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Violent fatwas worry Muslim governments
by Samir Khalil Samir, sj
Rulers in Muslim countries are coming to terms with the fact that their religion is in a deep crisis. One sign is the growing number of fatwas or legal pronouncement ordering the murder of atheists, apostates, Israeli civilians . . . . But their calls for reform are just cosmetic. For Muslim governments the “violent and terrorist” Islam is a figment of the Western iimagination, except for a few liberal Muslims who are ready for self-criticsm. Here is the second in a series of articles analysing Islam’s crisis, by Fr Samir Khalil Samir.
Islam’s crisis is of interest to governments also. On December 7 and 8, 2005, a conference was held at Mecca which sought ways to stem the spreading crisis. Muslim politicians and intellectuals from all over the world attended the conference, which was called by the Organization of Islamic States. Here, I shall seek to examine it.
To start with, the document affirms and explicitly recognizes the crisis being experienced by the Muslim world. To strive to save Islam from the abyss, government leaders listed various causes of the crisis. The first is the flood of fatwas, which have become an affliction of Islamic societies.
1. The fatwa flood
Fatwas are judgements by more or less learned figures who seek to indicate the Islamic way to be followed in the various concerns of life. At the outset of Islam, fatwas were exceptional pronouncements, made by personnel with specific qualifications and accreditation: being political decisions, they were not at the discretion of every imam (prayer leader) nor of every faqīh (Islamic jurist). Later, the number of fatwa suppliers grew disproportionately, as they invaded every aspect of believers’ lives. These fatwas are often so awkward that Arab newspapers make fun of them.
The fatwahs targeted at Mecca were above all those in favour of violence. These are the ones that give Islam the image of being tied to terrorism. Representatives of Islamic governments said “Enough with imams who assume the right to say: Kill this group, or who legitimate jihād (holy war), to use the term used by the Islamic Conference. It should be said that, in Islam, the problem of violence is tied to war. And war, in order to be justified, must be preceded by a declaration of jihād.
2. Fatwas of violence and terror
When an imam declares a situation of jihād, it means that every Muslim, according to the means at his disposal, has the duty to fight the aggressor to defend and spread Islam. Such battles can be with arms and with physical violence, giving rise to warriors, the mujāhidīn. Those who are not able to fight directly can do their part by paying those who go to war. Another way of fighting — especially against atheists — is to defend Islam through writings. Even women, by having more children, contribute in their specific way to jihād. In any case, all Muslims without exception are called to jihād.
There has been, in recent years, a multiplication of the numbers of imams who order the killing of Israelis. The most famous imam in the Muslim world today, Yussef al Qaradāwi launched a fatwa that justifies Palestinian terrorist attacks against civilian Israelis. Al-Qaradawi is an Eyptian living in the Emirates, but he also travels a lot to Europe, London and Ireland, where the European Fatwa Institute is located. This institute has a very important role in Europe, at times positive, at times negative. Years ago, Al-Qaradawi made public a fatwa in which he explained that a kamikaze, a mujāhid, who blows himself up in a café, on a street or in a bus of Tel Aviv or elsewhere in Israel is a true martyr.
To understand the value of this fatwa, it must be said that Muslim tradition does not allow the killing of an unarmed person. Jihād can be carried out only against an armed opponent. Al-Qaradāwi found the way to justify the killing of civilians. He explains that, at this point, all of Israel is like an army, an aggressor against Islam, because all Israelis support the occupation of Palestine, of Islamic territory.
3. Correcting Islam’s image
After having criticized fatwas on violence, the Mecca document tackled the question of takfīr, the declaration that a person is kāfir, that is, a misbeliever, an atheist. Due to the crisis of Islam, the tendency has grown in the Muslim world for reciprocal accusations of “misbelief.” The Pakistani girl killed by her father in Brescia (Italy) in August 2006 was considered a “bad Muslim.” Many Islamic governments are accused of having betrayed the Muslim cause and of being “misbelievers”: this is the accusation that Al Qaeda makes against Saudi Arabia, but also Egypt, Jordan, etc…. In the war between Iraq and Iran, each of the two countries had first to demonstrate that the other was kāfir in order to be able to attack!
The Mecca document asks that such reciprocal ostracism be curbed, as it weakens the unity of the Umma, the Islamic community. Plus, this situation gives Islam an image of violence that misrepresents Islam which, by its nature, is according to the document, a religion of tolerance (dīn al-samāh). And Muslim governments are very worried about the image, negative and violent, that the rest of the world has of Islam. Fundamentalists instead are not worried about this image: in their opinion, this shows even more how corrupt the West is: i.e., to the point of not understanding that violence against Evil comes from the Good.
The document’s third point deals with efforts to save Muslim identity which is “under attack from all sides.” With some flattery of radical tendencies, the document slides into the “victimization” of Islam, saying that the crisis depends on the fact that the entire world is targeting and criticizing the Muslim religion. The document dwells on the fact that the West and the world have a deformed image of Islam. Thus, to save Islamic identity and correct the incorrect clichés of the international community, it was decided at Mecca to “give a positive image of Islam, of the authentic Umma.”
The document claims the fact that Islam created an Islamic civilization and, what is more, contributed to building a universal civilization. To attain a more positive image, the governments at Mecca have decided to “give priority to reforms and progress, in accordance with human civilization, taking inspiration however from sharia, justice and equality.” The document does not however go beyond these generic declarations of principle, and indicates in its conclusion the need for “a 10-year plan for reforming society.”
And to change the deformed image that the West has of the Muslim world, the governments have decided to spread a true understanding of Islam in the West. For these governments, which are influenced by radical ideas, the image that the West has of Islam is incorrect. The Mecca document risks being superficial in its analysis and solutions. What is at stake for them, in the end, is just “How to change Islam’s image?” correcting certain aspects here and there.
Only the liberal Islamic world has the courage to say: “This is the image that we Muslims give, it is not something invented by Westerners. If it does not correspond to true Islam, then that at is because we are not presenting true Islam.” The most radical question is being asked by liberal intellectuals: how to change our interpretation of Islam? The problem, in fact, is not just the violence of fatwas, or the way in which the West sees Islam, but a way to put Islamic religion into effect in daily life.
Furthermore, fatwas reflect the confusion experienced by a large section of religious Muslims. They are not able to reconcile Islam with modernity and are afraid to make mistakes that might distance them from “true Islam.” So they ask for fatwas, and the mufti (the suppliers of fatwa) come up with them on everything and on nothing, responding to the thousands of requests that they receive! That fatwas are being requested attests to confusion and religious ignorance; a fatwa is reassuring and dictates the conduct to follow in even the smallest details of daily life.