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Battle of the fatwas

The real jihadist battle is Muslim against Muslim. Can the clerics mobilize to protect Islam?

November 16, 2005|Reza Aslan | REZA ASLAN is a scholar of religions and author of "No god but God: The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam" (Random House, 2005).

ON JULY 6, 170 of the world's leading Muslim clerics and scholars gathered in Amman, Jordan, where, in an unprecedented display of inter-sectarian collaboration, they issued a joint fatwa denouncing all acts of terrorism committed in the name of Islam. Never before had representatives of every major sect and school of law in Islam assembled as a single body, much less addressed issues of mutual concern.

Yet the message of the Amman declaration against terrorism was neither new nor unique. Despite lingering misperceptions in the West, since Sept. 11, 2001, hundreds of fatwas have been issued by Muslim groups and clerical leaders around the world denouncing terrorism in general and Al Qaeda in particular. Needless to say, the fatwas have had no influence on murderous jihadists such as the Jordanian-born Al Qaeda leader Abu Musab Zarqawi. Four months after the July 6 gathering, in what may not be a coincidence of timing, Amman became his group's latest target.

In one way in particular, the Amman fatwa targeted the likes of Zarqawi. Among its many pronouncements against violence and extremism was an all-encompassing statement reaffirming the long-standing principle that no one but a qualified Muslim cleric could issue a fatwa. It was meant as a direct rebuke of Osama bin Laden and Zarqawi, neither of them clerics or scholars, who routinely issue their own -- illegitimate -- fatwas declaring, among other things, jihad on the United States. These fatwas have as much legitimacy for the Muslim clerics as a papal bull issued by a Catholic Church youth leader would for the Vatican.

Moreover, the Amman declaration signaled an implicit, if belated, recognition on the part of the international Muslim clergy of what many scholars of Islam and observers of the region have been saying for decades: The conflicts taking place in many parts of the Arab and Muslim world are not the result of a "clash of civilizations" between Islam and the West but rather are part of an internal conflict among Muslims. In that light, the Amman declaration was, above all, an attempt by Islam's clerical leaders to re-exert some measure of influence in the war to define the faith and practice of more than a billion people.

It didn't work.

The day after the Amman gathering, four young British Muslims obliterated themselves and 52 bus and Tube passengers during the height of rush hour in London. Almost immediately, Muslim clerics in Britain and throughout the world issued another round of fatwas, once again denouncing the use of violence and terrorism in the name of Islam.

Two weeks later, a bomb demolished a hotel in the resort town of Sharm el Sheik, Egypt, killing nearly 100 people -- many of them poor, almost all of them Muslim. Another wave of fatwas were released, followed by another wave of attacks against Muslim targets, this time in Bangladesh. More fatwas; more attacks. In Amman, nearly all of the 57 people killed in the Nov. 9 triple-suicide bombings were Jordanian or Palestinian Muslims.

THE TRUTH IS that the overwhelming majority of recent terrorist attacks launched by Bin Laden and his jihadist allies have killed other Muslims -- in Tunisia, Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Morocco. That's because the primary target of the jihadist crusade is not the West (what the jihadists term "the far enemy") but those hundreds of millions of moderate Muslims who do not share their fanatical, puritan beliefs ("the near enemy").

Of course, the "far enemy" is still a target of jihadism, as residents of New York, Madrid and London can attest. But even those attacks must be placed in the wider context of the internal battle within Islam. The attacks of 9/11, for example, were by Bin Laden's own admission specifically designed to goad the United States into exaggerated retaliation against the Islamic world so as to galvanize other Muslims to join the jihadist cause. The idea was to mobilize the Muslim world to choose sides in an internal battle over the future of Islam by framing the inevitable U.S. response to 9/11 as a war not against terrorism but against Islam itself.

So far, the plan has worked brilliantly. Since President Bush launched the "war on terror" as a "crusade" against "evildoers," large numbers of Muslims, marshaled by jihadist propaganda, have flocked to Bin Laden's cause. Indeed, what has made Bin Laden so successful is his ability to place himself in direct opposition to the traditional clerical authorities in a bid to appeal to Muslims whose sense of alienation has made them yearn for alternative sources of leadership.

Islam has no equivalent of the Catholic tradition of excommunication, and the authority of the clerics to fight extremism is limited. Nevertheless, in Tunisia, Muslim clerics have been offering imprisoned low-level jihadists the opportunity to repent and denounce violent extremism so as to reenter the worldwide community of faith -- and get out of jail. Many have accepted the offer, and similar programs are being contemplated in other parts of the Arab and Muslim world.

Still, the only way moderate clerics will be able to turn back the tide of jihadism in Islam is by recognizing that, along with most of the world's 1.2 billion Muslims, they are far more threatened by the rise of Islamic terrorism than is the West.

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