Reuters : Tahir ul-Qadri and the difficulty of reporting on fatwas

MAR 2, 2010 14:27 EST

Muhammed Tahir ul-Qadri at a youth camp in Coventry, central England, August 9, 2009/Kieran Doherty

It never was and may never be easy to report about fatwas for a world audience. This point was driven home once again today when a prominent Islamic scholar presented to the media his new 600-page fatwa against terrorism and suicide bombing. Muhammad Tahir ul-Qadri is a Pakistani-born Sufi scholar whose youth workshops fostering moderation and understanding in Britain had already caught our attention. His effort to knock down any and every argument in favour of violence is certainly welcome. But the back story to this event is so complicated that it’s hard to report on the fatwa without simply ignoring many important parts of this back story.

Part of the problem was the PR drumroll leading up to ul-Qadri’s news conference. Minhaj-ul-Quran, his international network to spread his Sufi teachings, touted this fatwa in an email to journalists a week ago as a unique event “because at no time in history has such an extensively researched and evidenced work been presented by such a prominent Islamic authority.” Hype like this usually prompts journalists to throw an invitation straight into the trash can.

A Yemeni man reads the Koran at the Grand Mosque in Sanaa, January 7, 2010/Ahmed Jadallah

Two days later, on February 25, the pitch was changed to present this document as “the first ever fatwa against terrorism which declares terrorists as disbelievers.” Now, that’s more likely to grab a busy journalist’s attention. But once it has accomplished that, any hack with any experience covering Islam finds two big problems with this description.

First, it plays on a widely-held (and sometimes willful) misperception that Muslim leaders have not spoken out against Islamist violence. Large numbers of Muslim leaders have denounced violence, suicide bombs, 9/11, 7/7 and many other bloody attacks by Islamist radicals (check out a long partial list here). But since there is no real hierarchy in Islam, non-Muslims don’t know who has the authority to speak out and Muslims often challenge the authority of those who do. Many of these statements end up unreported, like the trees nobody hears falling in the forest. But if a news story is written with the “first ever” tag in the lead, it gives the false impression that no other Muslim leader has ever done anything similiar before.

Second, the clause “which declares terrorists as disbelievers” is difficult terrain. It’s hard for a journalist to verify that this is the first such fatwa as no central directory of such edicts worldwide exists. Moreover, who has the authority in Islam to declare someone a non-Muslim? Al-Qaeda has been criticised for declaring its enemies non-Muslims (an act known as takfir) and either killing them or urging other Muslims to kill them.

In fact, an important group of mainstream Muslim scholars got together in 2004 to issue the Amman Message that denounces the use of takfir. On the website of the Amman Message is a list of scholars endorsing it. Among those listed under Pakistan is none other than al-Qadri…

Another problem is that ul-Qadri issued an earlier, 150-page Urdu version of his fatwa last December and got a tepid reception — Pakistan’s Interior Minister Rehman Malik welcomed it as “a positive development” and Pakistani media – see The News here — seem to have given it only short routine coverage. Maybe they’re suffering from a fatwa overload there.

Assessing the fatwa’s significance is also difficult when even Muslim views of it are quite divided. Check out these posts in the blogosphere — Qadri’s fatwa breaks no new ground (with lots about what his critics think of him) … Shaikh Dr Tahir ul-Qadri – Anti-Terrorism Fatwa Without Teeth … Fatwas can be a force for good … plus this Guardian comment Fatwa wars are not the solution.

By this morning, the emails promoting the news conference took another angle: “The launch of the fatwa is being regarded by many circles as a significant and historic step, the first time that such an explicit and unequivocal decree against the perpetrators of terror has been broadcast so widely.” The spin detectors go out when journalists read “being regarded by many circles” (and how many squares or triangles, one might ask). “Historic” is totally overused. But this statement at least makes sense by the end, because it talks about the first time such a fatwa “has been broadcast so widely.”

Michael Holden, a correspondent in our London bureau, dealt with all this by interviewing ul-Qadri a day in advance (click here for the story) to focus on him and his fatwa rather than the hype around it. He added useful background comments from Tim Winter, a lecturer in Islamic studies at Cambridge University, who called the fatwa “a helpful initiative” and added: “To declare the miscreants as unbelievers is unusual, because it is not really clear that the rules allow one simply to say that they are not Muslims… Those who are already hardliners will pay no attention at all. But ’swing voters’ — poorly educated and angry Muslims, who respect mainstream scholars, will probably take note.”

This fatwa shouldn’t become another unheard tree falling in the forest, but screening out all the surrounding noise about it is not easy. What do you think about ul-Qadri’s fatwa and how the media covered it?

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