Why No American Muslim Response to Torture?

When Pres. Obama released the “torture memos” people were outraged; some for being outed for their complicity and some for being unable to deny their complicity. The President said America had lost its moral compass when torture was authorized by the previous administration. Christian and Jewish groups came out decrying torture as being irreligious, ethically challenged and morally bankrupt. National Muslim-American organizations did no such thing. By their silence, they are complicit.

As Muslims, we are not responsible for the actions of other Muslims. We do not have to apologize for every terrorist who acts in the name of Islam. However, we do condemn these things because they are immoral. All the national Muslim-American organizations have condemned terrorism, but none have spoken out against torture. It begs the question of whether they are truly opposed to terrorism, or if their condemnations were simply political with no conviction to them. These so-called religious organizations have no “moral compass” themselves.

These organizations speak out when they are threatened, or when Muslims are under attack. However, they are not a part of the American social fabric, and they seek to keep immigrant Muslims in a ghetto that prohibits them from fully integrating. The idea of torture should be anathema to us as Americans; the act should immediately be condemned. It has nothing to do with being Muslim, it has to do with morality, something that religious organizations should be conversing about.

If Muslim-American organizations really see themselves as being part of the American landscape, they need to take part in American debates. If they only represent “us” than we will never be part of the community, we’ll be a special interest group that will have no impact on the American landscape. These groups ask for the country to recognize them, but they offer nothing in return.

The fact that official policy was to torture people is a matter for public affairs discussion. There should be advocacy for justice. There can be no advancement of the community by acting like Pharoah. An Islamic society, even as a minority, does not condone torture. All we have now is a moral vacuum in the Muslim-American national leadership.

However, although no Muslim-American organization considers torture a moral issue, there is a strong Muslim religious case to be made against torture.

Ironically, many of the religious arguments that are made against terrorism in the name of Islam are the same that we can use to condemn torture. It is a violence against another person that has no justification.

Historically, Muslims have recognized a concept of zulm, or oppression, of which torture is one of the hallmarks. The great Persian author Sa’di, wrote a book of morals for kings, akin to Machiavelli’s The Prince, in which he says:

A cruel person cannot be a sultan, as a wolf cannot be a shepherd.
A king who lays a foundation of cruelty knocks the footing out from under the wall of his own kingdom.
Sa’di (tr. WM Thackston)

The ideas of cruelty and oppression are ones that have historically offended Muslim sensibilities. When Yazid slaughtered Husayn ibn Ali, the Prophet’s grandson, on the fields of Kerbala, the event entered Muslim cultural memory as a cowardly act of oppression. Husayn was denied food and water, and the children were massacred with the adults. These acts of torture define the repulsion we are to feel when anyone is abused.

When the Abbassids organized the overthrow of the Umayyads, it was based on the corruption and oppression of the latter, including the use of political prisoners and torture.

The story of Moses and Pharaoh is an integral part of the Muslim tradition, and Pharaoh is condemned for his oppression of the Israelites. What was the Moses first act of rebellion if it was not to stop the torture of a man?

Theologically, historically, and politically Muslims are opposed to torture. It cannot be condemned in strong enough language.