Suicide bombing is one of the greatest threats facing Muslim societies today. Hundreds, if not thousands, of civilians are killed every year in suicide bombings inside their homes, mosques, cafes or public places. These killings happen not only amid the eerie silence of mainstream clerics but with the help of fatwas that extremists exploit to justify their heinous crimes.
Perhaps the most dangerous of such fatwas are those issued by influential clerics such as Yusuf Al Qaradawi, one of the Muslim world’s most prominent theologians. Sheikh Al Qaradawi, an Egyptian who heads the International Union of Muslim Scholars, has a rich legacy of advocating for the integration of Muslims into the modern world. He fought against extremist views and wrote several books addressing troubling trends in Muslim societies.
Recently, however, he has dedicated most of his public appearances to making political and religious statements that threaten to entrench radicalism within Muslim societies in the region and beyond. As a result, commentators in sections of the Arabic media started discussing a key part of the cleric’s legacy, namely issuing fatwas that sanction violence and stoke sectarian and religious hatred. Commentators have called on the cleric to consider the impact of his fatwas on the dozens of civilians across the region dying in suicide bombings that occur almost weekly.
In one of his best-known fatwas, issued in the 1990s, Sheikh Al Qaradawi permitted the use of suicide bombing as a defensive tactic against Israel. Since then, instead of retracting the fatwa, he has repeatedly responded by saying that he was not the only cleric to justify suicide operations and that his fatwa was tailored specifically for helpless Palestinians in their fight against the Israeli occupation.
Practically speaking, though, the fatwa has had far wider consequences. It has been used by extension to justify suicide bombing against fellow Muslims. Of course, Al Qaeda and other extremists have no shortage of fatwas to vindicate their practices. But the danger of fatwas issued by otherwise moderate clerics is that they normalise suicide bombings, regardless of the circumstances.
As long as only radical clerics issue such fatwas, the issue stays in the margin and can be easily dismissed as an essentially extremist trend. Fatwas issued by moderate clerics ultimately help to bring the issue to the mainstream and leave the window open for extremist groups and impressionable Muslims to extend the fatwa to everybody who opposes their “Islamic project”, with little regard to civilians who get killed in the act. And that is exactly what is happening today throughout the region, from Pakistan to Tunisia.
Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent Saudi columnist, wrote recently of Sheikh Al Qaradawi’s old fatwa that “it’s time for the sheikh, in light of the prevalence of violence and bloodshed committed by ignorant Muslims, to endorse the views of his colleagues in Saudi Arabia who have consistently refused to sanction suicide operations despite immense pressure”. Saudi Arabia’s top clerics have refused to sanction suicide bombing, though they permit jihad – not for political reasons but based on strict religious reasons as Islam forbids suicide in all of its forms.
In a region plugged into social media and plagued by political polarisation, clerics who are religiously moderate but politically radical become particularly dangerous. Sheikh Al Qaradawi’s Friday sermons are not exclusively about political events, but since the Arab revolts began in 2011, he has used the mosque largely to air his divisive views.
Perhaps his most dangerous fatwa recently was when he called on all Muslims to head to Syria to fight in jihad against the regime. Some of these who responded to his call are now killing those Syrians he wanted to help.
When he called for jihad, in May last year, he framed his fatwa in unequivocally sectarian terms. In that same context, he said that he had been misguided to pursue Sunni-Shia rapprochement before and that the Saudi clerics were “more mature and far-sighted than I was” in judging Shia in general. He also said: “Alawis don’t pray and they don’t fast, and even if they did pray they don’t have mosques to do it in.” One might find little difference between the views of such an influential cleric and those of Iraqi Al Qaeda elements in August when they quizzed truck drivers from Syria about daily prayers. The drivers failed to answer correctly – which the terrorists took as evidence they were Alawites – were executed on the spot.
It is a sad demise of a distinguished Muslim scholar. His fatwas that permit suicide operations and entrench radicalism within these societies trump his other achievements. They make it easy for radicals to kill innocent civilians, they increase communal tensions and help to silence critics of extremism for fear of being targeted by suicide bombers.
Discussion of his legacy by commentators in this region may have been prompted by his attack of the UAE in a sermon last Friday. But his views do have tangible, dangerous consequences.
Sheikh Al Qaradawi should consider that thousands of innocent civilians have died because of these fatwas. He should not only recant these views but also speak out against such acts to fix the damage he and clerics like him have caused. Arguing that he was not the only one to issue such fatwas or that his fatwa was tailored specifically for self-defence are simply irresponsible.
On Twitter: @hhassan140