Today in Woolwich, England, a man reported to be a British soldier was cut down by two Anglo-African Muslims wielding knives and a machete. One of the killers, speaking in a home-grown English accent, is heard on video to say:
There are many, many ayah [verses] throughout the Koran that says we must fight them as they fight us, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. I apologize that women had to witness this today but in our land women have to see the same. You people will never be safe. Remove your government, they don’t care about you.
(An earlier version of this post had a less accurate translation.)
Eyewitnesses said that the victim had been wearing a ‘Help for Heroes’ t-shirt. Help for Heroes is a charity to help British soldiers wounded in current conflicts.
Eyewitnesses also reported that the killers attempted to behead the soldier, and that they asked bystanders to call the police, and moved towards the police as if to attack them, as soon as they appeared.
While some said the killers were crazed, the contrary seems to be the case. They appear to have been acting in accordance with a theologically determined logic which can be understood on the basis of Islamic teachings. In the midst of perpetrating this carnage, they found time, calmly and clearly, to explain their motivations on camera.
The killer captured on video was referencing passages from Islamic sacred texts. “We must fight them as they fight us” is a reference to a phrase found repeatedly in the Koran:
“fight in the cause of Allah those who fight you … And slay them wherever ye catch them, and turn them out from where they have turned you out; for fitnah (oppression, persecution) is worse than slaughter; … if they fight you, slay them. Such is the reward of those who suppress faith. ” (Sura 2:190-9)
“fight the polytheists all together as they fight you all together” (Sura 9:36)
“Permission to fight (against disbelievers) is given to those(believers) who are fought against, because they have been wronged and surely, Allah is Able to give them (believers) victory” (Sura 22:39)
The Arabic word for ‘fight’ used in the Koran in these passages is qātilūwhich literally means fighting to kill. (See here for an explanation of the meaning of Sura 2:190-91, a passage used by Muslim jurists to justify killing.)
The reference ‘an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth’ is also from the Koran (although ultimately borrowed from several passages in the Mosaic law):
And We prescribed for them therein: The life for the life, andthe eye for the eye, and the nose for the nose, and the ear for the ear, and the tooth for the tooth, and for wounds retaliation. (Sura 5:54)
The Muslim killers here are invoking a religious ruling that it is permissible to fight and kill people who wage war against Muslims. As Bin Ladin put it in his letter to the American people:
“It is commanded by our religion and intellect that the oppressed have a right to return the aggression. Do not await anything from us but Jihad, resistance and revenge.”
The belief which seems to underly the Woolwich attack is that because the British government is fighting a war against Muslims in Muslim lands, it is therefore legitimate for Muslims to wage jihad against the British. British people, who voted the government into power, are also considered to be personally culpable, which is why they ‘will never be safe’ and are told to ‘remove your government’.
The killer’s language is strikingly reminiscent of Bin Ladin’s November 2002 letter to the American people, in which he not only spoke of ‘removal’ of governments (in Muslim lands), but also explained that it was legitimate to attack American civilians because they are the ones who voted their government into power:
“… the American people are the ones who choose their government by way of their own free will; a choice which stems from their agreement to its policies. … The American people have the ability and choice to refuse the policies of their Government and even to change it if they want. … the American army is part of the American people. … This is why the American people cannot be not innocent of all the crimes committed by the Americans and Jews against us. … Allah, the Almighty, legislated the permission and the option to take revenge. Thus, if we are attacked, then we have the right to attack back. … whoever has killed our civilians, then we have the right to kill theirs.
The phrase ‘you people will never be safe’ is reminiscent of Muhammad’s instruction to his followers to invite non-Muslims to Islam by telling them aslim taslam “Accept Islam and you will be safe” (see here). The implication is that non-Muslims are not safe because their blood and property can be taken until they convert. Thus Muhammad said to his cousin Ali, on the eve of the attack against the Jews of Khaibar:
“Fight (qātilū) until they bear testimony to the fact that there is no god but Allah and Muhammad is His Messenger [i.e. until they convert to Islam] and when they do that, then their blood and their riches are inviolable [safe] from your hands.” (Sahih Muslim. Book of the Merits of the Companions of the Holy Prophet 4:29:5917).
It seems the killers desired martyrdom in accordance with their beliefs, because they asked bystanders to call the police and immediately moved to attack the police when they arrived on the scene.
This slaughter on the streets of Woolwich has all the hallmarks of a theologically motivated attack, and keys to understand it can be found in the Qur’an and the teachings of Muhammad.
Whether the views adopted by the killers are ‘legitimate’ interpretations of the Koran and Muhammad’s teachings may be disputed. What cannot be disputed is the source where they found their inspiration.
Mark Durie is an Anglican vicar in Melbourne, Australia, author of The Third Choice, and an Associate Fellow at the Middle Eastern Forum.