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American anti-terror fatwa falls short

In the wake of the bombings in London, America's Muslim community recognized the necessity for a formal religious response to growing extremism. The result was a "fatwa," or Muslim legal pronouncement, issued by the Fiqh Council of North America and endorsed by 140 Muslim groups, leaders, and institutions. The American fatwa followed a fatwa issued in March by the Spanish Muslim Council, on the first anniversary of the Madrid train bombings, which declared Osama Bin Laden an apostate and urged other Muslims to denounce the Al Qaeda leader. The Spanish ruling marked the first time Muslim clerics had denounced terrorism in religious vocabulary, invoking genuine Islamic instruments, such as fatwa and apostasy, instead of the qualified, secular, and arguably ineffective condemnations that had been issued in the past.

America's version has been greeted warmly by the Bush administration. Speaking ten days ago at the Islamic Society of North America, Public Diplomacy Chief Karen Hughes said, "Those are words the entire world needs to hear." Unfortunately, while the words contained in the fatwa are encouraging, the words that were left out are no less significant. Indeed a close reading of the American fatwa shows that it falls short of both its Spanish counterpart and a comprehensive denunciation of terror.

The American fatwa sets out three edicts: first, that all acts of terrorism targeting civilians are "haram" (forbidden) in Islam; second, that it is "haram" for a Muslim to cooperate with any individual or group that is involved in any act of terrorism or violence; and third, that it is the civic and religious duty of Muslims to cooperate with law enforcement authorities to protect the lives of all civilians. All of this certainly sounds unequivocal--but closer examination reveals inexplicable reluctance on the part of the fatwa's authors to confront the main sources of extremism.

First, the charge of apostasy used in the Spanish fatwa--a crime punishable by death and damnation--is here replaced with "haram," a generic category for all things forbidden, such as drinking alcohol or missing a prayer, with no specific punishment. This replacement raises a question of proportion: Why do Spanish Muslim leaders apparently view terrorism as a more serious offense than American Muslim leaders?

Second, the American fatwa, unlike the Spanish ruling, does not name any specific offender, and thus, according to Islamic law, is considered a non-binding opinion, void of legal status. Additionally, an abstract, no-offender fatwa fails to challenge the heroic stature that Bin Laden and Zarqawi enjoy among many young Muslims in Europe and the Middle East. The pivotal theological question of whether Bin Laden--the arch symbol of anti-Western anger and terror--will be ushered to hell or paradise thus remains unanswered by the American fatwa.

Third, the fatwa leaves the definition of "terrorism" open to dangerous interpretations. The prohibition against targeting civilians does not provide much clarification, because the term "civilian" has acquired twisted new meanings among potential recruits of Al Qaeda. For example, the influential Qatari cleric Sheikh Yusuf Al Qaradawi, in a November 2001 interview with my late son Daniel, stated that Israeli society has no civilians to speak of, concluding that women and children, even the unborn, are legitimate targets of suicide bombing. More recently, Qaradawi has extended this line of logic to civilian workers in Iraq, thus providing direct religious legitimization for the atrocities of Zarqawi. Not surprisingly, in a video recently released by Al Jazeera, the London bomber Mohammed Siddique Khan managed to stretch Qaradawi's logic to justify murdering his own countrymen: "Your democratically elected governments continue to perpetrate atrocities against my people," he said. "We will not stop." Considering that Qaradawi is broadly regarded as the top authority in matters of Koranic interpretation--his bastardized logic is broadcast unchallenged every week to tens of millions of Al Jazeera viewers--one would expect the American fatwa to explicitly disavow his invitation to attack civilians as apostasy, heresy, or blasphemy. Yet, indefensibly, it does not.

Finally, the American fatwa condemns only the physical perpetrators of terrorist acts and their collaborators, not the preachers and ideologues who legitimize or encourage those acts. Are not those religious figures who encourage suicide bombers at least as guilty as those who strap themselves with explosives? Sadly, the Fiqh Council declined to use the fatwa to clarify the Islamic status of Sheik Qaradawi; nor did it address the managers of Al Jazeera who give him such prominent voice in the Muslim world.

Contrast this with the Spanish fatwa. Though it did not mention Qaradawi by name, it did note that "all who declare halal or allowed what God has declared haram or prohibited, like the killing of innocent people in terrorist attacks, have become Kafir Murtadd Mustahlil, that's to say an apostate, by trying to make a crime such as the murder of innocents, halal." In other words, not just terrorists themselves but also those who encourage or rationalize terrorism are apostates.

Of course, the mere use of fatwas to inveigh against terrorism is an important first step. But the American fatwa appears to be the work of a weak-willed leadership that hesitates to directly confront the ideological basis of Al Qaeda. A fatwa that specifically condemned Bin Laden, that invoked the strongest punishments available under Muslim law, that clarified the meaning of terrorism, and that singled out for condemnation religious figures who support violence--those would be the words the entire world needs to hear.

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