Patrick Henry Press : Fatwa wars aren't the solution | Brian Whitaker
Tue, 03/02/2010 - 06:24
Minhaj al-Qur'an's grand fatwa against terrorism, though well-meaning, does nothing to help progressive Islam
New products, new books, new fashion collections, you name it – the PR events to launch them are two a penny. But one PR event in London this morning was surely the first of its kind: the "launching" of a fatwa against terrorism and suicide bombing.
The fatwa, running to 600 pages, has been written by Muhammad Tahir ul-Qadri, founder and leader of a Muslim sect based in Pakistan, and duly unveiled in London under the auspices of the Quilliam Foundation, an anti-extremism thinktank which last year received £1m funding from the British government.
Even before its full contents were revealed, the fatwa was getting enthusiastic hype from the media, including two pages of uncritical guff in the London Evening Standard from Allegra Mostyn-Owen (former wife of the London mayor) and Douglas Murray of the Centre for Social Cohesion. But Murray and Mostyn-Owen are not the sort of people who need to be persuaded of its worth, since neither of them is ever likely to contemplate resorting to terrorism. The real question is how potential suicide bombers will react to it – and on that test the newly-launched fatwa is far more likely to sink than float.
Of course, some people might say it's still worth a try, but there's an important principle at stake here which Quilliam and others have failed to recognise. Seeking to counter "bad" fatwas with "good" fatwas – well-intentioned as it may be – is a dangerous road to take, because it undermines the work of those who are trying to develop more progressive interpretations of Islam.
This was apparent even in the press release circulated by Quilliam yesterday which described fatwas issued by "Wahhabi-influenced clerics and Islamist ideologues" as "theological innovations". There are plenty of arguments that can be deployed against Wahhabis and Islamists but accusing them of innovation is, to say the least, unhelpful. In a changing world, Islam – like other religions – ought to be open to innovative ideas. For the sake of a cheap debating point, Quilliam is buying into the logic of the ultra-traditionalists.
The whole idea of waging "fatwa wars" with extremists is not only futile but anti-progressive and further entrenches the authoritarian tendencies in Islam. Issuing fatwas and promoting them, even in a good cause, is damaging because it ends up reinforcing the importance attached to fatwas in general.
Organisations such as Quilliam ought to be encouraging people to take less notice of fatwas, not more. The problem, at least in the way fatwas are often treated today, is that they provide ready-made answers for Muslims to adopt, absolving them of reponsibility for making their own moral choices. In reality, a fatwa is only an individual's opinion, and on the issue of female circumcision, for example, there's a full range – from those who say it's obligatory to those who say it's forbidden, with many others in between.
If you look hard enough you can find a fatwa for almost any purpose. Indeed, in some countries, if you can't find one that suits you, you can pay a scholar to issue one. Governments in Muslim countries do it all the time. Regardless of whether they contradict each other, fatwas are invariably presented as giving a definitive, "true" interpretation of scripture. In doing so, they claim a monopoly on rectitute and their effect is to close down debate rather than open it up.
Claims and counter-claims where scholars simply declare an action to be "Islamic" or "un-Islamic" according to taste do not lead to productive discussion of ethical questions. For the most part, whether believers accept or reject the arguments depends on how they regard the person issuing the fatwa. Tahir ul-Qadri's fatwa is no different in that respect, and already the lines are being drawn.
Quilliam points out that he is "a widely recognised and respected authority on Islamic jurisprudence" and his Sufi sect, Minhaj-ul-Quran, "is a major grassroots organisation with hundreds of thousands of followers in South Asia and the UK".
This may be true, but others view it differently. By his own admission, Tahir ul-Qadri was a close friend of the late Benazir Bhutto – which immediately puts him beyond the pale as far as Pakistani jihadists are concerned. He may well have "hundreds of thousands" of followers but among an estimated total of more than a billion Muslims around the world that doesn't make his organisation particularly large or influential. In Britain, it controls only a handful of mosques out of an estimated 1,600 or so.
One blog, written by a British convert to Islam, says: "Tahir ul-Qadri is not by any means a universally accepted figure in the Muslim community, either here or in Pakistan … His fatwa will be accepted by his followers, who are likely never to have supported suicide bombings anyway, and ignored by a whole lot of other people."
It goes on to suggest that his movement's influence in Britain has been divisive rather than persuasive. There's worse – much worse – on the Salafi Talk website, where Tahir ul-Qadri is accused of deviance and promoting idolatry.
These arguments about his Islamic credentials – or his alleged lack of them – will doubtless run and run. But how many will plough through his 600-page fatwa against terrorism, let alone consider its content, is another matter.