Fatwa Stirs Debate Among U.S. Muslims Some Contend Anti-Terror Edict Meaningless

By RACHEL ZOLL AP religion writer As they issued an edict condemning religious extremism, American Muslims hoped to silence complaints from outsiders dating back to the Sept. 11 attacks that the community has done too little to confront terrorism. But as soon as last week’s statement was released, sharp criticism came from another source – within the U.S. Muslim community itself. Several American Muslim academics now say that the edict, or fatwa, was so broad it was meaningless, and should have denounced specific terrorist groups including al-Qaida. Critics also said the declaration seemed geared more toward improving the faith’s image rather than starting an honest discussion about Islamic teaching. “The bulk of the Islamic tradition as it exists does stand against these lunatic, savage attacks on civilians,” said Omid Safi, a Colgate University religion professor and chairman of the Progressive Muslim Union, an American reform group. “But I would be more inclined to say there are elements of extremism in many parts of our tradition. Rather than simply saying these are not a part of Islam, I would acknowledge that these trends are there and do away with them.” Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Washington-based civil rights group which endorsed the fatwa, said no specific groups were named because “it would have been a laundry list.” “I think you can safely regard anyone listed on the State Department list (of terrorist groups) as included,” Hooper said. That list includes the Islamic militant group Hamas, which many Palestinians believe is waging a legitimate fight against Israel. “It’s not likely that someone who is already considering some act of terrorism would be dissuaded by this, but you never know if you’re going to prevent someone from going on the ideological road that would lead them to this activity,” Hooper said. Muslims around the world have been under renewed pressure to denounce terrorism following last month’s deadly bombings in Britain and Egypt, along with the drumbeat of insurgent attacks on civilians and coalition troops in Iraq. The U.S. fatwa, written by the Fiqh Council of North America, an advisory committee on Islamic law, said nothing in Islam justifies religious extremism or terrorism targeting civilians. The council further declared that Muslims were obligated to help law enforcement protect civilians anywhere from attacks. Fiqh Council chairman Muzammil H. Siddiqi said the edict applied even when a Muslim country has been taken over by a foreign power. In Britain last month, two groups of Muslim leaders separately denounced the July 7 London attacks, but one said suicide bombing could still be justified against an occupying power, while another said it could not. “Occupation is wrong, of course, but at the same time this is not the way,” Siddiqi said. But Abdullahi An-Na’im, who specializes in Islamic law and human rights at Emory University, said the American fatwa was misleading. He said the scholars could not say “in good faith” that Islamic law, called Shariah, required Muslims to assist an invader. “What is Shariah’s position on an invasion or occupation of a Muslim country by a non-Muslim country? Put bluntly in those terms, I don’t think that any credible scholar could say this is legitimate,” An-Na’im said. “If the same group of scholars were asked to issue a fatwa over the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, which is the underlying thing, what would that fatwa be and how would Americans feel about it?” The debate is complicated by the fact that Islam has no ordained clergy or central authority, like a pope, who can hand down definitive teaching. Islamic leaders with conflicting views regularly claim they are authorized to issue the edicts. An-Na’im pointed out that Iranian Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini has issued fatwas promoting violence against what he sees as Muslim oppressors; An-Na’im wondered why any Muslim would feel bound, then, to follow the American declaration denouncing it. Muqtedar Khan, a political scientist at the University of Delaware and author of “American Muslims,” said it appeared the main aim of the U.S. fatwa was protecting U.S. Muslim leaders and organizations from criticism. And the edict may have fallen short of even that goal, he said. “They should have been at least specific about events, if not individuals or organizations. They did not condemn al-Qaida or (Osama) bin laden. It would have had more punch to end all these claims that American Muslims are not doing enough to end terrorism if they had,” Khan said. Disagreement over the declaration was inevitable – American Islam is a diverse mix of millions of immigrants and U.S.-born converts. Also, there is no major center of Islamic learning in the United States, and some Muslims even questioned whether the 18 scholars who issued the fatwa had the classical training required to interpret Islamic law, Safi said. Yet even critics acknowledged something constructive could develop from the fatwa, despite its shortcomings. They hoped it would prompt Muslims to undertake a thorough examination of Islamic teachings and traditions to make a convincing case against terrorism. Said Safi: “There should be a follow-up conversation about what you do with the medieval legacy of how jihad (struggle) is undertaken, rather than saying these things are never a part of Islam.”