September 06, 2005
One of my more bizarre side-projects involves keeping track of fatwas released by Muslim scholars on the subject of terrorism and the proper conduct of jihad in the service of Islam. Shortly after the London bombings, a number of Muslim groups in Western countries rapidly issued fatwas and/or press releases condemning terrorism and suicide attacks against civilians. These carefully-worded rulings revealed a broad spectrum of opinions in Muslim communities, perhaps even a deep divide between conservative and “liberal” Muslims (see my earlier entry on Canadian Muslim groups).
Last week, Asharq Al-Awsat published an article about a controversial ruling issued by Abu-Basir al-Tartusi, a prominent Salafi ideologue living in London:
Syrian ideologue Abd-al-Munim Mustafa Abu-Halimah, also known as Abu-Basir al-Tartusi, said on his website under the headline "A Word of Warning About Suicide Operations: "I have received 1,000 questions about these operations, which are for me closer to suicide than martyrdom. They are haram (Forbidden) and impermissible, for several reasons." Al-Tartusi, who lives in London, cited in the fatwa that he issued the day before yesterday some of the (Prophet Muhammad's) sayings, among them: "Anyone who harms a believer has no jihad." He said this is for someone who merely harms a believer, so imagine if he kills him, and kills him deliberately." He also cited the saying of the Honorable Messenger: "One who kills a non-Muslim does not find the winds of paradise; its wind is to be found from a 70 years walk"…
Al-Tartusi said in his fatwa dated 24 August and published on his website: "Suicide operations necessarily mean a person killing himself with his own hand. This contravenes dozens of the shariah texts that are well documented and proven and which prohibit a person from killing himself with his own hand, whatever the reason for doing so. God Almighty says (And spend of your substance in the cause of Allah and make not your own hands contribute to (your death) and his Honorable Messenger said: "One who kills himself for something on earth will pay the penalty on the Day of Judgment."
Al-Tartusi’s website is essentially a collection of opinions/rulings on various matters relating to Islamic conduct. This fatwa, along with a previous condemnation of the London bombers, became the focus of much controversy on radical Islamist websites. Al-Tartusi effectively ruled out the designation of British citizens as “attackers” (harbiyyun) and made it clear that revenge was not a justifiable reason for this type of violence under Islamic law. Part of the backlash included an anonymous refutation of al-Tartusi’s fatwa, entitled “The Base of Legitimacy for the London Bombings, and Response to the disgraceful Statement by Abu Basir al-Tartusi”. This counter-fatwa essentially repeats arguments made by hardline Saudi clerics to justify the 9/11 attacks (available here, in Arabic), but does not directly attack al-Tartusi. Still, the “popular” outrage as described in Asharq Al-Awsat was severe:
The fundamentalists launched a bitter attack on Al-Tartusi on their websites and accused him of letting down "Al-Qaeda's" supporters. One of them asked, "What do you expect from him when he lives in London?" Another Islamist writing under a false name said, "One should not get attached to these people because they did not fight before. The rules on jihad are taken from the mujahidin. I never thought of learning about jihad from those sitting who are used to issuing fatwas from London."
While this is a typical exclusionist reaction to differences in opinion, seeing it directed at an acknowledged ideological leader is a bit unusual. For these extremists, hardly anyone is considered a “true” Muslim, particularly those who are exposed to “Western” (in the monolithic, stereotyped sense) values. According to his critics, al-Tartusi's time in London has made him complacent and too far removed from the front lines to make appropriate judgements.
When radicals begin to reject their own ideological foundation in favor of even more spectacular and destructive forms of violence, is it a sign that the movement is self-destructing? Perhaps al-Tartusi believes that Islamic fundamentalism is losing popular support as ordinary Muslims become sickened by indiscriminate killing of Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Even if his views now diverge from the psychotic fringe of radical Islam, a mainstream backlash could damage “moderate” Islamic revival movements as well.
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I really don't care if your heart's in the right place, but I'm just a little bit doubtful here.
What exactly are you trying to achieve with this "bizarre" habit of yours that involves conducting web searches of Fatwas for suicide bombings and trying to decide if they like it or not.
If some respected Islamic scholar comes up with some Fatwa or other, one way or the other, does this mean we should all treat this as something worthy of respect?
Or should one negotiate with him on his own terms?
Posted by: Ahem at September 7, 2005 09:58 AM
Well, I figured the answer would be obvious by inspection, but since it isn't for some:
Islam is "decentralized" in that there is no single voice that can claim to speak for all Muslims in all regions of the world. Collecting press releases and fatwas from different groups and leaders demonstrates the vast differences in opinion about suicide bombers and what they are trying to achieve. A bit important to be aware of popular opinion if one is trying to win a "hearts and minds" war.
The interesting thing about this scholar is that he is an acknowledged leader of the Salafi-Jihadi movement. For him to condemn the practice of suicide attacks is very significant, not just because it shows he is "rational" and concerned about adherence to Islamic law, but because it shows there are ideological rifts within the radical fundamentalist movement itself.
It's rather self-centered and simplistic to think about this in terms of "negotiating with terrorists", instead of recognizing the significance of conservative Muslims taking issue with Zarqawi's activities in Iraq and the bombers in London.
Posted by: eerie at September 7, 2005 11:01 AM
Well, for the dim:
"If some respected Islamic scholar comes up with some Fatwa or other, one way or the other, does this mean we should all treat this as something worthy of respect?
Or should one negotiate with him on his own terms?"
Knowing who is saying what is a central part of understanding where opinion is going, how the the issue is evolving in situ. Intelligence, as it were. This negotiating clap trap and overdone phobia of the same is merely empty blithering.
Posted by: The Lounsbury at September 7, 2005 12:39 PM
"If some respected Islamic scholar comes up with some Fatwa or other, one way or the other, does this mean we should all treat this as something worthy of respect?"
Remember, the West cannot win the "war" against terrorism in the Islamic world. Only the Islamic world can win the war against terrorism in the Islamic world. It's people like Al-Tartusi who are on the front line of that war.
At the end of the day, Islamic extremism is an Islamic problem and only Islam can deal with it. The West can treat the problem as they did in Afghanistan by degrading extremists' physical ability to engage in terrorism. But only Islam can cure extremism by attacking and eventually eradicating the ideas that underlie it.
That's why understanding the ongoing debate in Islam about extremism is so important.
Posted by: Anonymous at September 7, 2005 11:17 PM