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“At the heart of this, it’s about a very small group of people that have tried to hijack a religion. And we certainly value the debate that is currently under way within Muslim-majority communities around the world about the nature of their religion, the implication and definition of the word ‘jihad,’ and to kind of take back the good name of Islam,” Mr. Crowley said.

“Britain has had a very significant, detailed, extensive counter-radicalization strategy over the last few years,” he added. “It has done extensive outreach with Muslim communities.”

Mr. Tahir-ul-Qadri’s fatwa echoed efforts by anti-extremist Muslims to use their religion to counter terrorists.

In October, a senior Muslim cleric, grand mufti Ali Gomaa of Egypt, told editors and reporters at The Washington Times that one strategy has been to try to declare terrorists “un-Islamic.” But he also warned that going too far could prompt greater divisions rather than persuade radicals to change.

Juan Zarate, senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former counterterrorism official at the National Security Council in the George W. Bush White House, said the new fatwa is important because it “adds to the growing list of rejections of al Qaeda’s ideology” and is a “public recognition” of the group’s “declining popularity and legitimacy.”

Rob Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the fatwa undoubtedly will have “a useful, positive impact among Pakistanis and other South Asians,” who form the base of Minhaj-ul-Quran’s membership of hundreds of thousands.

However, globally, “any one particular fatwa, especially by an imam known predominantly in a single ethnic and linguistic group, is probably not too consequential,” Mr. Satloff said.

“It’s all very positive and very welcome, but there remain loud and influential voices arguing the opposite view — that ‘invaders,’ ‘Crusaders’ and ‘Zionists’ are all legitimate targets, some wherever they may be found,” he added. “It is important to amplify the voices of moderation and marginalize the voices of radicalism.”

Bill Gertz contributed to this report.