Qantara : Tahir ul-Qadri's Legal Opinion against Terror Fatwa Falls on Deaf Ears
In his 600-page legal opinion, the Pakistani Islamic scholar Tahir ul-Qadri castigates Muslim suicide bombers as unbelievers destined for hell. But is his fatwa really an effective way to move extremists to reform? Answers from Albrecht Metzger
Fear of Muslim extremists is rampant these days in Britain. Next to Spain, the United Kingdom is the only European country where a terrorist act has already claimed numerous victims, while further attacks planned over the past few years have fortunately been thwarted by the authorities.
According to the British Secret Service, there are supposedly well over 1,000 Muslim extremists living on the island who are prepared to resort to violence to achieve their goals. The government in London is hence desperately searching for ways to prevent young British Muslims from being radicalised, trying to reverse the trend toward violence.
In summer 2008, the Home Office announced an anti-terror strategy that addresses this problem. In order to take the wind out of extremists' sails, their ideology should be "challenged" and the voices of the "mainstream" bolstered.
The idea is to work together with Muslims who are opposed to the discourse of violence embraced by religious extremists and who are – so it is hoped – in the best position to compel their radicalised fellow believers to reconsider their ways.
A credibility problem
But finding the right partners for this endeavour is not easy. Resentment of British foreign and domestic policy is widespread in the Muslim community, and those who receive financial support from the government are quickly written off as untrustworthy – and not only by the extremists.
The credibility problem is a central issue, because what good is an Islamic religious authority who speaks out against violence if no one listens to him? This problem is made evident by an episode that recently took place in London.
One of the British government's most important partners in the fight against extremism is the Quilliam Foundation in London. It was founded in summer 2008 by former members of Hizb ut-Tahir, an extremist party that was banned in Germany several years ago because of its advocacy of violence to achieve its political goals, but which remains active in the UK.
The founders of the Quilliam Foundation maintain that, as former Islamists, they are in an ideal position to combat extremist ideas. They traverse the globe holding lectures on the dangers of Islamism.
Booming "ex-Islamist industry"?
They also advise the British government. And the politicians are willing to pay a high price for these services – to date the Foreign and Home Offices have transferred around one million pounds to the foundation's accounts.
Quilliam's directors and founders, Maajid Nawaz and Ed Husain, allegedly each earn an annual salary of 85,000 pounds. The foundation office is located in central London and is rented for 110,000 pounds a year, according to The Times.
In view of these figures, a member of the British government recently spoke of an "ex-Islamist industry", calling the amount of subsidies paid "outrageous".
The Quilliam Foundation must therefore deliver results if it is to justify its plump budget. In early March it did in fact succeed in attracting the attention of the international media by inviting Pakistani scholar Tahir ul-Qadri to London to present a 600-page fatwa, a religious expert opinion.
In his fatwa, ul-Qadri condemns suicide bombings as un-Islamic, proclaiming that anyone who perpetrates them will end up not in paradise, but in hell. The murder of civilians is irreconcilable with Islam, he asserts.
Positive media echo
The British and international press for the most part greeted the fatwa with enthusiasm, pointing out that no Islamic scholar had eever before condemned so unequivocally the violent acts committed by Al Qaida and other Islamic extremists in the name of religion.
The general tenor was that this fatwa had the potential to move young Muslims who were sliding down the slippery slope to extremism to turn themselves around. Even the German tabloid Bild Zeitung found the story worth featuring: "Never before has an Islamic scholar sent such a clear message to terrorists!"
Whether that is in fact true is questionable. Following the London bombings on 7 July 2005, for example, a few dozen Islamic scholars from the UK published a joint declaration in which they condemned the act in no uncertain terms: "We are of the firm conviction that this killing cannot be condoned by Islam; there is no justification in our noble religion for such evil deeds."
The attackers should by no means be regarded as martyrs, the scholars maintained. Other religious scholars in the Islamic world have written similar fatwas on the theme of suicide attacks.
The question therefore is whether, beyond all the media buzz, Tahir ul-Qadri's expert opinion is really suitable for compelling Muslim extremists to do an about-face. We may be permitted to have our doubts. Does it even reach the right people?
A fatwa is the personal opinion of an Islamic scholar – whether a believer follows it or not depends on how he or she judges the person issuing it. Tahir ul-Qadri is the leader of a Sufi organisation. There is a video on YouTube showing his followers dancing their way to ecstasy. At the end, the scholar himself appears, climbing over a man lying on the ground and throwing banknotes to the singer.
In Salafi circles, from the midst of which most jihadis are recruited, ul-Qadri makes himself extremely vulnerable to criticism with such practices. Salafis namely reject dancing and singing as un-Islamic. Security experts understandably believe that criticism of suicide attacks is most effective when it comes from the ranks of the potential perpetrators. And Salafis will hardly be willing to listen to a Sufi.
In Germany at any rate, Tahir ul-Qadri's statements provoked no reaction at all in the relevant Web forums. "There weren't even any derogatory remarks", said a German Secret Service agent. "The ripple effects on the German jihadi scene can therefore be characterised as non-existent."
The futility of a "fatwa battle"
And then there is the question of whether religious expert opinions are even the right method at all for developing a progressive Islam. It is no use launching a "fatwa battle" with the extremists, notes Brian Whitaker, longstanding Middle East correspondent for The Guardian. Because for every opinion there is a counter-opinion.
What's more, each fatwa claims to represent the religious truth, thus nipping any debate in the bud. This only serves to cement the authoritarian tendencies in Islam. "Organisations like Quilliam should encourage people to pay less attention to fatwas rather than more", says Whitaker.
And as a matter of fact, Tahir ul-Qadri is not exactly tolerance incarnate. In an interview in the Evening Standard he claims that any Wahhabi or Deobandi would only give the terrorists their blessing. Yet in those circles as well, there are various legal scholars who have spoken out against terrorist attacks on civilians. This is something Tahir ul-Qadri neglects to mention.
And quite apart from that: in the video in which his devotees conduct their ecstatic dance, women can be seen on the fringes of the event. All of them are completely veiled, with nothing visible except their eyes. Just like in Saudi Arabia.