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Torture Is Not Just

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June 30, 2009

For the last two weeks, Americans have been watching events unfold in Iran. Regardless of our depth of knowledge or political standings, we recognize that something profound is happening there. People are fighting to be heard, to be treated with dignity. We support and applaud them because it is part of our national character. We also stand aghast at the idea of a prison like Evin, where people are routinely detained for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or for simply speaking their minds. We are disgusted when we hear that people are tortured into false confessions, or when we see images of a Neda-like figure.

As a Muslim, I feel another layer of disgust: these are other Muslims perpetrating violence against one another. The Iranian state claims to be creating a true Muslim state, but what they are really doing is reenacting the martyrdom of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Husayn — which took place in 680 A.D. — at every opportunity. The Battle of Karbala and the massacre of Husayn and his family are universally condemned as a sign of oppression, and of holding the power of this world higher than the judgment of God. In many countries, including Iran, there are yearly commemorations of the death of Husayn, to share in that suffering and to make sure the lessons of those ten days of torture are never forgotten.

It is easy for us as Americans to condemn the current events in Iran. As a Muslim, especially here in the U.S. where there is a breadth and depth of Islamic thought, we also feel deep religious pains. However, that shock and despair begins to sound hollow as we realize how much Americans have become that which we once condemned.

Guantánamo is a blight on our national character, and the “torture memos” reveal the worst of the so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” employed there. Guantánamo is a prison where people can be held indefinitely, abused, tortured, and released without ever facing any charges. We keep minors in lock-up based on coerced confessions. Men who are found to be innocent remain locked up due to legal limbo.

The U.S. is a nation of laws, and yet we seem more outraged by injustices happening in other parts of the world than those occurring in our own name. As anAmerican, I am shocked. As a Muslim, my faith commands me to speak out. This revulsion has nothing to do with the fact that most of the detainees are Muslim. It has to do with the Qur’anic injunction to command the good (e.g. yadūna ilā al-khayr wa yāmurūna bi-l-ma‘ rūfi, 3:104), and not torturing is good. The fact that we need to be told that not torturing is good should sadden all of us.

The story of Cain slaying Abel taught us that a desire for glory in this world leads us away from doing good in the community.

When the Prophet Abraham (AS) began preaching monotheism, he was tied to a stake to be burned: to be tortured in the fire. Fear and base instincts led to this horrific act against a messenger of God.

When the Prophet Moses (AS) first expressed the desire to do good, it was to stop the torture of a Hebrew slave.

When the Prophet Jesus (AS) was tortured on the way to Golgotha, none of his believers would claim that torture is a good thing.

Prophet Muhammad (SAS) expressly forbade the torture and mistreatment of prisoners.

No believing Muslim would say that the torture of the Prophet’s grandson and family on the field of Karbala represents a good thing.

For these reasons, as believing Muslims, we cannot stand by when anyone seeks to torture, to further oppress, or to generally erode the good. As the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) has stated:

Muslim Americans, in the spirit of the Qur’anic injunction to “exhort one another to truth and constancy,” believe that we must join together to confront the pain that was inflicted in the name of our country’s security. Only by knowing the truth will the American people have the opportunity to develop a strong conviction that torture must never be justified.

We can and must demand a higher standard. We cannot be deaf to the voice of justice, but must establish it. Torture is not just.

Hussein Rashid is a proud Muslim and native New Yorker. He is currently a faculty member at Hofstra University and Associate Editor at Religion Dispatches. He is the convener of islamicate and a contributor to Talk Islam and AltMuslimah; his work has appeared at City of Brass and Goat Milk. He has appeared on CBS Evening News, CNN, Russia Today, Channel 4 (UK), State of Belief – Air America Radio, and Iqra TV (Saudi Arabia).

Practicing Muslims write the letters “AS” as a salutation after invoking all prophets’ (except Muhammad’s) names. The “AS” stands for “Alayhis salaam,” Arabic for “peace be upon him.”

Practicing Muslims write the letters “SAS” as a salutation after invoking the prophet Muhammad’s name. The “SAS” stands for “sall Allahu alayhi wa sallam,” Arabic for “May Allah bless him and grant him peace.”

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