A number of North American-based Muslim organizations, clerics and activists held a recent press conference in Washington to release a “fatwa against Terrorism.” The religious edict, unveiled at a critical time following the London bombings, is certainly the subject of significant interest. First, the timing: It comes after the terrorist attacks against Britain, and it also follows three years of unparalleled horrors perpetrated by jihadist organizations worldwide, including suicide bombings and beheadings of civilians. This “fatwa,” issued by American citizens and associations, is the first theological document made public by a number of Muslim groups based in the United States. Other fatwas were issued in Britain and more detailed ones were made public in Saudi Arabia. There are endless questions about this announcement, especially in the minds of the American public. Let’s analyze the actual text before we attempt to address a few of these inquiries.
A couple of points deserve mention at the outset: One, we haven’t seen an Arabic version of the fatwa, at least not when it was announced. Fatwas are generally issued in Arabic. All Muslims around the world should be able to read them and all clerics should be able to comment on them. That is a matter of inquiry. Two, a religious edict is part of the theological domain, hence its discussion should overlap with Koranic references and other religious sources. But since the authors of the fatwa have tackled a subject of a “political nature,” they have therefore opened the edict to the public for discussion as well. In other words, once a fatwa is out, and as long as it deals with public affairs and political matters, it can and would be discussed by all Muslims, even if they aren’t of the clerical realm, and by non-Muslims as well, since the fatwa also covers their realm. This note of caution is necessary to prevent the exclusion of anyone from the debate, under the stipulation that “discussing” a fatwa is a “religious matter.” This would be true if the subject of the fatwa is strictly theological. But once the crossing into politics and policies is done, it opens the door to free public debate.
Several points are in order:
1. The text states that: “The Fiqh Council of North America wishes to reaffirm Islam’s absolute condemnation of terrorism and religious extremism.” Had the text been in Arabic, the authors would have to use the term “Irhab.” The fatwa would have been stronger had they quoted from religious texts a condemnation of “Irhab.”
The American text didn’t reference the “absolute condemnation” with a “clear text,” which would allow al Qaeda and the jihadists to defeat the fatwa. For the terrorists have often used theological references to convince their followers that indeed “al Irhab” was accepted to mean jihad. Thus, it would have been of greater efficiency to provide theological grounds for the specific rejection of Irhab, translated as terrorism.
2. The fatwa states that “Islam strictly condemns religious extremism and the use of violence against innocent lives.” This is another important statement, but it is too general to use in making inroads in the war of ideas against the terrorists. For the question is: Who determines what is an innocent life? How can this statement lead to a specific condemnation of the killing of innocent people in Iraq’s Sunni Triangle, Moscow, and Sudan at the hands of jihadists who specifically state in their own fatwas that there are no innocent lives when a jihad is waged? The American fatwa could have been specifically geared to defeat the jihadist ideology.
3. It states that: “There is no justification in Islam for extremism or terrorism. Targeting civilians’ lives and property through suicide bombings or any other method of attack is haram — or forbidden — and those who commit these barbaric acts are criminals, not ‘martyrs.’ ” Again, it would have been more efficient to respond directly to the jihadists who quote from the Koran and other texts and sources. For example there was no such thing as explosives in the 7th century, yet al Qaeda, its allies and even Sheik Yussuf al-Qardawi on al Jazeera have justified the use of suicide bombing, and called it permissible in certain conditions. Sheik al-Qardawi went as far as linking today’s suicide bombing to what he called “inghimass” (to throw oneself against the enemy). According to him, this has been permitted by religious teaching since the early days of Islam. A fatwa issued in the West or in the United States must respond to Sheik al-Qardawi and the jihadists theologically, and not state globally what international law and 52 Muslim countries subscribe to already.
4) The text of the fatwa says: “The Qur’an, Islam’s revealed text, states: ‘Whoever kills a person [unjustly]… it is as though he has killed all mankind. And whoever saves a life, it is as though he had saved all mankind.’ ” (Koran, 5:32). This powerful quote has to supercede all other references al Qaeda uses with regard to the kuffar (infidels) from any source. For the jihadist terrorists would quote the same sentence and simply state that the persons they are killing are “justly” killed. Their ideologues have already responded to this reference by saying that whoever kills outside the injunction of the right jihad is acting as if killing all mankind. The same logic applies to all other quotations in the fatwa: a need for theological response to the jihadists in addition to general quotes.
The fatwa then states that in “light of the teachings of the Qur’an and Sunnah we clearly and strongly state” that:
“All acts of terrorism targeting civilians are haram (forbidden) in Islam.” This is a positive and focused statement. And assuming that international law covers that area already, with legislation, declarations and convention since the 19th century, it would have been basic to insert in the fatwa examples of terrorism aimed at killing innocent civilians, such as children at school, in buses, in pizzerias; civilians at the theater, in workplaces, in subways, etc. It is crucial for fatwas to name al Qaeda’s terrorism and specify that the organization’s fatwas are illegal and illegitimate and that the clerics issuing them are committing crimes under Islamic and international law.
“It is haram for a Muslim to cooperate with any individual or group that is involved in any act of terrorism or violence.” Another powerful, albeit general, statement that could be strengthened with direct and specific reference to the jihadists and to the leaders of the terrorist organizations. The declaration should show the mafa’eel, i.e. the consequences. It should state for example that Muslims who cooperate with al Qaeda, its allies and other terrorist organizations are waging a hiraba, (an unholy war) and would be considered as mufsidoon (transgressors of Islamic law).
“It is the civic and religious duty of Muslims to cooperate with law enforcement authorities to protect the lives of all civilians.” The language of this stipulation is positive as a whole, but it needs to be articulated in a way that makes Muslims in America part of the citizenry, not a nation by themselves which was ordered by ulemas (clerics) to cooperate with U.S. authorities. The tone of the statement could indicate that Muslims are resisting cooperation, are different from other citizens, and they need a special injunction by a fatwa to cooperate. In fact, the text should have been “to work with law enforcement, as all other Americans.”
Moreover, the sentence strangely states “to protect the lives of all civilians,” as if the U.S. military and security personnel are not included in this fatwa. It should have stated that Muslim Americans, like all other Americans, are part of this nation, abide by its law and reject the terrorists — especially the jihadists — and stand by their U.S. armed forces and defend this country like any other citizen.
Linguistics is important in theology. Is this fatwa a religious injunction to follow U.S. and international law, or is it an edict to establish a theological resistance to terrorism? While the objective is one in the endgame, that is to confront terrorism, the instrument is as important. For if fighting religious-inspired terrorism necessitates religious edicts, the war against terrorism will be at the mercy of fatwas, or had it been in another context, at the mercy of papal sentences.
When secular people and Muslim humanists called on Muslim leadership to condemn terrorism, they wanted to see community and political leaders mobilizing their constituencies against al Qaeda and other jihadists, not to further entrench their communities in a separate world organized fully by fatwas. And when governments and intellectuals called on Muslim clerics to counter the fatwas by radical Wahhabis and other radicals, they hoped the moderates would issue edicts calling on their followers to reject the extremists on grounds of international law. One would think of the example set by Ayatollah Sistani in Iraq, who issued a fatwa to encourage his people to take part in the secular vote. This was a religious injunction to integrate civil society rather than a formal fatwa to be defeated by the “big” jihadist fatwas.
A clerical edict by American Muslim scholars must be as powerful as the Salafist and Wahhabi fatwas or should not be issued. It should call for the respect of international law above all other laws when politics is involved.
In the final analysis, a step in the right direction should always be acclaimed. But a step into no direction can be counterproductive. We will know from the next step if the authors of the fatwa want to be part of the war on terror or want to deflect it.
Walid Phares is a senior fellow with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington and a professor of Middle East Studies at Florida Atlantic University.