The Magazine

In Search of the Moderate Sheikh

A pro-American Muslim cleric is hard to find

Nov 12, 2001, Vol. 7, No. 09 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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ON SEPTEMBER 27, a group of Islamic scholars in the Middle East issued a fatwa on the duties of Muslims serving in the U.S. armed forces. The story of this fatwa -- a religious pronouncement with legal force among Muslims -- illustrates both the confused state of relations between American society and Islam and the nature of Muslim fundamentalism.

It all began when the first-ever Muslim chaplain to American military personnel, U.S. Army Captain Abdul-Rashid Muhammad, sought an authoritative opinion as to whether Muslims could serve in a war against a Muslim enemy. Captain Muhammad turned to the head of the Graduate School of Islamic and Social Sciences in Leesburg, Virginia, one Taha Jabir Alwani. As if that weren't unusual enough, Alwani conveyed the request to a "moderate" cleric of the Wahhabi sect living in Qatar and subsidized by Saudi Arabia named Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who drafted the resulting document.

The content of the fatwa was inoffensive. Sheikh Qaradawi and his cosignatories (three Egyptians, a Syrian, and Alwani) held that, in the face of the recent attacks, American Muslims were obliged to support the United States, since Islamic law prohibits "terrorizing the innocent, killing noncombatants, and the destruction of property." Further, the fatwa declared that American Muslims must fulfill the duties of citizenship, including conscientious service in the armed forces, lest their loyalty be doubted.

Some American media seized on the fatwa to prove that Muslims abhor terrorism. Sam Jaffe, for instance, writing in Business Week Online, characterized Qaradawi as one of those "Islamic thinkers . . . that will defeat bin Laden." But the honeymoon was brief. Sheikh Qaradawi has a record of public statements inciting terrorism; just last April, he defined suicide bombings as "martyrdom, not suicide," suicide being forbidden by Islam. The September 27 fatwa set off a firestorm in the Arab world, and Qaradawi changed course.

On October 11, the sheikh held a press conference in Qatar where he condemned American military action against Afghanistan. His wording was anything but mild: "We support the Afghans who stand firm against the American invasion," he proclaimed, likening the U.S. campaign to the Russian occupation. He blamed the United States for September 11 because of American support for Israel and threatened that a thousand bin Ladens will rise up unless U.S. policy changes. He incited the Pakistanis against their government and concluded with the claim that bin Laden's videotaped self-justifications could not be considered a confession of wrongdoing. He praised the terrorist chieftain as "a symbol of the world uprising against American hegemony."

Some Islamic websites reported that the original fatwa had been "misattributed," others that it had been superseded. Qaradawi's outburst of hatred, and his manifest self-contradiction, prompted inquiries from the press, but he declined to elaborate. On October 30 he brushed off the Associated Press, saying, "I wrote an explanation. I can't tell you anything more."

By official count, there are some 4,100 Muslims in the U.S. armed forces (although Captain Muhammad has been quoted claiming 12,000) out of a total force of a million and a half. But any questions concerning Muslim soldiers' duties and loyalties are less urgent than the questions this episode raises about the proper relationship between American authorities and the ostensible Islamic establishment in the United States and abroad.

Many Muslim functionaries in the United States maintain an attitude of truculence toward American society, even after September 11. Some of them appear rattled; thus, the notorious Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) expressed condolences after the massacre of 16 Christians during a worship service in Pakistan on October 28, although the organization has never expressed regret over killings by suicide bombers in Israel. At the same time, CAIR and partner groups like the Islamic Society of North America and the American Muslim Council loudly complain of purported hate crimes and civil liberties violations to keep American society on the defensive.

As for Sheikh Qaradawi, he embodies the fantasy that there are "moderate" Muslim fundamentalists who can be our allies in the anti-terror fight. Qaradawi, to be sure, has expounded a "liberal" approach to music, which Wahhabis typically abhor. But he also defended the Taliban's demolition of ancient Buddhist statues in Afghanistan.

The lesson: In reality, there is no "moderate" Wahhabism, for it is an amoral power ideology that cannot accept the coexistence of Muslim and non-Muslim civilizations. No wonder it can't explain itself forthrightly to Americans. American Muslims who wish to dissociate themselves from these extremists have their work cut out for them.

Stephen Schwartz is working on a book to be titled The Two Faces of Islam.

November 12, 2001 - Volume 7, Number 9