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Fatwa Frenzy

The Muslim backlash against terrorism has begun with many Muslim groups speaking out, but are they being heard?

12:00 AM, Aug 18, 2005 • By JOSEPH LOCONTE
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THE VICIOUS TERRORIST ATTACKS over the last 18 months--in Spain, Egypt, Great Britain, and Iraq--appear to have Muslim organizations in the West on the defensive. It's not unusual anymore to hear clerics in Europe and America say they're prepared to expel extremists from their mosques. More Islamic authors and organizations are condemning terrorism without a string of qualifiers. There's even support in some Muslim quarters for the tough anti-terrorism laws proposed this month by Britain's Tony Blair. The doctrine that the intentional killing of civilians is always wrong seems to be winning a new level of rhetorical support.

None of this can be equated with a serious campaign against extremism, of course. Influential clerics in the religious centers of the Islamic world continue to equivocate, even about Osama bin Laden; many if not most muftis, or jurists, endorse the terrorist activities of Hamas and Hezbollah. Nevertheless, ordinary Muslims in the West are growing impatient with their leaders' silence or hedging on terrorism.

Over the last six months, Muslim authorities have issued several self-described "fatwas," unenforceable legal rulings, condemning violence against civilians. These statements--from the Islamic Commission of Spain, the British Muslim Forum, and the Fiqh Council of North America--all cite the Koran to condemn the taking of innocent life.

The Spanish fatwa, issued a year after the Madrid train bombings, takes the unusual step of condemning Osama bin Laden as an apostate. It reads in part: "The terrorist acts of Osama ben Laden . . . that entail the destruction of buildings or properties, that entail the death of civilians, like women and children, or other similar things, they are prohibited . . . within Islam." The ruling also rejects as a "fraud" the terrorists' claim to be "defending the oppressed nations of the world or the rights of Muslims."

Less than two weeks after the July 7 bombings in London, the British Muslim Forum announced a fatwa that "strictly, strongly and severely" condemns the use of violence against civilians: "Suicide bombings, which killed and injured innocent people in London, are haram--vehemently prohibited in Islam--and those who committed these barbaric acts in London are criminals, not martyrs."

Most recently, the Fiqh Council of North America issued an "absolute condemnation" of terrorism. "Islam strictly condemns religious extremism and the use of violence against innocent lives," wrote the 18-member council. Given the unsavory past rhetoric and affiliations of many of the 130 organizations and leaders who have endorsed it, this statement cannot be taken at face value. That the council felt compelled to issue it, however, is worth noting.

"I think there's a little more clarity in these fatwas than any past effort," says Husain Haqqani, who teaches international relations at Boston University. "But . . . will they be reiterated on a day-to-day basis in Muslim discourse?" Others complain that the rulings don't come from the centers of gravity of the Islamic world--from authorities in Mecca or legal scholars at al-Azhar University in Cairo. Mamoun Fandy, a fellow at the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University, puts it dryly: "A fatwa from Brooklyn or the National Press Club--that's not where Muslims go to get their fatwas."

AS FANDY AND OTHERS ARGUE, unless "extreme pressure" is applied on Muslims everywhere to treat terrorists as pariahs, very little will change. In this sense, it is important to watch the Islamic response to Tony Blair's anti-terrorism initiative. Among other things, it will make it easier for the government to deport foreigners who are "advocating violence" and it will criminalize the "condoning or glorifying" of terrorism. Since Muslim organizations have failed to police themselves, Blair seemed to suggest, the government will now do it for them: A list will be drawn up of extremist websites, bookshops, networks, and organizations of concern.

"I'm glad that . . . the government is finally taking action to deal with this menace," says Omar Farooq, of the Islamist Society of Britain, in response to Blair's proposal. "Day after day these lunatics, on our behalf, go into the broadsheets, on to the televisions screens, and are really messing up our lives here. We don't want that to happen."