By Walid Phares
Posted: July 28, 2008
Many in the West and in other regions of the world were impressed by the issuing of a fatwa (Islamic theological edict) condemning Terrorism by one of the leading religious centers in the Muslim world, the Darool-Uloom Deoband in India. An Islamic seminary said to have 'inspired' the Taliban has, according to the said document denounced "terrorism" as against Islam, calling it an "unpardonable sin."
Hoping for a major change in ideology, international counter terrorism authorities and policy makers have been asking experts to determine if the Deobandi declaration will help counter the calls for violent Jihad by al Qaeda and its ilk around the world. In the war of ideas with the Jihadists, many Western architects of strategic communications look for any sign that hearts and minds may be changing course and sympathies. From Washington DC to Brussels and beyond, bureaucrats tasked with exploring the Muslim world for new trends, shop around for what they call "counter-narrative against extremism."
The Deobandi School, a classical third branch for Salafi Islamism (along with Wahabism and Muslim Brotherhood), has significant weight in the South Asia Theater. Its teachings based on a strict interpretation of Islamic law have reached many countries, including Afghanistan and Britain, where they are said to have indoctrinated the Taliban.
"If they change course, al Qaeda and the Taliban are finished," I heard in Europe and the United States. So the question now is have they changed doctrinal direction and is this fatwa the evidence?
I regretfully conclude that it is not the case yet.It looked good at first
Tens of thousands of clerics and students from around India attended a meeting at the 150-year-old Deoband, north of New Delhi, and declared that they stand "against acts of terrorism."
"There is no place for terrorism in Islam," Maulana Marghoobur Rahman, the older rector of Deoband, told Reuters. "Terrorism, killing of the innocent is against Islam. It is a faith of love and peace, not violence." Rahman said it was unjust to equate Islam with terrorism, to see every Muslim as a suspect or for governments to use this to harass innocent Muslims.
"There are so many examples of people from other communities being caught with bombs and weapons, why are they never convicted?" said Qazi Mohammed Usman, deputy head of Deoband. The meeting defined terrorism as any action targeting innocent people, both Muslim and non-Muslim, whether committed by an individual, an institution or a government.
These statements could be seen as impressive when quoted by news agencies rushing to break the good news, but to the seasoned analysts of Salafism, the solid doctrinal roots of Jihadism were kept untouched. Here is why.
Goals of the fatwa
From the fatwa itself and the statements made as it was issued, the following political goals likely motivated the gathering and the fatwa.
Create a separation in the eyes of the public discourse between Islam (as a religion) and terrorism as an illegal violent activity.
Such a move is legitimate and to be encouraged as it diminishes the tensions towards Muslims in non-Muslim countries, particularly in the West, as some are claiming that the Islamic religion is theologically linked to the acts and statements of the Jihadists. The logic of "we are Muslims and we are against Terrorism," helps significantly the disassociation between the community and the acts of violence. However, without criticizing the ideological roots of this violence, the fatwa seem to state a wishful thinking, not an injunction. A more powerful fatwa should have openly and expressly said: "we reject the calls for violent Jihad regardless of the motives." For the followers of Jihadism do not consider their Jihad as "terrorism." Their answer has always been -to these types of fatwas- "but we aren't performing terrorism, we are conducting Jihad." Thus, at this crucial level, the Deobandi fatwa missed the crux of the problem.
Deny governments the ability to use the accusation that Islam condones Terrorism to oppress Muslims.
The fatwa is concerned with geopolitics more than theological reform. Concern for the safety of one's co-religionists is of course legitimate and should be addressed. But Jihadism, the legitimizing root of political violence, cannot be ignored in any effort to protect the lives of Muslims.
There is no evidence that modern day governments have expressly linked religion to terrorism; quite the opposite. Almost all national leaders involved in the confrontation with Jihadi forces since 9/11 have clearly made a clear distinction between religion and terrorism.
Some even went further by negating any link whatsoever between theological texts and Jihadism, which of course is not accurate. For in the texts, there are passages used by the Terrorists in their indoctrination. Hence, the Deobandi fatwa should have instead asked clearly the Jihadists not to use these citations or else they would be considered as sinners themselves. But instead of using their religious prominence to remove the theological weapon from the hands of the Jihadists, the Deobandi clerics are attempting to shield the Jihadists from the actions of Governments by denying that these extremists are indeed using -- and abusing -- religion.
Some may argue that the fatwa's open goal is to defend Muslims from being unjustly targeted by non-Muslim governments (a positive move) but a thorough analysis of the text used shows that the main intention of that declaration is to defend the Islamists from being contained by both Muslim and non-Muslim Governments around the world. In other words by denying that Jihadism is the root cause of many acts of Terror in Europe, the US, Africa, the Greater Middle East and Asia, the Deobandi fatwa in fact is shielding the Jihadists from the accusation of Terrorism, thus protecting them.
Who is "innocent"?
The fatwa defined terrorism as violence "targeting innocent people." Such a definition is not new and doesn't set clear boundaries. For the question at hand is what does "innocent" mean? On several web sites and on many shows on al Jazeera television, Jihadi apologists often use the Arabic term"bare'e" for "innocent" and assure the audience that Jihad cannot target the latter.
But Usama Bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri, and to some extent Hassan Nasrallah, all claim that innocence is relative. Al Qaeda explicitly targets innocent civilians and has authorized the massacre of 4 million US citizens as of 2001. Bin laden explains that civilians who vote for and pay taxes to the infidel enemy are not "innocent."
Hezbollah targets innocent civilians as well, not only in Israel but also in Lebanon and overseas (as in Argentina). The concept of "innocent" isn't that innocent in Jihadism. For the militant ideologues can render individuals and groups "bare'e' or not "bare'e" at their discretion.
Leading Islamist scholar Sheikh Yusuf al Qardawi expounds at will on the innocence of civilians, detailing how civilian populations have been considered as part of the war efforts of the enemies of the Caliphate. In short, the status of "innocence" doesn't overlap fully with the status of "civilians." It is a matter of discretion in Jihadi warfare. Hence, to claim that Terrorism is defined as targeting innocent people is to claim that not all civilians are innocent, and that not only breaches international law, but gives credence to Jihadi violence.
Who is a "terrorist"?
Moreover, still the fatwa doesn't identify al Qaeda, or any other similar group, including the Taliban, as Terrorist organizations. And as of now, no subsequent fatwas based on this Deobandi fatwa have done so yet. Therefore, in terms of identification of terror entities, the edict has failed to show its followers who is the terror perpetrator.
This text simply doesn't bring novelty to the debate about Jihadi-rooted Terrorism. For years, particularly since 2001, Islamist ideologues and militant groups have refrained from simply naming those terror groups as such. Spokespersons have constantly repeated that condemning terrorism in general is enough.
If the Muslim scholars followed this logic on the question of occupations, then neither Iraq nor Palestine should be specifically mention. But that is not the case.
The Deobandi fatwa didn't explain what where the legal basis for the edict. Was there any new ground broken? Which were the previous rules that have changed regarding terrorism? Is the fatwa a reminder of a principle or a new principle to be adopted? Is the rejection of terrorism a duty (wajib) and what kind of obligation?
All these questions are warranted so that a fair assessment of the statement can be issued. Unfortunately, the legal grounds are not specific enough to enable readers -- and eventually followers -- to understand the absolute injunction of rejection of Terrorism.
The body of fatwas
Historically, there have been similar statements and fatwas issued in other quarters of the Middle East, yet they haven't had a definitive impact on reality. And by exploring the reason behind the inefficiency of these declarations, one finds that the body of fatwas remains below the level of a reform, of a doctrinal radical rejection of Jihadism as a aqidah (doctrine).
The Deobandi fatwa -- like its predecessors -- tells followers that the principle of Jihadi wars (efforts) is sound and that the level of innocence of the target is discretionary but that engagement in violence has to be disciplined and not chaotic. In short, don't give the infidels an alibi to compromise the ultimate goals by waging irresponsible acts of violence. Simply put: we don't need Jihadism to be labeled as Terrorism.
Because of its unclear stipulations, there is room for more precise fatwas calling for violence against one or another targets, and receiving support from indoctrinated segments of society. These future fatwas could undo this Deobandi fatwa.
So in the end, how to deal with this and with similar edicts? At first one should welcome any statement that delegitimizes al Qaeda's hot-headed Jihadism, even if the fatwa doesn't cross the doctrinal line. Any call to stop terrorism is positive and should be built upon.
In principle the Deobandi fatwa should be considered as a step that needs more steps in the direction of a doctrinal reform. Minimally, these fatwas should name al Qaeda and similar groups as Terrorists. But to be considered as breaking a new ground, they must render Jihadi violence illegitimate and terrorism against non combatants illegal, regardless of any theological, ideological or political goals.
Dr Walid Phares is the Director of the Future Terrorism Project at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington and a visiting scholar at the European Foundation for Democracy in Brussels. He is the author of The Confrontation: Winning the War Against Future Jihad.
Dr. Phares provides yet another invaluable article. This is required reading.
Posted by: Matt May | July 28, 2008 09:58 AM
Point to Rick Moran: "the use of females as suicide bombers is almost an exclusive al-Qaeda signature"
Wrong, Rick. Using Females as Suicide bombers WAS the exclusive signature of LTTE in Sri Lanka. They blew up Rajiv Gandhi (ex-India PM) and Premadasa (SL President) using female bombers.
A bit of research would help when presenting your case.
And a little reading comprehension might alter your perception. "Almost" exclusive would seem to indicate there are other examples.
Then there's the fact I was writing about Iraq. Perhaps you can enlighten us with your vast knowledge of other examples where female suicide bombers were used by another organization besides AQ in Iraq?
Posted by: Kalyan | July 28, 2008 10:48 AM
Great, great article. Great Analysis on the fatwa released. The fatwa was more fig-leaf measure & was intended to dupe the majority public.
BTW, what coincidence that India suffers from dozen bombings a few weeks after the fatwa. Guess the terrorists didn't receive the message.
Posted by: Kalyan | July 28, 2008 10:59 AM
Kalyan,Female suicide bombers have been employed against Israel. Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, Hamas and Islamic Jihad have used them. Many have come from the Gaza Strip. It's been going on for years.
Posted by: Anonymous | July 28, 2008 01:08 PM
Let them issue all the fatwas they want. Every bombing shows how little the fatwas mean. When people questioned Osama about blowing up innocents in NYC on 9/11, he said that those who pay taxes to the American government aren't innocent. Presumably, this means any and all non-Muslims all over the world are at risk if their government does something that displeases Muslim terrorists.Islam doesn't have a central authority, such as the pope. It's almost a franchise.This Indian group can issue its fatwa and the Wahhabists are under no obligation to obey it.Then, as Dr. Phares points out, there's the definition of "terrorism". Muslims will all insist that they are not terrorists but defenders of their faith. Every act they take is "in defense of Islam". What they won't say out loud is that the existence of another religion or even of a person who doesn't bow before Allah poses a dire threat to Islam. The threat won't be abated until all non-Muslims either convert or die.
Posted by: Anonymous | July 28, 2008 01:23 PM
They're looking for love in all the wrong places. It is not the Deobandi of India that matter here. It is the Deobandi of Pakistan and their politico/terror groups of the MMA. The good news is that the MMA was on a trajectory of turning against al Qaeda last year. The bad news, with the change in power due to the new Pakistani government, I don't know if that trajectory continued. It was a carefully laid plan (I believe originating from US operations) to split the Pakistani support from al Qaeda but the new government may not be able to pull it off.www.bothinonetrench.com
Posted by: Ray Robison | July 28, 2008 02:01 PM
Your article was very interesting and made lots of sense until I got to the last paragraph.
Your conclusion seems to be that the Deobandi fatwa was a step in the direction of doctrinal reform.
My conclusion is, it was just another example of dissimulation.
Posted by: jmb | July 28, 2008 02:04 PM
Anonymous - I was pointing out that it was not Al-Qaeda that started employing female bombers.
By the way, i don't know the history of Hamas & it's terror tactics as well as i know about LTTE.
LTTE started using female bombers as early as late-80s & early-90s. Did Hamas use female bombers that early?
Posted by: Kalyan | July 29, 2008 12:23 AM
I was less than 100 kilometers from the Deobandi seminary when the fatwa was issued. Leftists in the East and West tried to portray it as something substantive--and India's MSM, also leftist, portrayed it as such as well. But there is a growing movement on India's right; they were not fooled. It seems that most Indians "on the street" at that time responded with a shrug. They know better.
In an article I wrote, I simply said to see how the Deoband ACT and not let them mis-direct us by what they say. When all is said and done, they will find the right verbal gymnastics to appease terrorism against US troops, Israel, and India. None of the terrorists who have murdered innocents since the fatwa have been in any way sanctioned.
Posted by: Dr. Richard L. Benkin | July 31, 2008 07:00 AM
Is this piece available for reprint rights in Bombay, India?
Posted by: Sidharth Bhatia, Bombay, India | July 31, 2008 09:16 AM
The reprint rights are for a newspaper in Bombay. Our paper, DNA is the second largest English newspaper in the city with a circulation of four hundred thousand.
Posted by: Sidharth Bhatia, Bombay, India | August 1, 2008 04:09 AM
One thing is to be researched that if Deoband is said to have inspired extremism and 'Islamism', why the phenomenon of militant Islamism or 'terrorism' is a recent one whereas Deoband is more than 100 years old. The socio-political factors have been ignored or suppressed deliberately to blame it all on Deoband. If Deoband has inspired hardline Islamism, why didn't it manifest itself in India where Muslim communal riots one after another ravaged Muslims for more than a half century until the end of one-party domination and the emergence of alliance politics in the country. Terrorism has something to do with politics not with religion. Terrorism has flourished in only those countries where the US has greater control and participation in the local politics.Iraq, Yemen, Pakistan are the cases in sight. Another factor is Saudi funds. Bangladesh is the example of terrorism promoted by Saudi funds.
Linking Deoband to terrorism is a part of the campaign to tarnish the image of madrasas. India's independence owes very much to Deoband as the ulema were the first to declare jihad against the British rule which had rallied the whole Muslim population against the British empire due to which the Muslims had to bear the brunt of the British wrath. The Reshmi Rumal Movement does not find any mention in the history books of India which is unfortunate. The movement was run by the ulema of Deoband. We should not give much importance to the European commentators on the issues concerning our country and society. We should be aware of our history and heritage.