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The Freedom of Religion, the Concept of War, and Gulen
Nov 1, 2011

Scholars have put forward varying ideas on the legitimacy of war in Islam. While there is consensus on the prevention of atrocity and self-defense, there are disputes on issues like preclusion from the freedom of teaching religion, violation of a peace agreement, assassination of envoys, etc. In this article, we would like to shed light on an issue that is particularly associated with the freedom of teaching religion.

This particular kind of freedom is presented as one of the causes of war in the book Muhammad: The Messenger of God by Fethullah Gülen. If one approaches the problem from a partial analysis, rather than a holistic one, then one can easily come to the conclusion that "war can be waged to ensure spiritual guidance and communication." In the aforementioned book, Gülen basically says that force is allowed if there is a resistance against the preaching of Islam and others are prevented from listening to its message.

Viewing the issue from this aspect, it is not correct to reach a conclusion that Gülen, thus Islam, does not recognize freedom of religion and conscience. Those who reach such a conclusion means, they are disregarding Islamic verses and the literature on the traditions of the Prophet that pertain to the freedom of religion and conscience, as well as the important interpretations made by Gülen in this issue. There are also some circles who never tire of spouting their biased discourse, manifested by slogans such as, "Islam is the religion of the sword," "Islam is an oppressive and coercive religion," or "either Islam or death."

In contrast, it is very clear in Gülen's message that no war can be fought in order to communicate one's faith. A war can be fought when faith, Islam in this case, is prevented from teaching its message "in peaceful ways."

In my opinion, restriction of the communication of any religion is a violation of a birthright and rights agreed upon in international human rights declarations. In other words, the prohibition in question, if one indeed exists, is a sheer atrocity that has been imposed on people living in a particular social system. Living in the West, where such debates have occurred, I have two alternatives: either to investigate the written and oral literature of Fethullah Gülen in order to examine the accuracy of this approach, or to ask him directly. I preferred to take the easier way and directly asked him my question: Here I give you his reply:

"It is possible to categorize all the battles the Prophet fought, when analyzed thoroughly with their basic characteristics, within the concept of defense. If there is an attack by an enemy, or if there is evidence acquired by a very reliable intelligence that there is going to be an attack, then war will be necessary. The Qur'anic evidence that supports this is Baqara 2:191: "fight against them, if they fight you.'"

Another remark by Gülen, made at another time, confirms this:

"Take a close look at his battles at Badr, Uhud, and the Trench. All of them took place in the vicinity of Medina, while the enemy, the polytheists of Mecca, were living 500 kilometers away. What could the Muslims do? Should they welcome the enemy forces, who had come to the front line and inside the town, trying to kill them? The Battle of Haybar, on the other hand, was fought because previously signed treaties were violated, and these treaties stipulated violation as a cause for war. While emphasizing the fact that the Prophet only fought defensive battles, there is no need to claim "there is no war in Islam by any means," evoking some kind of an inferiority complex. On the other hand, Islam does not give the right to any nation to clamp on another nation for no reason, or just for the sake of her national sovereignty. This critical balance was maintained in the eras of the Prophet and the Four Rightly-Guided Caliphs. But it is not possible to state that the same sensitivity has been preserved by some Islamic states after the Abbasids until today-the Ottomans included. Several wars were waged for the sake of gains, or to extend territory. They treated their enemies with justice during and after the war; but this is a different issue."

The issue is crystal clear: war is the very last thing to do, when other solutions are exhausted, in order to eliminate an injustice that restricts the freedom of communication and guidance for teaching one's religion. Thus, from where does this confusion stem? There are two reasons for this. The first is the inability to delineate the Prophet's actions as the Messenger of God-which bind all Muslims until the Day of Judgment-from some of his actions as a statesman, which were basically formed in keeping with the policies of the day according to the prevalent context.

The second reason is that some concepts that pertain to war are predicated in their religious rather than political connotations, arising from the fact that war is a sphere where religion and politics intermingle; in other words, the "literalist" approach is adopted.

These two reasons, in the final analysis, give rise to misinterpretation of some of the concepts in a far distant meaning than what they were originally constructed for. Take the concept of "fi sabilillah," as an example. This concept, which is repeated many times in the Holy Qur'an and the sayings of the Prophet, literally means "in the way of God." However, the role that this concept plays in the field of religion differs from that which it plays in politics in the Arabic language. "Fi sabilillah" in the field of religion covers all the good deeds aiming to acquire merit, whereas it signifies to ensure the rule of law in the field of politics.

In conclusion, fundamental rights and freedoms are not issues that are open to question. All people are free to choose their religion. No state should be able to revoke this right from her citizens. The ordinances of the Qur'an and the Sunnah which pertain to this issue are clear enough. Regulations and applications that inhibit these freedoms should not be allowed. Restrictions may be exercised by the authority of a legitimate state only if an encroachment of the rights of other people is in question, particularly in the fields of public security, common order, public decency, and health. As regards the case of war, a war can only be declared in keeping with the will of the legitimate political authority. The fact that people prefer to believe in a religion other than Islam is not considered to be a cause of war. On the other hand, if a state does not allow its citizens the freedom to choose their religion, whichever religion that may be, this is oppression. To prevent this kind of atrocity is a legitimate cause of war if all possible means of peaceful settlement have been tried and failed.