Skip to main content

Decolonisation, violence, and faith

Category
Decolonisation, Development and Faith
Date

 

Decolonisation, violence, and faith: Reflections on Israel, Palestine and beyond

By Dr Jennifer Philippa Eggert

This blog post is the sixth one in a series that is part of a collaboration between the Joint Learning Initiative on Faith and Local Communities (JLI) and the Centre for Religion and Public Life (CRPL) of the University of Leeds on the topic of decolonisation, development and faith. The series aims to showcase diverse perspectives from practitioners, researchers, activists and faith communities.

[NB (by CRPL administration): On another topic of decolonisation, development and faith, please see our CRPL seminar scheduled for 22 February 2024 by Drs J. Sadgrove and A. Searle.]

Blog posts (inclusive of hyperlinks) reflect the positions of the author(s). Publication on the blog must not be read as an endorsement by the JLI, the CRPL, the University of Leeds, or the series convenors.

 

In this article I aim to reflect on two things : first, the extent to which academic and NGO approaches to decolonisation differ from its violent reality (that is, the question of decolonisation and violence) and second, what the limits of such violence are, if we consider the topic from a faith-based perspective (the question of decolonisation, violence and faith). I focus on the case of Israel and Palestine, but the same questions could be raised in a number of other contexts.

Writing through violence

I write this following two months of a merciless bombing campaign and siege of Gaza by the Israeli military, which has led multiple observers to raise concerns of an ongoing genocide … a weekend of horrendous violence against unarmed women, children and men in Israel, knowing full well that the violence did not start that Saturday morning on 7 October, but that it followed decades of oppression, colonialism and disregard of the most basic rights of Palestinians … after helplessly watching friends and colleagues hope that their families in Gaza will make it through another day of unspeakable cruelty … after reading emails of Israeli colleagues, activists against the occupation, who have had to witness friends, colleagues, family members and students get kidnapped and killed by Hamas … after being haunted by the images of dozens, hundreds, of children held hostage, be it by Hamas in Gaza or by the Israeli state in its prisons … after worrying about friends in Lebanon who are very much aware that the skirmishes on the border may sooner or later develop into a full-blown attack by the Israeli military which has targeted their country so many times before.

First principles

Before I start laying out my argument, let me outline the first principles this article is based on. I do not want to see anyone killed - peace, justice and freedom from violence are the ultimate goal. Civilians have a right to safety, and any attacks that jeopardise their safety, be it in Gaza, the West Bank, Israel, Lebanon, or elsewhere, are to be condemned. This includes the recent rise in anti-Arab racism, Islamophobia and antisemitism outside of the region, which at the time of writing has led to one killing (of a Palestinian child in Illinois) and four seriously injured (the child’s mother, as well as three Palestinian youths who were shot in a separate attack in Vermont) reported in the media. Such violence is inexcusable.

Decolonial, faith-sensitive knowledge production on development and conflict

I have been focusing on decolonisation, development and faith in my work over the last three years, exploring what debates about decolonising development, humanitarian action and peacebuilding mean for practitioners and researchers working in the field of religions and development. There is substantial research on the relationships between decolonisation and religion, religion and development, and development and decolonisation, but very few researchers bring the three together to examine the nexus of decolonisation, development and faith. Much of the work I have engaged in has focused on building research and evidence partnerships that do not reproduce global inequalities, colonial legacies and practice, with partners in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.

Navigating difficult questions

This has not been easy work, as we are often confronted with difficult questions about our own positionalities. We are aware that there are limits to the change that individuals and small organisations can bring about within existing structures. I have often discussed with colleagues and partners whether or not to even use the term decolonial to describe our work, as truly decolonial approaches may  go farther than what we could achieve. Can you really say that your work is decolonial if the world of NGOs, international organisations and academic institutions is still one of your main reference frames, if most of your work is still in English, and if you are still accepting a lot of the ‘rules of the game’ in research and knowledge production? These are difficult questions, and the answers will inevitably depend on who you are speaking with. Overall, I find that small steps are better than no change, that not being able to get everything 100% right is no reason for not trying, and that there is a place for radical change as well as one for step-by-step approaches. Yet, I keep on coming back to these questions, reflecting on them, and wondering how decolonial this work really is.

Decolonisation and violence

A lot of these questions have been resurfacing for me in the last few weeks, and especially how they relate to the question of violence. I have personally always been very hesitant to accept physical violence against anyone, but I also know that there are situations when violence is inevitable. I truly understood this when I worked in Bosnia ten years after the war had ravaged the country. If my Bosnian Muslim colleagues and friends had not taken up arms, their communities would have been obliterated. If Ukrainians do not defend themselves, an independent Ukraine would be unlikely to even exist right now. There are situations when you need to defend yourself or your community, and in those situations, violence against military targets is justified. It makes logical sense and is supported by international law. It is also a premise I find in my religion, which teaches that fighting against oppression is legitimate. History teaches us that decolonisation - not just in terms of decolonising the mind, but actual, physical decolonisation - has rarely been brought about without violence. People have fought for it. The vast majority of researchers and human rights practitioners working on genocide, apartheid and colonialism (many with first-hand experience of these in their own contexts) agree that the Palestinian fight against oppression by Israel, a settler colonial state, is a fight for decolonisation and national self-determination. This struggle is supported by many across the world, including many Jewish and Israeli individuals and organisations. One  main premise of this struggle is that one state with dignity, justice and equality for all, or indeed two independent states, depending on what the people of the land decide, is preferable to the ethnoreligious state of Israel in its current form, a state that discriminates between its citizens based on religion and ethnicity.

As a believer, I take my values from my religion, not secular theories 

The belief that violence can be a legitimate part of decolonisation does not mean that everything fighters do for a decolonial cause is to be supported. Being aware of historical context, the root causes of the current situation (namely, the occupation of Palestine), and the extreme power imbalance between one of the most powerful militaries in the world and non-state armed groups does not equal supporting Hamas’ attacks against civilians. As a Muslim, I take my values from my religion, not from secular decolonial theories. There is often overlap between the two, but when they conflict, I follow my faith. This is, for example, the case when decolonial thinkers or activists claim that “an oppressed people has the right to resist in whatever way they deem right” or that “settlers are not civilians” due to military service in Israel being compulsory (disregarding the fact that the majority of Israelis have never served). While there are minority positions that foreground either full pacifism or violence at any cost, majority interpretations of my religion stipulate very clear rulings on when and how violence is justified. According to these rulings, violence against non-combatants, disproportionate violence, damage of the opponents’ property, and inhumane treatment of prisoners of war are all forbidden. In the case of the current situation, for me this means standing with Palestinians in their right to self-determination, justice and dignity, speaking out against the oppressive practices of the Israeli state and society, pointing out the disproportionate nature of Israeli violence, and the bias of much of the Western media, political leaders and public, while renouncing Palestinian attacks against civilians (including the taking and inhumane treatment of hostages) and excessive violence by groups such as Hamas.

Power, privilege and positionalities

Part of my work on countering colonial practices in knowledge production in the last years has been to systematically reflect, and act, on dynamics of power and privilege and of the different positionalities of oppressors and oppressed, of colonisers and colonised. To me, it has always been clear that the onus to work for change has to be on those with privilege and power. In the context of Israel and Palestine, for me this would mean expecting every party to respect the sanctity of life, while always holding an army and a state with as many resources, power and privilege as the Israeli one to a higher standard than people who have been living under inhumane circumstances for decades. It would also mean acknowledging that the people of Israel have voted for their government, whereas the last elections in Gaza took place in 2006 (when over half of the current population were either not born yet or below the age of two). I miss an awareness of these principles in much of the Western political and media discourse around the violence that is unfolding in the Middle East right now, where over 100 years of context of a conflict that did certainly not start on 7 October is often disregarded, where violence against some civilians is considered justifiable (while violence against others is not), some transgressions are framed as an exception (while others are not), and some victims are given full compassion on prime time TV (while others are not).

Conclusion

It is easy to say we are ‘for decolonisation’ when it is a matter of putting together a conference panel or writing an article. But decolonisation in reality is not a purely academic exercise - and historically, it has usually included violence. Majority interpretations of many religions, including mine, call for violence to be applied under very carefully defined circumstances respecting civilian lives and dignity - but many of them would not renounce all violence under any circumstances (such as against military targets). Decolonisation has become a buzz word for many in the last few years. Maybe the current situation is an opportunity for us to ask ourselves how decolonial our work really is, and which position we are going to assume when faced with the reality of decolonial struggle. Do we study historic decolonisation yet remain silent in the face of ongoing decolonial struggles? Do we oppose genocide in principle yet stand with the Israeli state whose leaders have clearly declared genocidal intent and, unlike any Palestinian group, have the capacity to execute it? What is the point of our ‘decolonial’ work if we hesitate to call out colonial practice when we see it?

(All views are the author's.)

 

Postscript (by J. Stiebert, CRPL Director)

We know there are multiple and divergent perspectives, many of them (like Jennifer's) enmeshed with religious beliefs and faith. As a centre with focus on 'religion' and 'public life', we welcome more posts and more perspectives. Posts will be reviewed before publication. We aim to host more seminars with opportunity for dialogue and listening.

CRPL is seeking opportunities and forums for exchange, dialogue and understanding on the topic of this post and other topics central to religion and public life.

There is no question that the Hamas attacks of 7 October constitute a grave human rights atrocity, which included murder and injury of civilians, rape, hostage taking, and various other forms of torture.

There is no question that the war on Gaza, which has now claimed well over 20,000 lives, the majority of them civilians, including children, has caused and continues to cause untold harm and grief, which includes, alongside mass killing, mass displacement, starvation, and denial of medical care.

At some point, different parties need to have conversations, or there is no hope of peace - ever.

For the University of Leeds statements addressed to all affected by events in Israel and Gaza, see here. It also contains advice for staff and students on access to support, including in the face of Islamophobia and antisemitism.