Tuesday, March 29, 2005

From combined dispatches

CAIRO — The condemnation of Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda by the Islamic Commission of Spain on the first anniversary of the train bombings in Madrid that took 200 lives is making waves throughout the Muslim world.

The Spanish commission’s fatwa, or condemnation, follows other signs of the kind of public theological debate rarely seen in the Muslim world, openly challenging the dominance of Saudi Arabia’s wealthy Wahhabi fanatics.

One Islamic scholar even calls it a sign of “a counter-jihad.”

In a recent interview with the Qatari daily newspaper Al-Raya, for example, Abd Al-Hamid Al-Ansari, the former dean of Shariah and law at the University of Qatar, urged his fellow Muslims to purge their heritage of fanaticism and adopt “new civilized humane thought.”

Such humane thought, he said, “must be translated [into deeds] in educational ways, via the media, tolerant religious discourse, nondiscriminatory policy and just legislation.”

“We must purge the school curricula of all sectarian implications and elements according to which others deviate from the righteous path and the truth is in our hands alone. We must enrich the curricula with the values of tolerance and acceptance of the other who is different [in school of faith, ethnic group, religion, nationality or sex].

“The political regime must refrain from sectarian or ethnic preference; it must respect the rights and liberties of the minorities and must guarantee them through legislative action, practical policy and equal opportunity in the areas of education, media and civil positions.”

Other Muslims quickly attacked the Spanish fatwa.

A group calling itself al Qaeda in Iraq — the name Jordanian-born militant Abu Musab Zarqawi gave his organization after he aligned himself with bin Laden — mocked it in the familiar religious rhetoric. “Allah has promised us victory,” it said in a posting on its Internet Web site. “… Terrorizing enemies of God is our faith and religion, which is taught to us by our Koran.”

Nevertheless, the reaction to the Spanish fatwa astonished its authors, who were swamped with e-mail messages of congratulations.

“I couldn’t even read them all — there’s at least a thousand, maybe more,” said Mansur Escudero, secretary-general of the Islamic Commission of Spain. “The tone was nearly all the same: ‘It’s about time someone did it. Bravo!’ ”

Says Khaled Abou El Fadl, an authority on Islamic law at the University of California at Los Angeles: “The long and painful silence of moderate theologians and experts in Islam jurisprudence — who had been bought off or intimidated into silence — is finally starting to break apart. We are seeing signs of a counter-jihad.”

The response to the Spanish fatwa was dominated by Muslims outside the Middle East, suggesting most moderates live outside traditional Muslim areas.

“I’m glad that someone of authority in Islam is taking a stand and demanding their religion back from the terrorists who have hijacked it,” a respondent from the United States wrote.

“This shows the Muslim world is tired of the harm that radicals and terrorists are doing to Islam,” said Mr. Escudero, whose declaration carried the support of Muslim leaders in Morocco, Algeria and Libya. “We hope this will inspire others to speak out.”

The subject of suicide attacks sharply divides the Islamic world. Many Islamic scholars denounce it, citing the Koran: “Do not kill yourself.” There are deep divisions over what the Koran justifies in a perceived defense of Islam. “There needs to be an awakening that radicals are manipulating the Koran for their own narrow motives,” said Omid Safi, professor of philosophy and religion at Colgate University.

In December 2003 — a year after the Bali bombings that killed 202 persons — Indonesia’s highest Islamic authority, the Ulema Council, declared terrorism and suicide bombings illegal under Muslim law, but said “holy war” is justified if Islam is under attack.

Some scholars caution that moderates exchanging fatwas and denunciations with radicals does little to make lasting reforms.

“Islam needs a new approach — to get away from the Islam of the Middle East being the only point of reference,” said Abdullahi An-Na’im, a specialist in Islamic law at Emory University in Atlanta.

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