Dozens of local Islamic centers and mosques across the country have held press conferences in the past week endorsing a recent religious edict — or fatwa — condemning “religious extremism and the use of violence against innocent lives.”
The Fiqh Council of North America, a national body of 18 Muslim clerics, issued the fatwa on July 28, and it has since been endorsed by nearly 200 national and local Islamic organizations and mosques. A number of the signatories have independently condemned terrorism in the past, but this is the first time the groups have come together on a national level to make a universal and religiously phrased condemnation of terrorism. The American fatwa comes after Muslim clerics in England issued a similar statement following the July 7 bombings in London.
“The pendulum is definitely swinging in the right direction,” said Peter Bergen, a terrorism expert at the New America Foundation. “We’re hearing a lot of voices now when these events happen.”
Still, given that many of the same Muslim groups have spoken out in the past against killing civilians and no suicide bomber is known to have come from the United States, even the signatories say it is not clear if the fatwa will have any effect on the people committing terrorism. And several skeptics noted that some of the Muslim signatories have been criticized in the past by Jewish and liberal Islamic groups for not doing enough to confront support for religious extremism in the American Muslim community.
For Jewish groups, though, the bigger concern is not the wording of the document, but the accusations that some of the signatories have been tied to terrorist groups. A founder of the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ Texas chapter, for instance, was convicted in April for laundering money for Hamas officials. Another signatory of the fatwa, from Cleveland, Fawaz Damra is in the process of being deported after federal officials said he lied on immigration forms about his work with the Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
In a statement responding to the fatwa, the president of the American Jewish Congress, Paul Miller, pointed to these connections, but said it is exactly because of the broad list of signatories that the Islamic edict could make a difference.
“Ironically,” Miller added, “because the current unequivocal statement comes from those with radical credentials it is likely to have far greater impact than past pronouncements in putting an end to the acceptability of terror.”
Representatives of some Jewish and liberal Islamic groups said the current fatwa is an encouraging sign, but not a substitute for action.
“It’s not only a matter of issuing a press release,” said Zainab Al-Suwaij, executive director of the American Islamic Congress, a liberal group that has worked to promote interfaith tolerance. “There is work that needs to be happening inside the community — to eliminate the problematic teaching going on in sermons and religious schools.”
Critics of Muslim groups pointed to a report from the Washington-based nonprofit Freedom House earlier this year that investigated 15 American mosques and found many to be disseminating extremist literature from Saudi Arabia. The Council on Islamic American Relations, or CAIR, the most prominent American Muslim organization, countered that the report portrayed an inaccurate picture of American Muslims.
As for the new fatwa, both Al-Suwaij and Berger said a major problem is that it does not condemn any terrorist groups or leaders by name. In the past, Jewish groups have complained that the most prominent Muslim organization have been unwilling to criticize by name anti-Israel terrorist groups, including Hamas and Hezbollah. After the September 11 attacks, the head of CAIR’s New York office was reported to have said that in Israel only people under 18 could be considered civilians.
But Ibrahim Hooper, the spokesperson for CAIR, told the Forward that in the recent fatwa, the word civilian refers to every non-soldier in every country, and the condemnation extends to all groups on the U.S. State Department’s terrorism list, including Hamas and Hezbollah.
The fatwa states that “targeting civilians’ life and property through suicide bombings or any other method of attack is haram — or forbidden — and those who commit these barbaric acts are criminals, not ‘martyrs.’”
Hooper said the statement was a reaffirmation of a position his organization has always had. But a spokesperson for another of the major signatories — the Muslim Public Affairs Council — said the statement did represent a new willingness in the Muslim community to condemn all terrorism, even attacks carried out in Israel.
“This has not always been a popular position,” said Edina Lekovic, communications director for the Muslim Public Affairs Council. “For us, it is very encouraging to see that mainstream Muslims are coming around.”