What's the Point of War?
As Russia attacks Ukraine, let's take a moment to reflect on the uselessness or the pointlessness of war, especially from a religious perspective.
Over the last few years, many thinkers have discussed the pointlessness of war. After the US withdrawal from Afghanistan recently, this became a point of discussion again, where people are wondering what the point of all of this is. After 20 years, there seems to be back where people started with the Taliban now in power and rolling back the rights of women. The chaos continues there with one group of Muslims attacking the other group. Perhaps ISIS is attacking the Taliban. Perhaps there is Shiite-Sunni tension. All of this is atrocious and it is shameful that Muslims are doing this to each other, but it also raises the bigger question - why go to war in the first place? Is that really a solution to the world's problems?
When we look back at previous wars, we should remember not only the fallen soldiers, but also the fallen civilians. 20 million people died in the First World War and there were another 70 million casualties in the Second World War. So is war really worth it? People need to bring our religious perspectives to bear on the question so that Muslims, Christians, and others who can inform a peaceful outlook into the world, can actually do that and help people to understand that wars are pointless. We should work towards world peace and we should do everything we can to avoid war with all of its evils.
Dalai Lama speak about this quite a bit, that there's no point to war and that people should work towards peace.
Some religions take a very pacifist stance and Islam takes a middle position recognizing that there may be some occasions on which people are forced into war, because there's no better alternative, but even then you have to follow certain rules of entering into war in a just manner. We know from just war theory, more generally, that there are rules to be observed before you even go into a war. There are rules to observe while you are in the war. Then, there are rules to observe after the war is over. This is what the Quran speaks about when it says “when the war lays down its burdens”. The Quran actually gives prescriptions regarding all of these different phases. The Quran has its own just war theory.
This is interesting because before the just war theory developed to its fullness in the middle ages by Christian and other philosophers, the Quran actually has many prescriptions that fit within that broader theory.
For example, for going into war, to begin with, a person can only be called by a legitimate leader. We can see that the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, did not go into war until he was a state leader in Medina, in the last phase of his life. Secondly, war is only a last resort and it's after you've tried everything else. There are all kinds of warnings to whoever is the perpetrator of any injustice at the time. We see all of this being done in the life of the Prophet, peace be upon him, in the Quran itself. For example, the 9th Chapter of the Quran begins with an open warning to all of humankind and they are given a reprieve. They were given four months to seize their hostilities. War is a last resort and that's whatever peace treaties can be made should be made. The same chapter encourages the Muslims to keep their peace treaties.
The 8th Chapter of the Quran says that if others are inclined towards peace, the Muslim should also incline towards peace, which means we should come together in a treaty. If there is to be a war at all, it has to be done for a just cause. A just cause can be for self-defence, it could also be for righting a wrong, or for removing an oppressor.
The Muslims in that environment saw themselves as the liberators of humanity because they were going to pave the way for people to have freedom from the oppressive monarchs of the day. It's another matter that we are still dealing with oppressive monarchs to this day. Yet, that was what was accomplished in the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him. Now, during the war, you cannot use oppressive means yourself. You have to use proportionate means and there has to be civilian immunity.
The Quran 2:190 says that you are to fight against those who are fighting you, but you are not to transgress beyond that, because God does not like those who transgress limits. That means civilians who were not obviously fighting against people are to be immune from any of these attacks. Then after the war, the Quran speaks about the war laying down its burdens. That's when they will release the prisoners of war because those were taken during the heat of battle. When they were a threat to an individual, they can now be released as a free act of kindness or you can charge a price if that's what is needed to achieve the objectives of this war and to repatriate and rebuild. This is one of the things that people are now asking about Afghanistan, after 20 years of war, where is the rebuilding? Because for a war to be just, it cannot be that you invade the land, you destroy everything, you come back out and you say that you have won the war. What have you done to that country? Is there infrastructure that will support decent and reasonable living conditions in that country? All of these are issues that have to be brought to the fore. As Russia invades Ukraine, people need to remember the civilians who will be killed, the damage, the evils, the harms that will be done to society and the environment. Also, the billions and billions of dollars that are spent.
All of that money can be channelled to protect the environment, to protect the animals, to ensure better living conditions for people, and to ensure literacy for the rest of our planet. But war machinery that needs to keep its wheels turning and new weaponry has to be tried out in the field. Maybe there has to be an investment in the production of such war machinery.
Many different reasons lead to war, which are not justifiable reasons. It's not anymore that people are just trying to remove oppressors, to right wrongs, or produce a better world. People are in this for their own pockets. Some people would like for the country to be destroyed so that they can go in there as part of the rebuilding process and they will get the contracts to rebuild so they get rich in the end. Some people want to gain power and influence. People have used evil objectives in order to start wars or encourage the further ends of war. But we, as people of religion, Muslims, Christians, and others, like Dalai Lama, there are some religions out there that are entirely pacifist. There are different perspectives. People celebrate them all and we need to combine our resources as people of faith to produce a better world. That should be a world that lives in peace and that shuns war.
The contours of wars are changing. It's not just on the battlefield, but there are remote attacks. There are cyber attacks. There might be, in the future, attacks in outer space. Does religion, and Islam in particular, offer any advice in that regard?
The battles were quite simple. The armies met on the battlefield, one side killed off the other, and that became the victorious army. Things were simple. It was still devastating and terrible, but the result was clear. It was clear who won and who didn't, and who died and who didn’t.
Nowadays, the world is so complex. Even the lesser developed countries now have weapons of mass destruction that in the present situation doesn't make sense to go to war. Anyone can unleash a terrible weapon of mass destruction that will have devastating effects on the population and ruin the environment. In our present times, people really need peacemakers to come to the fore and countries need to come together. There has to be international bodies set up that are fair and properly representative of the world. People cannot have just an international body that has certain big players having the veto power and they call the shots. No, it has to be done fair and square. A lot of these things have to be rethought to ensure that everyone feels included and that the world is moving towards a more peaceful outcome. This is the religious perspective that would say in a nutshell that the Quran encourages us to have. The Quran says, “their matter is to be by consultation among them”. Muslims should be accustomed to consultation based on the Quranic directive. However, people would like to see that for the entire world. Let the world be in consultation and mutual harmony and work things out through diplomatic relations rather than through bombs and fighting.
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