By Ambreen Khan, a 29-year old Medical Biochemist, Healthcare Manager, mother and occasional blogger for peace
|“During the next 35 years, the traditional view of the sanctity of human life will collapse under pressure from scientific, technological, and demographic developments. By 2040, it may be that only a rump of hard-core, know-nothing religious fundamentalists will defend the view that every human life, from conception to death, is sacrosanct.”[i]|
When I first explored this theme silently in my mind I went back in time to my secondary school RE lessons (Religious Education) and A-Level Ethics lessons as we often examined the “principle” of sanctity of life in different religions, philosophies and medical ethics discussions. The above words of Peter Singer, a Utilitarian Philosopher struck me as I prepared for this post. Singer’s quote relates more to the debatable topics of euthanasia, right-to-die and of course, abortion that we were often studying about in school.
What we didn’t explore with our RE teachers is the relation between sanctity of life and WAR.
“Sanctity” is a noun that means “sacredness” or “the quality or state of being holy, very important, or valuable.” Thus, sanctity of life is often defined to be of “ultimate importance and inviolability” of human life. (I won’t be exploring animals here, but the respect we hold toward animal life reflects the values we employ toward our fellow humans as the philosopher Immanuel Kant said “He who is cruel to animals becomes hard also in his dealings with men. We can judge the heart of a man by his treatment of animals.”– see dehumanisation)
When a war begins, where do the considerations for the ‘sanctity of life’ fall? Does survival take over? Does fear dampen the moral value of sanctity of life? Is there a battle to balance the duty to express our humanity, preserve life and the duty to protect freedom? It is in war that the perspective of “which” life is sacred changes dramatically.
The phrase “sanctity of life” occurs frequently in modern discussion especially as we grapple with ethical concepts and technological advancements both in medicine and warfare.
What is meant by life “possessing” sanctity or being sacred?
There are varying definitions attributed to what exactly is sacred; from life itself – biological, cardio-pulmonary function and “plain” existence, to the value of life which is affected by its quality, condition, or circumstances. Many hold the view that lives have sanctity irrespective of the condition that life or that person is in, thus disregarding any suffering, deterioration, dependency, or development they are passing through, and regardless of how close a person is to the natural end to their life, the burden on others, and the wishes of the person to live or die. This is usually the position of “quality of life” over “sanctity”. Sanctity of life further implies that all lives are of equal value. No single life deserves priority over another, not even the most fit, hopeful, and developed over the most vegetative, wretched, or immature.[ii] In any case, absolute sanctity ensures there is a baseline – that all human life should be protected. In the cases of violent conflict and war, the choices of quality are often stripped due to the violation of the sanctity of life.
According to some Christian beliefs The phrase “sanctity of life” reflects the belief that, because people are made in God’s image (Genesis 1:26), human life has an inherently sacred attribute that should be protected and respected at all times. While God gave humanity the authority to kill and eat other forms of life (Genesis 9:3), the murdering of other human beings is expressly forbidden, with the penalty being death (Genesis 9:6).[iii]
The Holy Qur’an champions the sanctity of life also; “…whosoever killed a person – unless it be for killing a person or for creating disorder in the land – it shall be as if he killed all mankind; and whoso gave life to one, it shall be as if he had given life to all mankind. (5:33) Moreover, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community relays this motto all over the world “Love for All, Hatred for None”.
When we start to discriminate between what or who or why or where in terms of what should be assigned value and quality (in terms of survival pre-war) in order to be held ‘sacred’ – we lessen the value of life further and enter a realm where sanctity of life is no longer in our line of sight. I have stated “pre-war” survival, as there is always a build-up to war and genocide and this is the very point that life is evaluated and some lives are pushed aside on the agenda of the soon-to-be-genocide-perpetrators.
“Many philosophers have pointed out that a belief in the sanctity of life does not automatically entail the absolute wrongness of all kinds of killing. If we have a duty to preserve, lengthen, and create life, we might also have competing duties, which in some circumstances are overriding.” [iv]
It is this trail of thought that I feel fuels and motivates people to commit atrocities as was witnessed in the propaganda of the Rwandan Genocide where neighbours butchered their own next-door neighbours and some husbands murdered their Tutsi wives in fear of being slaughtered themselves.
The history of Rwanda with the Belgian influence created ripe conditions for the mass slaughter that ensued between the Tutsi and Hutu tribes. Tutsi kings ruled the region before the German and then Belgian colonialists. At one point, you were considered Tutsi if you owned at least ten cows. These pre-existing differences of physical appearance, education and class were inflated, hardened, and further exploited as a form of control by Belgian colonial powers in order to strategically gain cooperation of the population and control territories in a localised manner without disrupting the national setup; using the method of “diviser pour mieux regainer” or “divide to conquer” to gain power over the people. Thus, the Hutus were incited to resent, dehumanise and demonise Tutsi’s as enemies of the country; labeling them as “snakes” and “cockroaches” to clear their conscience in order to kill. Therefore, many Hutu believed that they were acting patriotically and protecting their country and themselves. They were re-affirmed of this via the local radio and media through hate messages and threats to their own lives and security if they did not immediately and actively take up arms and kill “the enemy”. A survivor expresses, “…if you was a Hutu and you wasn’t willing to kill Tutsi you would get killed too. Sadly, I lost almost my entire family due to this stupid ideology but I hold no grudge to anyone” (Iradukunda Patrick, Rwandan, Tutsi genocide survivor)[v]
“In the 21st century, I believe the mission of the United Nations will be defined by a new, more profound awareness of the sanctity and dignity of every human life, regardless of race or religion.”(Kofi Annan)
What is challenging to digest is that the survivors and those born post-genocide in Bosnia and Rwanda, must live side-by side with the perpetrators and those who committed murder. How then do they, the survivors, reconcile the sanctity of the lives of their neighbours who, a mere, 20 years ago contributed to the destruction of peace, with the sanctity of any other life? How do you look forward to the establishment of reconciliation and ultimately harmonious, peaceful co-existence? If they have sought forgiveness, does this help in rebuilding shattered hopes or does it simply brew resentment? Is there a growing sense of a miscarriage of justice for the lack of legal trials having been conducted on ALL offenders?
“Every war, when viewed from the undistorted perspective of life’s sanctity, is a “civil war” waged by humanity against itself.” (Daisaku Ikeda)
Another aspect I wanted to touch on in this piece is the ability of human beings to edit and vary their perceptions both individually and collectively of what holds a certain weight and gravity of value in their minds.
For example, on our study tour of Bosnia in 2015 with the charity “Remembering Srebrenica”, to mark the 20 year genocide anniversary, we were largely exposed to one narrative, that of the Bosnian victims and survivors. We, of course used this study tour as a stepping-stone to attempt to discover more, not only about the genocide but also of the lesser-heard narratives as there are casualties on all sides when there is a war. Susan Sontag, an anti-war activist argues that ‘What is called collective memory is not a remembering but a stipulating: that this is important, and this is the story about how it happened, with the pictures that lock the story in our minds.’ Since collective memories are social constructs, consequently, the activity of collective remembering, is demanding of the importance of one narrative over another. [vi] Sontag also points out that individual memory is not reproducible and that this is the only type of memory there is. Collective memory is in some ways self-contradictory and is not a valid term in a literal sense. We still rely on using collective memory due to the lack of time travel to witness the memories that cannot be reproduced but also as it serves as a powerful subjective tool to further a certain ideological positions. Such ideologies can be positive or not!
The term “genocide” was coined in 1944 by a Polish lawyer named Raphael Lemkin to describe the Nazis’ systematic attempt to eradicate Jews from Europe.[vii] So, what is interesting to note for us, in 2016, as researchers of our past history is our ability to see some narratives as more “grievable” and horrific than other narratives; using the Holocaust as the main point of reference or the controlled variable to go off.
This in turn, impacts our ability to empathise and visualise the suffering of those surviving and dying through current conflicts such as Sudan, Burma/Myanmar, Yemen, Nigeria and Syria. (See the many other active conflicts here http://www.genocidewatch.org/alerts/newsalerts.html).
There is a quiet agreement of what are the most important historic events without a questioning of why some events are constructed as more important than others. This idea is closely connected to ‘who’ is important which determines what values we give to different events. Perhaps, it is the political powers and players that expose us to certain images and narratives while some seek to hide what can no longer be hidden in an age of social media where the people become the live reporters of conflicts. “Photographs from the Holocaust are among the ones recognised by everyone, which are an important part of what society has chosen to focus on. Holocaust pictures, and especially those depicting the fate of the Jews, have somehow become the ‘universal’ symbols for the Holocaust and have the function of a ‘genocidal imaginary’. This can lead to images becoming simplified symbols of atrocity.”[vi]
Some may argue that images often simplify events in conflict and narratives to the extent that we might misinterpret them. It has been argued that Holocaust pictures have, at least in the West, served as a template for images of other genocides. By analysing images from Rwanda to Bosnia to the Holocaust photographs it is evident that some of the myths of visual atrocity images are re-represented in contemporary genocide photographs (as is clear in the emaciated bodies of men in the most recent European genocide of Bosnia). Alternative or additional narratives are usually not shown. It has also been argued that it is difficult to represent other narratives because of a discourse that stigmatises whoever do. [viii]
Just to simply remind ourselves of the value and sanctity of life should be sufficient in driving us to be pro-active in our “jihad” (internal mental and moral struggle) in speaking out against injustice, rape, murder, starvation, violence, oppression, human trafficking, and other acts that seek to shatter and violate the principles of the sanctity of life. As Jesus (peace be upon him) aptly put it, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”
A truth our society must not lose sight of is the sanctity of every human life and the dignity of every individual” ― Frank Peretti.
Furthermore, the significance of truly grasping that each individual’s struggle is their own will carry us a long way towards social harmony and cohesion. By not identifying and appreciating the many different narratives that take exist before, during and after conflicts we risk reproducing the violence that we claim to oppose. In case of a conflict, Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) laid importance on peace-making without any prejudice which supports the teachings in the Qur’an, “if two parties of believers fight…make peace between them with equity, and act justly.” (Chapter Al-Hujurat, 49: verses 10-11).
Several of my questions remain unanswered in this post, but what is crucial is to ask the questions in the first place and to invest in time with the youth of war-torn countries to ask all such questions about conflict, about value of life – in order to build a sustainable hub of peace. In a country like Rwanda, where children represent 48% of the population, devising initiatives that involve children and growing their abilities to promotes social cohesion, responsibility and accountability, empathy, critical thinking and action is absolutely necessary for lasting reconciliation and peace, especially in the post-genocide context. [i] And especially as racial tensions are still high in Rwanda which remains listed on genocide alert twenty years on…
…the questions lead to the realisation of what is important on this earth as we tarry through it with our numbered days. I conclude part one with the philosopher I commenced with; Singer states “In short, today there is more to fear than death. There is the fetishism of our technology, the torture of dying persons, the manipulation of the emotions of survivors, the impoverishment of dependents, and the continuing failure to face and accept death.”
Stay tuned for the part 2 of this piece, which aims to examine at the issue of systematic rape in war and the consequent births and abortions that followed.