Some acts are such unconscionable violations of Islamic law that their occurrence should not even require denouncement. But when an unconscionable act is repeated, denouncement is required lest our silence serve as a tacit approval that others can follow suit. The participation of Muslim children as combatants in conflict is one of those unconscionable violations in need of denouncement.
Last Monday, the BBC reported that police in southern Afghanistan had detained an Afghan girl wearing a suicide vest after her failed attempt to carry out an attack on border police the previous day. The report mentioned that she might be as young as eight, and that she was thought to be the sister of a prominent Taliban commander. Later that day, Huffington Post reported that the girl was between eight and ten, and that she “was prodded by her brother to take on the mission.” Reports on Tuesday mention that she was “forced” or “pressured” into taking on the suicide mission.
When I first learnt of the story on Monday, my initial reaction was dismay at yet another attack, the aims and means of which violated Islamic law. I was bothered by the frequency with which these violations are reported and concerned that any Muslim could find justification to consider such attacks lawful.
But what I found most appalling in Monday’s story was that someone would permit (let alone coerce) a child into participating in an attack at all, as doing so is an unquestionable violation of Islamic law.
Children as combatants
Children have been used as combatants throughout much of human history. Since 1970, there have been many attempts to limit their participation. There is now a great deal of agreement in the international community that it is unlawful to use children under the age of fifteen as combatants. Articles and resolutions concerning this include Article 77.2 of the Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions, Article 38 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 8(2)(b)(xxvi) of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), and Resolution 1261 of the United Nations Security Council. Some countries have legislation to enable the prosecution of those who recruit or serve as child soldiers, such as the United States of America’s Child Soldiers Accountability Act of 2008.
While most members of the general public are unaware of these articles and resolutions, they do have a tacit awareness through the minimum age limits their own nations set for conscription or voluntarily joining of the armed forces. In spite of all of these articles, resolutions and legislation, the use of child combatants remains a global human rights issue – even in western nations.
An article in Foreign Policy states that:
“In fact, both Britain and the United States also recruit 17-year-olds, technically still children, on the grounds that they are not allowed into combat (though both have admitted to putting under-18s on the front lines in Afghanistan and Iraq). Australia, Austria, Canada, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and New Zealand all have similar policies.”
Sunday’s story is by no means an isolated incident. Other articles show the repeated use of child combatants in many past and current conflicts involving large Muslim populations, such as Afghanistan, the Balkans, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. This recent history of using children as combatants is in conflict with the actions of the Prophet Mohammad and with Islamic law.
The Islamic take
Most people – indeed most Muslims – are not aware that Islam banned the use of child combatants since the time of the prophet, and that these age limits have remained a part of Islamic law ever since. The evidence for age limits includes rigorously authenticated reports that the prophet did not allow children to participate in armed conflicts (jihad).
Basic Islamic law primers give a list of conditions that an individual must meet in order to be obligated to participate in armed conflicts. These conditions include that the individual be a Muslim, mature, of sound mind, male, healthy and able to fight.
Maturity and ability are the conditions most relevant to the issue of child combatants.
The reports where the prophet turned away children from participating in armed conflicts are part of the evidence for maturity being a requirement. Scholars explain that maturity is one of the conditions for moral and legal responsibility. Only a Muslim who is mature and of sound mind is expected to fulfill legal obligations – obligations such as prayer, fasting, the payment of obligatory alms, performing the hajj pilgrimage or participating in jihad.
Scholars explain that maturity means having reached puberty, typically indicted in males by ejaculation and in women by menstruation. At this point someone might suggest that it is possible that that the girl involved in Monday’s story is not a child according to Islamic law, since it is possible that she could have entered puberty, making her a legally responsible adult with the capacity to make her own decisions. While this is possible, it seems unlikely since studies show that the average age of menarche in Afghanistan is 13.8 years of age. So, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, we must stick to that of which we are certain (her being a child) and reject that which is merely conjecture (her entering puberty).
As for the issue of coercion: it is not lawful to coerce an individual to do something that they are not permitted to perform. It is also not lawful to coerce individuals to perform something that they are obligated to perform except in a few cases where authorities can compel an individual to carry out an obligatory duty, such as returning stolen property or fulfilling rights owed to others. Since jihad is neither permissible nor obligatory for youths or females, it is not permissible to coerce them into participating.
It is clear from the above that Muslim children serving as combatants – even as volunteers – is a clear violation of Islamic law. Unfortunately, the breakdown of both the political and legal authority traditionally held by followers of the schools of Islamic law has left a legal vacuum where cutthroat convenience has become the norm. Muslim scholars and leaders need to make clear to the general public that these actions are in violation of Islam, and that they must cease supporting those who call for, or enable, the use of child combatants.
This piece first appeared in Al Arabiya.