The Problem With Revenge

To prevent another Brussels, the world must change its perception of Muslims.

Written by Ramin Jahanbegloo | Published: March 28, 2016 12:01 am
Belgian troops and police control a road leading to Zaventem airport following Tuesday's airport bombings in Brussels, Belgium, March 24, 2016.   REUTERS/Charles Platiau Belgian troops and police control a road leading to Zaventem airport following airport bombings in Brussels, Belgium. ( File photo: Reuters)

Last week’s terror attacks in Brussels have already engendered questions about the place of revenge and the ways of retaliation. Our century has been characterised as vengeful, and not without reason. We can’t grasp the essence of violence without recognising that revenge and resentment are still capable of causing untold cruelties. There’s no problem more important than the politics of revenge, and there’s no response more important than that characterised by the idea of non-violence.

However, the moment we start questioning the nature of this problem and the response to it, we realise how difficult these are to address. Philosophers, writers and reformers have spent years exploring the true nature of revenge and resentment and whether forgiveness is the right response. Unfortunately, humanity hasn’t given up being vengeful. It’s anything but a new insight to recognise that hatred begets hatred and vengeful action violates our fundamental notions of right and wrong.

Mahatma Gandhi said, “Non-violence is the greatest force at the disposal of mankind. It is mightier than the mightiest weapon of destruction devised by the ingenuity of man.” But there are many people who feel it’s futile to talk about non-violence when terrorists can destroy in seconds the lives of others. Violence is often the result of the human passion for retaliation — but also of what Francis Bacon called “wild justice”. If such “wild justice” is taken for granted, as it is in our century, it’s a perfect exchange of evil for evil.

Understanding violence today means not only understanding evil but also shedding light on the dialectic of “victims” and “executioners”. The closer we get to evil in responding to evil, the more the everyday reality of our individual or collective life is that of an executioner. A vengeful victim is an executioner who refuses to understand the other. But a new cycle of violence isn’t necessarily the outcome of past sufferings.

When thinking about an end to violence, it’s not sufficient just to consider the dialectic of victims and executioners. One must also look beyond the ontology of violence, including its collective dimensions, and try to bring life back to a broken polity. It requires great ethical strength and political wisdom to be able to not forget the evil but to forgive the evildoers. But how can an individual or a nation acknowledge the barbarity of an act while calling for a moral transcendence of a tragic event? Here, an end to violence means an end to the spirit of revenge and vengeance.

Unlike what a Donald Trump and his followers might think, there’s no way out of terrorism by responding to it with demonisation and humiliation. Demonisation feeds on fear and hatred. And when demonisation becomes acceptable, it creates a climate conducive to violence. Why do individuals or nations demonise each other? Because they fear each other. As Martin Luther King Jr said: “They fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they have not communicated with each other.” Being born a Muslim doesn’t mean anything as long as one doesn’t embrace the principles of Islam. Yet, in the eyes of many non-Muslims, Muslims are all violent beings. In today’s West, Muslims are checked and double-checked “randomly”. The same “random” principle applies when a young Arab or Iranian by the first name of “Muhammad” is looking for a job.

What’s lost here is the idea of empathy. Empathy is also a way to co-extend the human capacity for criticism of barbarity. The capacity for empathy is what allows the human race to struggle against its capacity for violence. As long as we don’t tame this violence, there will be no moral horizon to share. What will remain are the victims of violence and practitioners of naked violence. We need, therefore, to get out of the zero-sum game of being either victims or executioners.

Hatred and resentment of Muslims will not help us solve the issue of Islamist terrorism. It will add to it. There’s only one way to overcome the “IS syndrome”. That’s with the help of Muslims themselves. But to do that, we need to dissolve our fear of commonsense and be willing to change our perception of Muslims as believers in violence.

The writer is director, Mahatma Gandhi Centre for Peace Studies, Jindal Global University.

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More From Ramin Jahanbegloo
  1. Jai Kumar
    Mar 28, 2016 at 8:59 am
    The author is clueless as to the reasons behind this mindless;br/gt;what is he suggesting that the west is responsible for what is happening in;br/gt;Second generation Muslim immigrants who due to their upbringing do not as simple in the culture of their adopted countries, want to impose their version of Islam and Sharia where they;br/gt;If they are unhappy they should go and live in the caliphate. Why should the west bend over backwards to accommodate them and imilate these;br/gt;The responsibility is for the Muslim communities in these countries to stop Whabbi radicals and ensure that their kids I bible a culture of tolerance rather than lt;br/gt;;br/gt;Something happens in Syria or Iraq and citizens of UK, France, Belgioum cause havoc in their;br/gt;The problem us they identify more with Muslims of Syria than their own fellow;br/gt;Like it or not The problem is UMMAH.
    1. Avinash Rangra
      Mar 28, 2016 at 1:05 am
      This writer talks a lot. I was waiting for him to explain why Muslims do what they do? Look at the killing of Christians celebrating Easter in stan! what was their crime? Why is it that the non-Muslim potion in stan has gone down from 25% to almost 1% since 1947? This article is critical of everybody except those committing killings of the innocents.
      1. J
        Jayant Pant
        Mar 28, 2016 at 2:51 pm
        The writer is very intelligent and seems to know the solution. He should lead this peace mission and meet the ISIS leaders to guide them on the path of peace. I could pay for all his expenses.
        1. I
          Mar 28, 2016 at 4:48 am
          I don't think even hi would have advocated non-violence against Islamic terrorism. India did show forgiveness and empathy to muslims since their first invasion and even during parion. All they have got in return is more terrorism. Get real.
          1. M
            Mar 28, 2016 at 6:29 pm
            On the flip side Islam was meant for 1700 hundred years going by lunar calendar. As that time is over, according to Islam itself its use by date is over too! Question is: those who now claim to follow Islam can the really do that going by their very own prediction in this own scripture?
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