Rashied Omar is the Research Scholar of Islamic Studies and Peacebuilding at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. He is author of Tolerance, Civil Society and Renaissance in Post-Apartheid South Africa, published by Claremont Main Road Mosque in Cape Town, South Africa where he also serves as imam.
The hegemonic view about the use of drones in warfare is that of a surgically precise tool that makes the world a safer place by enabling targeted killings of so-called terrorists without collateral damage. This narrative has been proven to be patently false by a number of credible research studies.
One of the earliest studies is “Living Under Drones: Death, Injury and Trauma to Civilians from U.S. Drone Practices in Pakistan,” produced by the law schools of Stanford University and New York University. The research provides unequivocal evidence refuting government and media claims that drones are pinpoint weapons with limited collateral impact.
The “Living Under Drones” research shows a higher number of civilian deaths than official statistics suggest and also exposes the narrow framing of the effectiveness of drone warfare. The study shows the negative impact that drones have on civilians that live with the daily threat of strikes in their communities. Drones that hover twenty-four hours a day above the sky terrorize people and provoke high levels of psychological trauma and anxiety especially among young children. This terrorizing reality is integral to the ‘collateral damage’ that has resulted from this U.S. foreign policy. It is not just the innocent civilians who die in the path of a drone, but also the countless terrified souls who live with the daily threat of strikes that makes drone warfare a morally corrupt foreign policy.
Other studies have confirmed and supported the conclusions of the “Living Under Drones” report. Rafia Zakaria provides a chilling example of a contentious drone strike in Pakistan in March 2011. According to an exclusive report by Agence France–Presse, the U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan, Cameron Munter, was frantically trying to persuade the CIA to stop a planned drone strike. His protestations were summarily rejected by the CIA’s newly appointed director, Leon Panetta. The strike killed four Taliban leaders and thirty-eight civilians. The CIA claimed that all of the forty-two people killed by this drone strike were militants. Pakistanis and villagers on the ground insisted that the strike had targeted a village meeting.
Zakaria finds that the negative effects of such drone strikes are fueling public resentment against U.S. foreign policy and that of its Western allies. A foreign policy ostensibly intended to counter global terrorism has instead had the effect of providing fodder for the recruitment and growth of extremist groups.
As a direct result of the serious ethical-moral concerns raised about the legitimacy and effectiveness of drone warfare by these credible research studies, religious communities in diverse parts of the world have called for an immediate halt on and stopping of drone attacks.
On February 13, 2013, Nobel Laureate and anti-apartheid icon, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, rebuked the U.S. for its drone program and declared that drones threaten to undermine the moral standards and humanity of the U.S. administration and its people.
A year later, the World Council of Churches (WCC) Executive Committee in Geneva released a statement condemning the use of drones, saying that they pose “serious threats to humanity” and the “right to life” while setting “dangerous precedents in inter-state relations.”
In May 2015, the U.S.-based Interfaith Network on Drone Warfare sent a letter to President Obama and the Congress expressing grave concerns about drone warfare and calling for its immediate cessation. The letter was signed by twenty-nine Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim and Sikh faith leaders.
The use of drone attacks carries with it the prospect of collateral damage unacknowledged in the official narrative. This is creating a growing consensus among progressive religious bodies and civil society organizations that drone attacks are immoral and should be ended immediately.