Moderate Muslims try to rein in extremists' messages
- From: "DoD" <thecats@xxxxxx>
- Date: Tue, 10 Jan 2006 13:52:49 -0600
ATHENS, Greece - It's becoming known as the war of the fatwas: the dizzying
exchange of proclamations between Islamic moderates and extremists on what
it means to be Muslim. The duels have been waged everywhere from pamphlets
Now some Muslim leaders seek to shift tactics against radicals. Their hope
rests in one of Islam's most elemental questions: Who has the real authority
to make religious rulings and other interpretations of the faith?
Proposals to sharply control the issuing of fatwas - the nonbinding edicts
on Muslim life, law and duties - are still little more than loose concepts
and would require potentially stormy challenges to Islam's traditions of
But there are some influential backers such as Jordan's King Abdullah II.
They argue that bold changes are needed in Islam's hierarchy to isolate
radical clerics and discredit terrorist leaders, including Osama bin Laden,
who have used self-styled religious decrees to justify their views and
Abdullah, who brought his anti-terrorism message to Athens last week, has
appealed for moderate Muslims to take decisive control over fatwas and
religious guidance. In early December, Abdullah told the 56-member
Organization of the Islamic Conference that failure to establish a clear
framework to interpret Islam leaves the door open for radicals to strengthen
The summit in Mecca, Saudi Arabia - Islam's holiest site - wrapped up with a
statement reinforcing that only "those who are authorized" can issue fatwas.
The monarchs, prime ministers and other delegates, however, could reach
little common ground on a proposal to give a single body of Islamic law
experts greater oversight of all fatwas covering the Muslim world.
It was a sample of the huge religious and political complications that stalk
any efforts to change the centuries-old fatwa practices.
Islamic scholars say a change would require a fundamental shift away from
Islam's traditions that spread religious authority far and wide rather than
under a single leader or institution. Some powerful centers of Islamic
learning, such as Egypt's Al-Azhar University, also resist changes that
could diminish their theological voice.
"Religious authority is in the eyes of the beholder and not anywhere else,"
said Abdullahi An-Na'im, an expert in Islamic law at Emory University in
Atlanta. "This reality has not changed in 15 centuries of history, and will
not change now."
But now there's the Internet and other ways to spread messages to mass
audiences - which some commentators have dubbed "the war of the fatwas."
One of the most infamous salvos was the February 1998 one in which bin Laden
and his followers called on Muslims to "kill the Americans and their
allies." It's been blamed for inspiring some of the most staggering
terrorist strikes, including the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Other extremists increasingly have followed suit with fatwa-style
declarations of their own - including statements attributed to terrorist
chief Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the alleged mastermind of the Nov. 9 hotel
bombings in Amman, Jordan, that killed 60 people.
Moderate clerics initially were slow to react to the radical fatwas. But now
there's a potent counterattack.
In March, Spain's Muslim leaders issued a fatwa condemning al-Qaida on the
anniversary of the 2004 train bombings that claimed 191 lives. A similar
anti-terrorist fatwa was made by Britain's largest Sunni Muslim group after
the July attacks that killed 52 commuters.
Jordan announced in December it will prosecute clerics who promote violence
or issue fatwas without state permission, becoming the latest Muslim nation
seeking to muzzle radical Islam.
"The fatwa, unfortunately, has become a tool of terrorists," said
Abdulssalam Al-Abbadi, Jordan's former religious-affairs minister. "We
cannot keep having two versions of Islam: the correct and moderate views and
the violent and extremists views. It's tearing apart the faith."
Many Westerners first learned of fatwas through the 1989 decree by the
founder of Iran's Islamic Revolution, the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini,
to kill British author Salman Rushdie for perceived insults to Islam in his
book "The Satanic Verses." But mainstream fatwas are not intended as
mandates and rarely have anything to do with violence.
They are essentially opinions from Islamic scholars covering everything from
proper conduct during religious pilgrimages to family relationships and
dating. One popular Web site - "Ask Imam Online" - even gets down to
questions such as whether it's permissible for women to pluck their
eyebrows. The reply was yes.
Fatwas, however, are not binding, and views on the same subject can vary.
They gain force from consensus among experts in Islamic law and traditions.
Attempts to establish a single authority for fatwas would likely meet with
extreme resistance, some Islamic theologians predict.
"It's impossible," said Ashirbek Muminov, a researcher on Islam at the
Kazakh Oriental Studies Institute in Almaty, Kazakhstan.
It goes beyond fighting ancient traditions, he added. Many Muslims -
particularly in former Soviet republics - will distrust "official" imams and
others given oversight powers, he said.
The established view is that fatwas can come only from those grounded in
Islamic jurisprudence, known as "fiqh."
The struggle for moderate Muslims is to raise somehow the "serious issue ...
that the so-called fatwas of radical Islamists shouldn't be taken as
authoritative," said James Turner Johnson, a professor of religion at
"But I don't see the radicals giving up the practice of issuing their own
fatwas," he added. "Doing so wraps their message in a familiar religious
form and gives it at least a superficial authority. It tends to establish
them as the 'real' leadership of Muslims."
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