InsightSeptember October 2004

Islamic Responses to Terrorism

Sayyed Nadeem Kazmi


Terrorism provokes deep fear and insecurity – more than other forms of violence. Terrorists strike innocent civilians, often randomly, and without warning. Terrorists know this, and they seek to use intimidation to impose their political or other agendas. Terrorism is also used as low-cost strategic warfare. Terrorism also has a high economic cost. Technology has also added to the terrorist threat. Finally, terrorism today is far more devastating than in the past because of the mass media. No story plays better, or longer, than a terrorist attack.

(Ambassador Philip Wilcox, Jr., State Department Coordinator for Counter-terrorism, in Patterns of Global Terrorism, Report of the Office of the Coordinator for Counter-terrorism, United States, April 2001)

On 10th October, 2001, an emergency conference of Islamic states’ (OIC) foreign ministers, meeting in Doha, Qatar, issued an official statement strongly condemning the “savage acts of terrorism which targeted the United States” a month earlier (1). The text emphasized that such acts contravened the teachings of divine religions and moral and human values, and stressed that such acts could not, and should not, be linked with Islam. It also stressed the need to track down the perpetrators, and to punish them. Based on the provisions of an existing OIC treaty to combat international terrorism, the conference said that member states were prepared to actively engage in a collective international effort to define terrorism “under the canopy of the United Nations”, emphasizing dealing with its root causes, and towards achieving world security and stability. The conference also rejected any link between terrorism and the right of Muslim and Arab peoples, “including the Palestinian and Lebanese people”, to self-determination, self-defence, sovereignty, and resistance against occupation and aggression. These were, according to the text, legitimate rights guaranteed both by the Charter of the United Nations and International Law. This is an important statement in many respects, not least because it pledges Muslim and Arab countries to the so-called war against terrorism and at the same time contains caveats which, a year on from the attacks of 11th September, 2001, are becoming increasingly relevant to our understanding of the world, past, present and future. That Muslims were vociferous in their condemnation of the terrorist atrocities of 11th September specifically (and terrorism more generally) is perhaps succinctly encapsulated in the words of Sayyed Abd al-Majid al-Khoei, son of the late Shi’a Muslim spiritual leader, Grand Ayatullah Sayyed Abu al-Qasim al-Musawi al-Khoei, who emphatically declared in a published statement (2), “Terrorist acts violate Islamic law”. In describing what was done as “impermissible under any pretext”, al-Khoei went on that the events of 11th September, “regardless of one’s views and regardless of who the perpetrators were” (that is, regardless of their religion also), was in itself a “criminal and barbaric action totally remote from moral values and religious and human principles”. Like many Muslim representatives and scholars, he was unequivocal in describing the atrocity as an act that was as much against Islam and Muslims as against anything else. Al-Khoei stated that, “Attributing this crime to religion and [to] devout people is much more dangerous and harmful than what the external enemies are inflicting on us”, and went on to describe it as an Islamic duty “not to lose our moral existence and forfeit the liberality of Islam’s message” by opposing such extremism: “While we reject aggression against Muslims and their countries and what is imposed on them from abroad, we must also reject, more seriously, the aggression against us in the name of Islam by some who claim to be Muslims”. For those who have been questioning whether or not Muslims have undertaken any self-reflection following 11th September, perhaps one can refer them to such progressive – some would argue truly Islamic – sentiments and official statements that are, contrary to the often negative assumptions that link Islam directly with acts of terrorism, in fact representative of a vast body of Muslim scholarly opinion. Majid al-Khoei is not the only reputable Islamic leader, resident in the United Kingdom, who thinks that it goes without saying that the perpetrators of such atrocities – in this case Usama bin Laden – usually have no standing to issue an Islamic religious opinion, or Fatwa. In the wake of 11th September, Muslim leaders and representative bodies, such as the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) have rounded on extremist figures such as the leader of the fundamentalist al-Muhajiroun group, Omar Bakri Mohammed (who are calling for a worldwide ‘caliphate’), and Shaykh Abu Hamza of the Finsbury Park Mosque in London, even going so far as referring to such ‘scholars’ – and not in any flippant sense either – as ‘clowns and loonies’.Widely respected modern scholars of Islam, such as Professor Akbar S Ahmed, who is currently at the American University in Washington DC, have made it clear for a long time that the actions of hijackers and terrorists, even when carried out in the name of religion, have absolutely nothing to do with Islamic theology and can only be understood in the political context (3). The Cambridge University Muslim scholar, Tim Winter, is similarly unequivocal. An insurrectionist who kills non-combatants is guilty of baghi, armed transgression, a capital offence in Islamic law, he argues. The proclamations of bin Laden, which ignore fourteen centuries of Muslim scholarship, amounts to an extreme violation of the normal methods of Islamic scholarship. Had the authors of such ‘fatwas’ followed the norms of their religion, they would have had to acknowledge that no school of traditional Islam allows the targeting of civilians. A military Jihad (which Islamic scholars are keen to point out is a ‘lesser’ Jihad, the ‘greater’ being the Jihad, or struggle, of one’s own self or against one’s own selfishness) can be proclaimed only by a properly constituted state; “anything else is pure vigilantism”.In the Islamic world itself, the General Mufti (al-Mufti al-‘Amm) of Saudi Arabia, Shaykh Abdul Aziz ibn Abdullah ibn Muhammad al-Shaykh, issued an official statement that condemned the 11th September attack as ‘criminal’ on the grounds that Islam forbids hijacking of planes, the terrorizing of innocent people, and the shedding of blood. He had already, in fact months before these attacks, condemned suicide bombings, distinguishing between ‘regular suicide’ (intihar), which was absolutely forbidden in Islam, and martyrdom (istishhad), for which there were limited and conditional exceptions. Even most radicals agree that suicide in and of itself is a major sin forbidden in Islam (4). However, the more extreme use Qur’anic verses, ‘ahadiths (Traditions) and cases from the early history of Islam to try and prove that voluntary sacrifice in the cause of Islam with the objective of defending Muslims and hurting their enemies is not suicide but a legitimately sanctioned action, permissible as a form of fulfilling the individual duty (fard ‘ayn) of Jihad (of which more later). Shaykh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, Head of the Department of Sunnah Studies at the University of Qatar and a leading Sunni theologian, argues that suicide bombings are ‘heroic operations of martyrdom’, have nothing to do with suicide, and ‘are the supreme form of Jihad for the sake of Allah, and a type of terrorism (!) that is allowed by the Shari’a’. All scholars agree, however, that someone attempting to end their life for personal reasons is committing a forbidden act of suicide. Muhammad Sayyed Tantawi, Shaykh of al-Azhar, argues that suicide operations are to be regarded as martyrdom if the intention is to kill enemy soldiers but not women or children. Qaradawi responds that they are legal even if women and children are killed because Israeli society is militaristic by nature and women serve in its army. However, children and the elderly should not be targeted, though if they are killed accidentally this can be excused by the principle of Necessity “which justifies what is forbidden”.

Muslim jurists have historically not focused on the idea of just cause for war (5). Building upon the proscriptions of the Holy Prophet, jurists insisted that there are legal restrictions upon the conduct of war: Muslim armies may not kill non-combatants. Vegetation and property may not be destroyed, waterholes may not be poisoned, torture, mutilation and murder of hostages is forbidden under any circumstances. Importantly, the classical jurists reached these determinations not simply as a matter of textual interpretation, but as moral or ethical assertions. The classical juristic approach to terrorism was quite different, however, and those who refused to concede legitimacy to the juristic class were deemed muharib (lit. those who fight society). The denial of juristic legitimacy and the later development of theological Salafism is an interesting comparative. Although classical jurists agreed on the definition of a muharib, they disagreed about which types of criminal acts should be considered crimes of terror. Nevertheless, “the terrorizing of the defenceless was recognized as a moral wrong and an offence against society and God”.

The debate surrounding the legitimacy, or not, of suicide attacks has been a hot potato in Islamic scholarship for many years. Contemporary scholarship across the spectrum of Islamic schools of jurisprudence (fiqh) remains divided on this issue, but intriguingly not on sectarian lines. The head of the Supreme Judicial Council in Saudi Arabia, Shaykh Salih al-Luheidan, said that it was incumbent upon his country to denounce the attacks as the Kingdom was ruled by Shari’a. He pointed out that the Saudi ‘Ulema (religious scholars, both Sunni and Wahhabi) have in the past specifically denounced the hijacking of planes, viewing such a crime as a prohibited and unacceptable act, irrespective of who the passengers were, “because terrorizing any person is viewed as Perversion” in Islamic Law. In the Islamic Republic of Iran, which is a Shi’a theocracy, President Sayyed Muhammad Khatami, a renowned scholar in his own right, equally condemned the attacks of 11th September, and asked for “the search and destruction of the roots of terrorism”. Ayatullah Hassan Rouhani, the powerful Secretary of Iran’s National Security Council, called for “international cooperation against terrorism”. And the influential senior cleric, Ayatullah Kashani, described the attacks as ‘catastrophic’, demanding ‘global mobilization’ against the perpetrators.

Most of the Muslim scholars who condemn terrorism, especially when it uses religion as a weapon or tool, insist that the Qur’an emphatically supports their view. Ayatullah Sayyed Fadhil Milani, a leading Shi’a theologian based in London, included the following oft-quoted verses to support what one might refer to as the progressivist Islamic view:

Take not life, which God hath made sacred, except by way of justice and law.

If anyone kills a human being for other than manslaughter or for spreading corruption on earth – it shall be as though he had killed all mankind; whereas, if anyone saves a life, it shall be as though he had saved the lives of all mankind. (6: 51)

If they hold aloof from you and wage not war against you and offer you peace, God allows you no way against them.(4:90)

If the enemy incline towards peace, do you (also) incline towards peace, and trust in God: for He is the One that Heareth and Knoweth (all things).(8:61)

Let there be no compulsion in religion: Truth stands out clear from Error.(2:256).

Such scholars also use the pro-integrationist argument that Muslims are commanded by God to be good citizens and good community members wherever they live, and to leave the place a better one because they lived in it. Other scholars, like the moderate Shaykh Fadhil Sahlani (6), director of Al-Khoei Benevolent Foundation in New York, who participated in the official remembrance ceremony at Yankee Stadium, New York, for the victims of the 11th September attacks, argue that is an integral part of the fundamental duties of a believer to take active part in the social and the political process of a community in order to make positive changes, not only for themselves, but for others as well. His approach is both ecumenical and grassroot.

The effectiveness of the consultations between Western government and Muslim representatives can be discerned by the more recent statements of those in the vanguard of the military coalition against terror. President George W Bush, despite his initial knee-jerk reaction to the event of 11th September, has since acknowledged to Congress that the terrorists who are the target of “the war on terrorism” practice a fringe form of Islamic extremism that has been rejected by Muslim scholars and the vast majority of Muslim clerics; a fringe movement that perverts the peaceful teachings of Islam. The terrorists are traitors to their own faith, trying, in effect, to hijack Islam itself, he said.


In the West, Muslim leaders have been in a constructive process of consultation with senior politicians for almost a decade, and in the wake of September 11 that level of consultation has markedly increased, particularly in the United Kingdom. Throughout such meetings, representatives of Islamic organizations have reaffirmed – both publicly and in private – their condemnation of the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. For its part, the British Government has reassured the Muslim community that they would do everything in their power to protect them from the violent “backlash” that was expected after the 11th September attacks. (7) In a meeting following these attacks, which was also attended by Tessa Jowell MP (British Secretary of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport), and John Denham MP (Home Office Minister with responsibility for policing and community safety), Home Secretary David Blunkett unreservedly condemned attacks on Muslims or Muslim communities in the wake of September 11th: “This is not a question of east versus west, it is about protecting the freedoms our democracy enshrines. These are values shared and upheld by Muslims throughout Britain. I have made it absolutely clear to the police that protecting those under threat or attack is an absolute priority and I will continue to monitor this closely”. Tessa Jowell added, “We cannot and should not equate the actions of a group of terrorists with all the followers of Islam. Everyone – including the media – must remember that. This is a time for our country to unite, not divide”.

But whilst a sophisticated level of interaction between some Muslim representatives and government machinery is apparent – despite criticisms of elitism and opportunism among some representatives both individual and institutional – the flipside of such progress is the reality of “the street”, where even before 11th September there was in evidence a marked increase in racist violence throughout Europe and a disturbing growth in fascist parties recruiting mainly young unemployed men whose strong plank now appeared to be to target Muslims and Muslim religious and cultural symbols. Islamophobia, which might be described as a relatively new yet equally vile form of racism which is also known as anti-muslimism, is a type of racism, it is argued (8) wherein “you are hated because of the way you dress. You are hated because of the views you might hold. You are hated because of the religion you uphold. You are hated not just for what you are but for what you, in the eyes of others, might become”.

Terrorism does not have a race, religion or nationality, as John Austin MP (Erith and Thamesmead) reminded the British House of Commons following criticisms of Muslim community representatives not having been vocal enough in their condemnation of the terror attacks by former British prime minister, now Baroness, Margaret Thatcher. Indeed, quiet mutterings of anger and hostility among ordinary people (the “backlash” referred to) have, of course, not been helped by the rantings of certain leaders, notably Italy’s premier, Silvio Berlusconi, who went as far as to claim that the West should be “confident in the superiority of our civilization” over the Muslim world. His, and Thatcher’s, outburst is indicative of a mode of thinking today that pits Islam and the West at opposite ends of a very convenient, and easy to explain, civilizational spectrum which vindicates not only religious millennialists but also excuses a lack of clear foreign policy direction, notably on the part of the greater international powers.


The European Union’s race watchdog this year accused a wide range of British commentators, politicians and media of helping to foster an upsurge in anti-Islamic feeling after 11th September. In a BBC Online survey (9), approximately half of blacks and Asians said that they believed the police in Britain to be racist, vindicating the findings of The Macpherson Report (10) into the murder of the London teenager, Stephen Lawrence, which had earlier labelled the Metropolitan Police institutionally racist.

In its report, Islamophobia, (11) the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC) reported that the biggest rise in violent attacks had taken place in Britain, Holland, Sweden, and “most of all” Denmark. Women wearing the hejab, or headscarf, had been “insulted, spat at, beaten and even raped” in a wave of attacks across Europe, causing many to stop wearing the garment in public. EUMC monitored the period from 11 September 2001 until the end of December 2001.

According to figures compiled by Islamic organizations in the United Kingdom, the rate of attacks on British Muslims since 11th September is more than thirteen times higher than in a typical year. More than four hundred attacks since that date, ranging from nuisance calls to fire-bombings, were logged by a team of three hundred field workers across Britain. The dossier, compiled by the Islamic Human Rights Commission (12), shows that Britain’s Muslims are living in an atmosphere of heightened hostility and mistrust, which has continued during the campaign in Afghanistan and after the arrests of British Muslim individuals suspected of links to ainternational terrorist activities. The commission said the number of incidents reported was more than four times as many as recorded, on average, in any twelve month period.

The UK has been at the forefront of addressing the issue of Islamophobia and antimuslimism for far longer than have her European counterparts. Islamophobia, according to the Runnymede Trust report (13), which was probably the first coherent study of the phenomenon, is “a dual demonization of Muslims at home and abroad”. That process, perhaps more than any other, kicked into gear a renewed fervour both among Muslim representatives and the government to look more seriously into the issue of discrimination and racism based not on ethnicity or skin colour but specifically religious persuasion. An important element of this has been, almost by definition if not force of circumstance, Islamophobia’s relationship with anti-Semitism. This has, over the years, led to an enhanced contact between Muslim and Jewish organizations as well as individuals from both faiths eager to learn from each other’s historical and contemporary experiences (such as, for instance, the development of The Maimonides Foundation in London, and the regular meetings of Muslims and Jews under the auspices of The Stone-Ashdown Trust, also in London). Of course, senior Jewish figures have always been prominent in interfaith committees, but the Judaeo-Islamic platform is a relatively new and fascinating arena of cooperation and outreach from which there is surely much to be gained.

Perhaps the most significant institutional development relating to the documentation and highlighting, in the public arena, of the issue of Islamophobia was the launch, in London in 1999, of FAIR (Forum Against Islamophobia and Racism). Since their establishment, FAIR have been at the forefront of monitoring the media and responding to blatantly Islamophobic articles and commentaries by responding in a rational, thought-out and systematic manner. In May, 2002, following a season of programmes on Islam and Muslims on Channel Four, FAIR issued their own detailed critique of the series (14) following meetings held at the instigation of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport between the Muslim community and media regulators and organizations. FAIR’s analysis of the dedicated Channel Four series was a detailed case study of current Islamophobic constructs in the broadcast media. According to them, in totality the series presented a tendentious and pejorative view of British Muslims: “As a whole, the series focused on extremism, segregation, corruption, the hejab and difference. Much of the journalistic comment, for instance, based its analysis on a “closed view” of Islam, as articulated in the Runnymede Commission report (above). Thus, “the main concern was the overall negative stereotyping of a vulnerable religious minority at a sensitive time”. This stereotyping was based on “a persistent focus upon difference, thereby promoting the idea that being British and Muslim is conflictual, that the two are hermetically sealed and are therefore incompatible identities”. FAIR’s position was that the series started with the assumption that British Islam is problematic: anarchic, extreme, disloyal and deviant”.



Details of the British Government’s legislative package to combat terrorism (Emergency Anti-Terrorist Bill) was outlined by the Home Secretary this year, who declared in a Home Office press release: “It is the first job of government and the essence of our democracy that we safeguard rights and freedoms, the most basic of which is to live safely and in peace. The proposed Bill will include, inter alia, tough financial controls to staunch the flow of terrorist funding, powers for account monitoring and swift asset freezing, seizure of cash in-country, and strict reporting obligations on the financial sector, including making it an offence for a bank not to report a transaction where it knows or suspects funds may be intended for terrorist purposes; Measures to allow quicker and more effective cooperation with fellow European Union (EU) countries on police and legal issues; An extension of the incitement law to cover religious, as well as racial hatred (both incitement offences will have an increased maximum penalty from two years to seven years);  A widening of the incitement law to cover incitement within the United Kingdom of terrorist acts against groups or individuals overseas and examining additional powers in relation to conspiracy; A requirement on transport companies to keep passenger and freight information records and make them available in advance to law enforcement agencies; The removal of current barriers which prevent customs and revenue officers providing information to law enforcement agencies in their fight against terrorism; Measures to enable communication service providers to retain data generated in the course of their business, namely the records of calls made and other data – not the content; The strengthening of security at airports and for passengers; Expanding the role and jurisdiction of the British Transport Police, together with those working on enforcement from the Ministry of Defence and the Atomic Energy Authority; Powers to give the police and customs services the authority to demand the removal of facial covering or gloves; Clauses to close the gaps in the present legislation relating to chemical, nuclear and biological weapons to prevent the use, production, possession or participation in unauthorized transfers of these materials; Fingerprints taken in immigration and asylum retained for up to ten years in order to improve identification of individuals”.

The Bill would also “contain robust and streamlined procedures for dealing with those suspected of terrorist acts who seek to misuse asylum and immigration”. These measures would, inter alia, remove access to judicial review in decisions made by the Special Immigration Appeals Commission, the body that deals with suspected terrorists’ asylum claims; Enable asylum claims to be rejected where the Secretary of State certifies the person is a threat to national security; And detain those who are a terrorist threat but who cannot be removed from the country, whilst retaining a right of appeal. This would require a limited suspension from Article 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), using ECHR Article 15 which allows for suspension in the event of a public emergency: “This will ensure we remain consistent with our international obligations, including the 1951 Geneva Convention on refugees”, according to the press release.
The Home Secretary also told Parliament that in addition to the Emergency Anti-Terrorist Bill described above, he intended to bring forward an Extradition Bill “to modernize and place British laws within the context of the new international situation”. Such legislative measures were designed, he stipulated, to protect and enhance rights, not diminish them, “otherwise future generations would never forgive us”.

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