The other day I discussed with a group of Muslim high school students the Islamic principle that one must make 70 excuses for a friend who appears to have done the wrong thing I. It is an interesting variation of the Jewish principle of judging everyone favourably II. I wonder to what extent these ideals are applied in either community when it comes to judging people outside our own faith communities. Giving the benefit of the doubt can also inhibit fighting evil, if we offer excuses when it would be more useful to name the problem and address it. These considerations are relevant to judgements regarding terrorism.
This issue of judging others plays out in the discussion of the description of Joseph by Pharaoh’s chief butler in Genesis. The Pharaoh was distressed about a dream that no one could interpret. The chief butler told him that in prison there was a ‚“youth, a Hebrew slave”, who can interpret dreams.III This description has been interpreted as malicious – “Cursed are the wicked that even the good that they do, is done with evil intentions!” – because Joseph’s Hebrew ethnicity calls attention to his membership of a hated people, his youth to his foolishness and his status as a slave to a restriction on Joseph ever holding high office.IV
An alternative interpretation suggests that the description was motivated by fear rather than malice. Joseph had interpreted the chief butler’s own dream two years earlier, when they were both prisoners, and had requested that the chief butler mention his unjust imprisonment to the king. The chief butler had forgotten about Joseph. He was now worried that if Joseph succeeded in interpreting the king’s dream he would be appointed to high office and would then take revenge against the chief butler for letting him down.V
Considering these two interpretations together, I suggest that:
a. Fear is a big motivating factor in denigrating the other. We need to resist excessive fear.
b. It is sometimes absolutely right to judge. The tradition calls out the prejudice and mean spiritedness of the chief butler. Muslim leaders have publicly called out prejudice and injustice where they believed it was at play in the way the “war on terror” is being prosecuted and have suggested that this injustice can contribute to radicalisation. The latter opinion is widely held by counter terrorism experts.VI Equally, it is right for Muslim leaders and others to make crystal clear that there are no excuses for perpetrators of terrorism or for advocates of extremist ideology and generalised anti-Western, “conflict-of-civilisations” or other “us & them” narratives.
c. There is a temptation for religious people and members of in-groups to assume the most negative interpretation of the character and motives of the “other”. One of the Muslim teenagers made the observation in our session that misjudgement goes both ways. “Some non-Muslims judge Muslims in general based on the actions of a minority of extremists, while some Muslims judge non-Muslims in general based on a minority of people who are prejudiced against Muslims, but the truth is that most people are not prejudiced.” I think he is right.
d. One flaw of reasoning is the assumption that if I don’t know about it, then it did not happen. Muslims I know and trust assure me that their religious leaders have been very clear in their condemnation of terrorism as absolutely unjustified. Yet, people who don’t have first-hand knowledge of these efforts assume they are not happening.
I fell into that kind of trap in 2010 when I wroteVII about Reuben in the story of Joseph and his brothers. Reuben castigated his brothers for selling Joseph: “Did I not say to you, do not sin with the boy and you did not listen?! And now his blood is being demanded (we are being held accountable for it).”VIII At the time I asserted that Reuben “might have wanted to say that, it seems clear that he certainly meant to say thatIX, but he did not quite tell them that. Compare his record of what he told them with his actual words at the time, ’let us not kill his soul, do not spill his blood, (instead just) throw him into this pit in the desert (filled with snakes and scorpions ) but do not send your hand against him’.”XI
Two prominent commentators disagree with my judgement of Reuben. “There is no doubt…that all of these words [that Reuben claimed to have said, he in fact] spoke to them at the time, but the Torah abbreviated the story.”XII
Perhaps, rather than judging Muslim leaders for failing to condemn, when we don’t really know how much they do or don’t condemn, we can ask them about their efforts to ensure their followers are well educated about positive messages from within their own tradition about conflict and generosity. For example, a prominent Muslim leader who attended the session with the Muslim teenagers where I raised the teaching about the 70 excuses expressed concern that not one of the boys knew of this teaching. Equally it would be worth asking: how well educated are Jewish teenagers, or adults for that matter, about positive messages in their own traditions that can contribute to peaceful relations between people who believe differently?
I “If a friend among your friends errs, make seventy excuses for them. If your hearts are unable to do this, then know that the shortcoming is in your own selves.” [Imam Bayhaqi, Shu`ab al-Iman, 7.522] cited on http://seekershub.org/blog/2010/02/making-70-excuses-for-others-in-islam-a-key-duty-of-brotherhood/
II Pirkei Avot 1:6
III Genesis 41:12
IV Midrash Tanchuma, Bereshit Rabba 89 cited in Rashi
IV Chizkuni, alternatively the butler might also have been afraid of the King, who could be angry about why the chief butler never bothered to tell him until now about such a wise person as Joseph being in the land
VI Professor Boaz Ganor in a public lecture in Sydney on 27 July 2015 talked about the art of counter terrorism which involves the need to tackle capability and motivation, but the efforts to address the former through arrests etc. negatively impacts the attempt to win hearts and minds and decrease motivation for terrorism
VIII Genesis 42:22
IX Yefat Toar, cited in Torah Shlaima p 1584, note 79, suggests that the meaning of what Reuben said was not to sin with the boy. However, the tone of the words he later claims to have said with those he said a the time differ significantly, which led me to wonder whether there was a discrepancy between what he felt like saying and the weaker words he actually used, perhaps out of fear of fully confronting the wrongful mindset of his brothers.
XI Genesis 37:22
XII Abarbanel in agreement with Ramban on Genesis 42:22