Towards an Understanding of Structural and Cultural Violence
Claremont Main Road Masjid
It is great to be back in Cape Town, even with the two-minute showers. It is good to be back at my spiritual home, the Claremont Main Road Masjid (CMRM) after spending almost a full year doing post-graduate studies in the United States of America (USA). Being away from home for such an extended period of time has allowed me to be thankful for the many blessings of home and have a deeper sense of appreciation for this extraordinary space that we have cultivated here at CMRM. When I left Cape Town, a good friend of mine, told me that home is a temporal space. And to some extent I agree, as a home can be found in a place of love, joy, and friendship. But, your original home – your first home – always occupies a special place in your heart. So, it is wonderful to be home for a few days before I leave again to conduct research in Jerusalem for the remaining six months of 2018, insha-Allah. It is particularly lovely to be home during the blessed month of Ramadan, where the fasting days are shorter, the cookies are tastier, and the boeber is creamier!
Over the last two semesters of being a graduate student in the US at the University of Notre Dame, I took a number of intense, fascinating, and morally challenging classes, which taught me many new ideas and concepts such as:
- Integral Human Development,
- Islamic Ethics of War and Peace,
- Strategic Peacebuilding,
- Neo-Con Policy Analysis, and
- Neo-liberal Economics.
My favourite class, was one I took in the 2017 Fall semester on the notion of Structural Violence, which was both edifying and ethically enriching. However, it was not at the University of Notre Dame that I first heard the term. It was right here in this masjid. In Ramadan 2015, student activist and my dear friend, Leila Khan, spoke about how the #RhodesMustFall movement invoked the term to understand the violent nature of South African society. It was here, in this masjid, in the month of Ramadan, that my interest in the idea was sparked.[i]
I would like speak about this theme as I think it has the potential to further our struggle for intersectional social justice, an objective embraced by this masjid congregation. In my khutbah, therefore, I would like to briefly reflect on the following three questions:
- What is structural and cultural violence?
- What guidance does our Islamic spiritual resources provide in thinking about the victims of structural and cultural violence?
- How can we mitigate against such forms of violence?
What is Structural and Cultural Violence?
The first time the concept of structural violence emerges in the Peace Studies literature is in 1969 when the Norwegian sociologist, Johan Galtung, argued that direct violence does not occur in a vacuum.[ii] There is a provocative context that allows acts of physical violence to take place. To understand the conditions that incites and fuels direct violence, Galtung comes up with the idea of “structural violence,” which he argues was built into a system, society, or institution. Structural violence causes a huge disparity between the potential of human beings and their constrained lived realities. It is a form of violence that is not displayed and exposed like physical violence, but one that is built into a system to sustain and legitimate conditions of oppression and exploitation.
Structural violence is like fertile soil, that when ignited allows for an explosion of physical violence to occur. This type of violence is built on an unequal relationship of power and opportunity and results in people not living up to their full potential[iii] as vicegerents of God on earth (khalifah al-Allah fil `ard). Therefore, structural violence is best thought of as a relation of power which both harms some and benefits others. So, for example, the recent conflict in the Siqalo Mitchell’s Plain area does not occur out of nowhere. There was a trigger, but that trigger fell on fertile soil. This soil, is what we call structural violence, which are the conditions that have curtailed and inhibited full human potential in the Siqalo informal settlement in Mitchell’s Plain. Structural violence also has a psychological and spiritual dimension that results in dehumanization and humiliation. This understanding of what counts as violence moves beyond material deprivation and into the realm of spiritual, emotional, and psychological poverty.
The calculating nature of structural violence is that it presents itself as “normal” even “necessary” or “inevitable.”[iv] This is where the concept of cultural violence comes in. In 1990, Johan Galtung comes up with this term to speak to the aspects of culture, the symbolic sphere of our existence— exemplified by religion and ideology, language and art […] that can be used to justify or legitimize direct or structural violence.”[v] Here, “cultural violence makes direct and structural violence look, even feel, right, or at least not wrong.”[vi] Cultural violence makes our insidious actions look and feel normal.
This holistic reading of violence allows us to understand that when human beings are left in a “permanent unwanted state of misery” that is where our gaze of compassion needs to be. This may include conditions of poverty, malnutrition, and illness.[vii] But it also includes the effects of the dehumanization on the soul, what we know as the ruh. This is what the African-American public intellectual, Cornel West, understands as nihilism, “the lived experience of coping with a life of horrifying meaninglessness, hopelessness, and (most importantly) lovelessness…” This is a “disease of the soul.”[viii]
Structural and cultural violence are intimately interconnected and feed off each other. It is a violence that affects and debases the soul (ruh). It is interesting to note that the Qur’an has a similar understanding of structural and cultural violence. In Surah al-Baqarah, Chapter Two, Allah, The Wise, proclaims:
وَٱلْفِتْنَةُ أَشَدُّ مِنَ ٱلْقَتْلِ
And fitna is worse than killing (Q.2:191)
We often translate and interpret the idea of fitna as a social ill or a civil unrest. According to the Hans Wehr Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic, the word fitna, indicates a sense of charm, attraction, enchantment, and captivation. It also has connotations of “intrigue, sedition, riot, discord, dissension, civil strife.”[ix] Moreover the Dictionary of Qur’anic Usage suggest that the word fitna, means “to disrupt the peace of a community,” to tempt, to seduce, and to allure.[x] Here, the linguistic meaning of the word suggest that fitna is a state of a community, that disrupts the peace, disrupts the justice, but it is something that we are seduced and enchanted by. Something that we do not think is necessarily wrong and unjust.
It is, therefore, interesting to note that this verse is part of a broader Qur’anic conversation that deals with physical combat or jihad al-qital. However, the idea of fitna being worse and far more insidious than killing is striking. Of course, unjust killing is deeply repugnant, and there are many verses that speak to this (Q.5:32), but here the Qur’an is pointing to the idea of a “slow death.”[xi] This form of violence is “beguiling” as we do not necessarily or immediately realize or recognize it as violence. This is because structural and cultural violence creeps into the fabric of society and then gradually erodes the dignity of certain bodies on the margins and leaves these human beings in a state of “bare life.”[xii]
The insidious nature of structural and cultural violence is that we often do not recognize it as a form of violence that is present in our society. While there are many clear manifestations of structural and cultural violence (racism, classism, sexism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, homophobia, economic exploitation, sectarianism, and environmental degradation) the effects on the person – the nafs, the soul – of a human being are rather under-studied. The nature of this type of violence is that the primary victims of structural and cultural violence in society are the downtrodden, the oppressed, ungrievable lives, the marginalized, and the silenced. This is because, while we are all embody a form of vulnerability, certain structural conditions (like class, race, gender, disability), make certain bodies more vulnerable and therefore greater sufferers of structural and cultural violence.
What guidance does our faith provide in responding to the victims of structural and cultural violence?
So what guidance can we elicit from our Islamic spiritual resources? Here, I would like to draw inspiration from one of my favorite Hadith Qudsi’s (sacred prophetic traditions) which argues that it is through our relationships with others, by attending to the needs of the marginalized in our society and ending the systems that cause people suffering and pain, that we will find the presence of God. The Hadith which can be found in the authentic collections of Bukhari and Muslim teaches that:
[God] sends himself down to us to stand in our place, so that when one of his servants is hungry, God says to the others, “I was hungry, and you didn’t feed me,” and when one is thirsty, God says to his other servants, “I was dying of thirst and you didn’t give me water.” And when another of his servants was sick, God says to the others, “I was sick, and you didn’t attend to me.” And when those servants ask him about all of this, he says to them: “As for the one who was sick, if you had tended to him you would have found me with him. And when someone was starving, if you had fed him, you would have found me with him, and so for the one who was thirsty, if you had given him water, you would have found me there.[xiii]
In this tradition, the Prophet is articulating an attention to the intimate connection between the presence of the Divine and those occupying “marginal and liminal” spaces within society.[xiv] Here, we see a deep connection between spirituality and one’s social presence or attention to those in personal and socio-economic need. In her reading of this particular hadith, the Islamic Studies scholar, Sa’diyya Shaikh indicates that when human beings act with compassion and mercy they become “interlocutors” between God and creation.[xv] In other words, “mercy travels between God and human beings through the realm of human interactions.”[xvi] In this sense, a critical aspect of spiritual realization is “attending to the needs of vulnerable segments of society.”[xvii] In acting with robust solidarity, not paternal charity, human beings are in the process of becoming closer to Al-Rahman (the Most Merciful and Compassionate) because they are responding to “those occupying marginal and liminal spaces” in our society.[xviii] We are in fact, according to this Hadith Qudsi, responding to the presence of God. This is also the supreme goal of fasting in the sacred month of Ramadan.
In the final part of my khutbah, I would like to briefly suggest three ways in which we can try and mitigate against forms of structural and cultural violence.
- Tajdid: Intellectual Renewal
First, I would highly recommend convening an active halaqah reading group in the masjid that focusses on identifying and understanding different manifestations of structural and cultural violence in the world around us. I think it is really important for all of us to deconstruct the world we live in and open our eyes to the numerous manifestations of structural and cultural violence in our society. Such a halaqah should devise and propose robust strategies of conscientizing and raising our voices against the violent nature of our societies and communities.
- Jihad al-Nafs: Radical Reflexivity
My second suggestion is based on the idea of adopting a radical reflexivity, both on the level of the zahir (external) and the batin (internal). In the sobering words of Catholic Pope Benedict XVI, “The external deserts in the world are growing, because the internal deserts have become so vast. Therefore, the earth’s treasures no longer serve to build God’s Garden for all to live in. But they have been made to serve the powers of exploitation and destruction.” As Muslims, we have a duty to transform our nafs, al-ammara, the soul that incites towards evil and wrongdoing. The blessed month of Ramadan is the opportune time to have such an internal reflection in order to make sure our external behaviours reflect the best of the attributes of the Divine.
- Praxis: The Jihad of Action
My final suggestion is one that resonates well with the persistent messages coming from this mimbar. We have heard countless times here at CMRM that we should get involved in local civil society organizations and be active members of our communities. I would like to reiterate this call. In trying to respond to many struggles we face, I think there is great value in being a socially engaged believer. One of the much-neglected aspects of the Sunna of the Prophet Muhammad (may Allah’s everlasting peace and blessings be upon him) is his joining of a socio-economic organization called the Hilf al-Fudul (The Pact of the Virtuous) in his early twenties. Many years later when he took up the amana and mantle of prophethood, the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) praised the virtues of this organization by proclaiming:
I would not exchange this experience for any material gain […] And if now, as a prophet of God, I was to be asked to defend its just cause, I will most certainly do so.[xix]
“Hilf al-Fudul thus holds great significance in Islamic teachings not least because it makes the joining of organizations with noble causes a highly recommended Sunna, but also because it makes alliances in the promotion of social justice legitimate with those who do not share our faith commitment” or some of our political objectives.[xx] During this month of engaged faith and religiosity, let us make a commitment to embrace this part of the legacy of our Beloved Prophet (pbuh).
In conclusion, it might be easy to lose a sense of hope and to succumb to the idea that everything we do in this world is violent in some way or another. This could be very debilitating. However, we should not lose faith in our collective ability to make a modest contribution towards progressive social change. I want to use a brief story to illustrate this point. This story comes from the Muslim peace activist, Rabia Terri Harris who says:
A Friend of God went forth for the Pilgrimage, and on a road in the middle of the desert he came across a little black ant, struggling along. “Ant, where are you going?” he asked, in the way some people have of speaking with creatures. “Why, I’m going on Pilgrimage to Mecca, the same as you!” “But ant,” the Saint objected, “you will never make it! It’s hundreds of miles, and besides, you have a broken leg!” “What does it matter,” the ant asked him, “as long as I am on the way?”[xxi]
The aim of this beautiful parable is to show the importance of being on the journey and path towards realizing our goals and ideals. The tedious journey of conscientization, mobilizing, and organizing are essential part of our struggle. It has value. Like the ant who might never achieve its goal, our community must still embrace the struggle to recognize and challenge structural and cultural violence, which will help us on our path toward intersectional social justice.
At this sacred time of Jumu’ah, during this blessed and holy month of Ramadan, please join me in making a special supplication, du`a, in which we can beseech the Most Merciful to give us hope and courage to overcome systems of violence, injustice, and wrongdoing.
O Allah, unite our hearts
and set aright our mutual affairs,
guide us in the path of peace with justice.
Liberate us from darkness by Your light,
save us from enormities whether open or hidden.
Give us the strength and courage to stand up for what is right.
For justice is your path.
O Allah, you are peace. And peace emanates from thee.
Allow us to be agents of your peace.
Guide us to your path of your just peace.
We ask this in all of your beautiful and holy names.
Arabic-English Dictionary of Qur’anic Usage. Elsaid M. Badawi and Muhammad Abdel Haleem. Netherlands: Brill, 2008.
Agamben Giorgio Agamben. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Translated by Daniel Heller-Roazen. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998.
Galtung, Johan. “Violence, peace, and peace research.” Journal of Peace Research 6 No. 3 (1969): 167–191
Galtung, Johan. “Cultural violence.” Journal of Peace Research 27 No. 3 (1990): 291–305.
Hans Wehr’s Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic. Edited by J Milton Cowan, 3rd Edition. New York: Ithca, 1976.
Khan, Leila. Rhodes Must Fall and Student Activism. Post-Tarawih Talk. Claremont Main Road Mosque. 5 July 2015. Text available at: https://www.facebook.com/ClaremontMainRoadMosque/posts/694223597373268 [Accessed April 2018].
Harris Rabia Terri. “Serving Peace.” In Women of Sufism: A Hidden Treasure, edited by Camille Adams Helminski, 164-5. (Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications, 2003).
Muslim Peace Fellowship. Prayers for Peace. See online at: https://mpf21.wordpress.com/islamic-nonviolence/prayers-for-peace/ [Accessed: 14 May 2018].
Puar, Jasbir K. Right to Maim. Durham: Duke University Press, 2017.
Shaikh, Sa’diyya. Sufi Narratives of Intimacy: Ibn `Arabi, Gender and Sexuality. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012.
Springs, Jason. “Structural and Cultural Violence in Religion and Peacebuilding.” In The Oxford Handbook of Religion, Conflict, and Peacebuilding edited by Atalia Omer, R. Scott David Appleby and Little, 146-179. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.
West Cornet. “Nihilism in Balck America.” In Race Matters, 25th Anniversary, 3rd edition, 9-20. Boston: Beacon Press, 2017.
Uvin, Peter. “Global Dreams and Local Anger: From Structural to Acute Violence in a Globalizing World.” In Rethinking Global Political Economy: Emerging Issues, Unfolding Odysseys, edited by Mary Ann Tétreault, Robert A. Denemark, Kenneth P. Thomas, and Kurt Burch, 147-162, New York: Routledge, 2003.
I would like to acknowledge the contributions of a number of CMRM congregants who provided constructive feedback on earlier drafts of this khutbah.
[i] Leila Khan. Rhodes Must Fall and Student Activism. Post-Tarawih Talk. Claremont Main Road Mosque. 5 July 2015. Text available at: https://www.facebook.com/ClaremontMainRoadMosque/posts/694223597373268 [Accessed April 2018].
[ii] Johan Galtung. “Violence, peace, and peace research,” Journal of Peace Research 6 No. 3 (1969): 167–191.
[iii] Galtung, “Violence, peace, and peace research,” 171.
[iv] Jason Springs, “Structural and Cultural Violence in Religion and Peacebuilding.” In The Oxford Handbook of Religion, Conflict, and Peacebuilding edited by Atalia Omer, R. Scott David Appleby and Little (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 157.
[v] Johan Galtung, “Cultural violence.” Journal of Peace Research 27 No. 3 (1990): 291–305.
[vi] Galtung, “Cultural Violence,” 296.
[vii] Springs, “Structural and Cultural Violence in Religion and Peacebuilding” 158.
[viii] Cornel West. “Nihilism in Black America.” In Race Matters, 25th Anniversary, 3rd edition. (Boston: Beacon Press, 2017), 15 and 19.
[ix] Hans Wehr’s Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic. Edited by J Milton Cowan, 3rd Edition. (New York: Ithca, 1976), 696.
[x] Arabic-English Dictionary of Qur’anic Usage. Elsaid M. Badawi and Muhammad Abdel Haleem. (Netherlands: Brill, 2008), 69
[xi] My understanding of “slow death” is informed by the recent work of Jasbir K. Puar, which understands it as “some sense a mode of neoliberal and affective capacitation or debilitation as mediated by different technological assemblages.” For more see: Puar. Right to Maim (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017).
[xii] Giorgio Agamben. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Translated by Daniel Heller-Roazen. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998).
[xiii] The text of his Hadith Qudsi is quoted from Sa’diyya Shaikh’s book, Sufi Narratives of Intimacy: Ibn `Arabi, Gender and Sexuality (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012), 79-80.
[xiv] Shaikh, “Sufi Narratives of Intimacy,” 80.
[xv] Shaikh, “Sufi Narratives of Intimacy,” 79.
[xvi] Shaikh, “Sufi Narratives of Intimacy,” 79.
[xvii] Shaikh, “Sufi Narratives of Intimacy,” 79.
[xviii] Shaikh, “Sufi Narratives of Intimacy,” 80.
[xix] A. Rashied Omar. “The Trump Presidency and Reviving Active Citizenry.” Friday Sermon. Islamic Society of Michiana. January 2017.
[xx] Omar, “The Trump Presidency.”
[xxi] Rabia Terri Harris. “Serving Peace.” In Women of Sufism: A Hidden Treasure, edited by Camille Adams Helminski, 164-5. (Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications, 2003).
[xxii] This is an adapted prayer from the famous collection of supplications, al-Hisn al-Hasin
(The Mighty Fortress) by Muhammad al-Jazri. See online at: https://mpf21.wordpress.com/islamic-nonviolence/prayers-for-peace/ [Accessed: 14 May 2018].