Last year, I spoke on a panel called “Charting the Future” at a conference of the American Jewish Committee. I met with my fellow panelists, who included a young woman from Rwanda named Yvette, the evening before to compare notes. I said that I was going to talk about the growing interfaith youth movement, and its goal of building relationships of understanding and cooperation between people from different backgrounds.
“What religion are you?” asked Yvette.
I told her I was a Muslim.
She nodded slowly, then looked down, then put her hand on my shoulder, bit her lip, and said “Thank you.”
“I’m not sure I understand,” I said.
She looked puzzled for a moment, as if I should have known what she was referring to. Finally, she said, “The Muslims saved us.”
It took some time, but I drew the story out of her. Rwanda’s small Muslim minority risked their lives to save the Tutsi’s of Rwanda as they sought refuge from the murderous, machete-wielding thugs of the interhamwe. Muslims hid people in the back of their mosques, on the rooftops of their homes, in the basements of their businesses.
When the men with machetes came demanding access to their prey, the Muslims organized small bands of people to drive them away.
I am sure violence was involved. That is a type of force that I – who can barely stand to see blood in movies – support. I believe it is Islamic. I believe it is one form of jihad.
What happened in Rwanda – one group trying to annihilate another – is not drastically different than the situation the Prophet Muhammad faced in the early 7th Century: effectively, extermination.
God, through revelation, told the Prophet that it was appropriate to fight back, to save not only the fledgling Muslim community, but the other marginalized groups of the time. And when the opportunity arose, he was to struggle creatively for peace, even if it meant a loss of status and face. That is jihad also.
Saleh Habimana, the head mufti of Rwanda, is waging this type of jihad right now: “Our jihad is to start respecting each other and living as Rwandans and as Muslims” he told the Washington Post in 2002.
My Rwandan friend told me that Muslims were unique amongst religious communities in Rwanda. The people who sought refuge in churches too often found priests and nuns who aided and abetted the interhamwe. In one particularly heinous example, a priest named Father Wenceslas Munyeshyaka is blamed for colluding with the killers. He went so far as to take off his priest’s robe and don a flak jacket and carry a gun.
“Some members of the Church failed in their mission, they contradicted what they stood for,” Father Antoine Kambanda, director of the charity Caritas admitted to the BBC. “But,” he continued, “the Pope says the members who went against their mission are to answer for it. The Church cannot answer for them.”
I consider Catholicism a tradition of peace that only sanctions violence when necessary for survival or the greater good. Many of my greatest heroes are Catholic figures of social justice, Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker movement front and center amongst them. Clearly, some of the Catholics of Rwanda failed to live up to that ethic. But, as the Pope said, I do not hold Catholicism, its one billion members or even its organized leadership responsible for their sins and crimes.
If only people would apply that same logic to the relationship between, say, the 9/11 terrorists and the tradition of Islam.