Get more Mail & Guardian
Subscribe or Login

‘Just war’ erodes Christian belief

Recently, the American Catholic intellectual George Weigel had another go at “soft-minded and ill-informed religious leaders”, especially in “old Europe”, for their discomfort at the manner of Osama bin Laden’s death.

“The death of Osama bin Laden demonstrated yet again how badly the just war tradition has been received by its intellectual custodians.”

It was a dig at Weigel’s long-term sparring partner, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, who declared himself “uncomfortable” with the manner of bin Laden’s death. But this is more than just a spat between theologians.

As United States President Barack Obama is to announce the establishment of a joint national security strategy board to coordinate military policy, this debate throws up a deeper anxiety about the very different ways the just war tradition is being invoked to legitimise the use of violence.

Indeed, the justification of extra-judicial assassination through the just-war tradition shows how infinitely elastic the tradition has become.

This is unsurprising, given that the intellectual origin of Christian just war theory was in the conversion of a Roman emperor to Christianity. The head of the largest war machine the world had ever known was hardly going to throw in his lot with a bunch of pacifists. Indeed, the Emperor Constantine was won over to Christianity because he believed it won him the battle of Milvian Bridge.

All that stuff about turning the other cheek and loving one’s enemies was going to have to be renegotiated. So just-war theory was born: roughly, war must be waged by a legitimate authority, it must be proportionate, it must be defensive, it must be the last resort.

These rules sound fair enough, yet throughout history, it is hard to recall a single act of violence that has been halted because a proposed action did not meet the set criteria for a just war. On the other hand, the just-war tradition is frequently invoked by politicians and their intellectual poodles as a means of making war happen. It is a one-way street. And in the hands of thinkers like Weigel, the Christian presumption of non-violence has gradually been wiped away and made to pay homage to the religion of the flag.

I do not weep that bin Laden is dead. But he was not the only casualty of that moonless night in Abbottabad. For the idea that it can be just for an unarmed man to be gunned down in his bedclothes conflates justice and revenge in a way that flies in the face of the clear teachings of Jesus, who urged his followers not to respond to the violence of the other in the same manner.

In essence, Jesus was warning that violence is dangerously mimetic, that if we respond in kind then we will gradually turn into our enemy. As Rowan Williams put it, after his own close brush with death with the falling towers of 9/11: “If we do act in the same way as our enemies, we imprison ourselves in their anger, their evil.”

None of which is to insist upon fully fledged pacifism. For while it is essential that Christians maintain a strong presumption against violence it seems unavoidable that war can sometimes be a tragic necessity — a different claim to that which describes some war as just. All war is a form of moral failure, even when defending the weak from the strong. What the just-war tradition has eroded is precisely the idea that non-violence must be the Christian default position.

The criticism from people like Weigel is that liberals cannot even take their own side in an argument. But the side Christians are called to take is not the side of the military, or that of public opinion. In the manner of his own death, Jesus made it abundantly clear that it is better to die than to kill. Hardly wishy-washy.

Those who attack the Christian presumption against violence commonly accuse it of being unrealistic. Perhaps that means it is impossible to be a US president and a Christian. For what is certainly unrealistic is the belief that the just-war tradition can hold the line when a conflict arises between the rules of war and the situational demands of military necessity.

Personally, I won’t lose sleep that bin Laden is with the fishes. But Christians ought not to think his assassination was just. As the theologian Stanley Hauer puts it, just war ought to make as much sense to Christians as just adultery.

Who will fill bin Laden’s shoes?
A fierce succession battle appears to be gripping the senior ranks of al-Qaeda in the wake of the death of leader Osama bin Laden, pitting regional affiliates against the central “hardcore” of the organisation.

Reports from Pakistan have named an Egyptian former special forces officer, Saif al-Adel, as al-Qaeda’s acting leader. Al-Adel, in his late 40s, is a veteran militant who was close to bin Laden in the 1990s. He was detained in Iran after fleeing Afghanistan following the ousting of the Taliban in 2001.

According to Noman Benotman, a former Libyan militant now living in London, al-Adel was released from Iranian detention and returned to Pakistan last year. The report in the News newspaper of Pakistan identified al-Adel as having been chosen as “interim leader” of al-Qaeda after a meeting at “an undisclosed location”. It said none of bin Laden’s sons had been willing to take a formal position within the organisation.

Ayman al-Zawahiri is reported to have been given the important, and usually short lived, role of director of external or international operations for the group. This would be a demotion for a man who was bin Laden’s closest associate and a major figure in his own right.

It could provide the first evidence of a major split in militant ranks. Senior al-Qaeda-affiliated extremists in both Iraq and Yemen have already pledged their support for al-Zawahiri, who is 59 and among the oldest contenders for the top position, and may not accept al-Adel’s leadership.

Al-Zawahiri is thought to have appointed Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as head of the al-Qaeda affiliated Islamic State of Iraq, while Rashad Mohammed Saeed Ismail, a senior Yemeni cleric who was close to bin Laden and has been linked to the local “al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula” affiliate, was quoted by the Yemen Times saying that “al-Zawahiri is the best candidate”.

“He is the right person to take over. All wings of al-Qaeda would approve of him and all jihadist movements trust him greatly,” Ismail was reported to have said. According to Evan Kohlmann, an American specialist in jihadi forums on the internet, senior members on top-tier al-Qaeda web forums already see al-Zawahiri as leader of al-Qaeda. Kohlmann reported that some extremists had begun calling al-Qaeda “jund al-Ayman”, meaning “soldiers of Ayman [al-Zawahiri]”.

Pakistani attack raises wider security concerns
Pakistani commandos regained control of a military base in central Karachi on Monday, ending an audacious 18-hour militant assault that killed 10 soldiers, destroyed two sensitive aircraft and dealt a humiliating blow to the army three weeks after the raid that killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

Flames glowed over Pakistan’s largest city amid a cacophony of gunfire and explosions as up to six heavily armed militants wreaked havoc inside the Mehran base, just off a major thoroughfare.

Six American military contractors and 11 Chinese nationals were present but escaped unharmed, officials said. The Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility, describing the attack as “revenge for the martyrdom of Osama bin Laden”. But analysts said a smaller jihadi group could also have been involved.

Displaying pictures of the dead attackers on his cellphone, Interior Minister Rehman Malik called on Pakistanis to unite against the Taliban and al-Qaeda. “I regret that some of us believe they are our friends and are praying for them. I appeal to the nation to consider who is the real enemy,” he said.

The sophistication of the assault, the duration of the siege and the attackers’ apparent knowledge of the base raised fears about the weaknesses in Pakistan’s military defences and stoked worries that the attackers had received inside information. The military is still reeling from the May 2 raid by United States forces on bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad.

Malik said the militants, armed with rifles and grenade launchers, approached the base from the Malir River, which runs behind it. Using wire cutters and a ladder, they scaled the perimeter fence and continued to the main base by exploiting a blind spot in surveillance-camera coverage, suggesting detailed knowledge of the base’s layout. They headed straight for the aircraft hangars, where they fired rockets that destroyed a helicopter and two of the navy’s four Orion P-3C surveillance planes, valued at $36-million each.

The US embassy, which initially denied any Americans were on the base, later confirmed that six contractors were present to service the Orions, two of which had been delivered last June.

Dozens of navy commandos and army rangers responded to the incursion, triggering a gunfight that continued through Sunday night until Monday lunchtime.

Malik said 10 military personnel died in the operation. He paid special tribute to Lieutenant Syed Yaser Abbas, who led the response force. “He sacrificed his life to save the assets of the Pakistan army,” he said. The security forces eventually cornered the assailants. At least three died, one in a suicide explosion.

It was the third major attack since bin Laden’s death, following suicide bombings that killed 90 military recruits and targeted an American convoy in Peshawar. The fact that such a small team could hold commandos at bay for 18 hours caused widespread shock, raising fresh questions about the security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, believed to be scattered at secret bases across the country.

Pakistani Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani condemned the attack as a “cowardly act of terror”. Meanwhile in Afghanistan, the Afghan Taliban denied media reports that its leader, Mullah Omar, had been killed in Pakistan. An Afghan intelligence official later told reporters that Omar had been arrested in Pakistan’s tribal belt. Pakistani intelligence said it had no information about his whereabouts. —

Subscribe for R500/year

Thanks for enjoying the Mail & Guardian, we’re proud of our 36 year history, throughout which we have delivered to readers the most important, unbiased stories in South Africa. Good journalism costs, though, and right from our very first edition we’ve relied on reader subscriptions to protect our independence.

Digital subscribers get access to all of our award-winning journalism, including premium features, as well as exclusive events, newsletters, webinars and the cryptic crossword. Click here to find out how to join them and get a 57% discount in your first year.

Giles Fraser
Guest Author

Related stories


If you’re reading this, you clearly have great taste

If you haven’t already, you can subscribe to the Mail & Guardian for less than the cost of a cup of coffee a week, and get more great reads.

Already a subscriber? Sign in here


Subscribers only

South Africa’s mothballed ‘supermall-ification’ sets strip malls up for success

Analysts agree that the country has enough malls and that, post-Covid, the convenience of local centres lure customers

Mabuza’s Russian jaunts and the slippery consequences of medical tourism

For more than five years the deputy president has remained steadfast in his right to travel abroad to receive medical treatment

More top stories

Taxi operators clash with cops over disputed Route B97 in...

Three suspects remain in custody following their arrest on charges of attempted murder and assault after eight taxis were impounded

SA teens, you’re next in the queue for a vaccine...

Teenagers between the ages of 12 and 17 will be able to register to receive their Covid-19 jab from 20 October. This group will be given only one dose of the Pfizer vaccine, for now

Former US secretary of state Colin Powell dies aged 84

The 84-year-old died as a result of complications from Covid-19

Kunming Declaration on biodiversity: A show of political will that...

More than 100 countries pledged to better protect nature at UN biodiversity talks last week

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…