facilitates open communication between international NGOs and the communities they negotiate with, indicates to militants that IHL is actually a positive force, strengthens security for workers on the ground and overall adds to the efficiency of humanitarian projects.
The goal should be to bring about a “new theory of engagement,” as argued by Na Naz Modirzadeh, the senior fellow of the Counterterrorism and Humanitarian Engagement project at Harvard University. Her theories advocate for the exercise of the two in harmony with one another, and have caught the attention of NGOs and international governments everywhere.
In 2007, Human Rights Watch became one of the first international humanitarian organizations to use Islam for itself. It evidenced the Koran to challenge Egypt’s systematic subjugation of people of the Bahai faith, and ultimately achieved the reissuing of their citizenship. Legally, such arguments allow organizations to submit their cases for human rights violations to Sharia courts and gain justice in the public sphere.
Another instances of Modirzadeh’s ideas gaining international traction is the French-organized Médecins Sans Frontières’ (MSF) recent translation of its guidebook into Arabic with the insertion of Sharia passages. The MSF hopes to gain support in the Islamic world through an appeal to shared medical ethics.
Most prominently has been the effort made by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to forge partnerships between its work with IHL and Islamic foreign dignitaries. Several conferences have been held over the course of the past few years, inviting religious scholars to collaborate on training procedures and policy modifications.
The organization affirmed in 2006 that “In order to meet the challenges of the 21st century, in particular the growing influence of religion on politics, conflict and everyday life, ICRC has stepped up its dialogue with intellectuals, academics, and scholars in various parts of the Muslim world, the aim being to lay the foundations for greater mutual understanding, dispel existing misconceptions and find common ground for protecting human dignity in armed conflict.”
Still, the status quo of discourse around Islam and humanitarianism demand a choice of one side or the other, and many IHL workers still feel largely uncomfortable navigating religious situations. Experts argue that more needs to be done to readjust the way IHL is carried out, so as to enhance its points of convergence with the Islamic doctrines so popular in the communities it seeks to assist. Topics regarding prisoners of war, wounded civilians, jurisprudence over civil society and how to legally deal with terrorism are in the most need of collaboration.