Battle Still Raging for Islamic World Support



The release by the White House of the first transcript of the amateur videotape showing Osama bin Laden and Khaled al-Harbi gleefully discussing the Sept. 11 attack on the United States shocked viewers around the world. A subsequent version of the tape transcript disclosed last week contains new information that shows while bin Laden and al Qaeda may have lost in Afghanistan, they may be poised to win a major tactical victory elsewhere – in the hearts and minds of over 1.2 billion Muslims worldwide.

Thus, the war between the civilized world and bin Laden’s extremist Islamic beliefs has now shifted to a different battleground of religious interpretation and political leadership within Islam itself. The stakes remain grave.

Reaction to the original version of the videotape was swift but partisan, with many Muslim leaders and a majority of those common Muslims interviewed by reporters taking a skeptical view of the tape, or even condemning it outright as a forgery. Elsewhere, worldwide reaction was an acknowledgment that the tape was a smoking gun implicating bin Laden directly and materially in the Sept 11 attack. It caused a shudder to pass through the civilized world with the inescapable conclusion that a major world religion was being used to justify the indiscriminate murder of innocent human beings.

Then last Friday, Dec. 21, The Washington Post received a translation of an expanded version of the transcript from an Arabic specialist it declines to identify. The Post reported that this translation was verified with two other Arab experts. The material contained in both versions is essentially identical, but the new version includes information that was indistinct or hard to hear on the tape, and that was excluded from the first translation.

Moderate Islamic leaders in the United States have, for the most part, publicly condemned bin Laden. Before the release of the tape, the Council on American Islamic Relations refused to accept bin Laden's complicity in the Sept. 11 attacks. But with the release of the tape, spokesman Ibrahim Hooper said: "Now, it's clear from the statements in the videotape that he was complicit in the attacks and had foreknowledge of the attacks." He added that he was "sickened" by the bin Laden contention that the attacks had benefited Islam.

Yusuf Mohamed is a Labor Department attorney active in the community of young Muslim professionals. He had wanted to believe that a Muslim was not responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks. After the tape's release, however, he changed his mind. "This tape is damning. If this was a trial, I would see a very hard time for a jury to acquit with this sort of evidence. I don't see how anyone won't trust this," he said.

Mohamed Magid is director of the All Dulles Area Muslim Society in Sterling, Va. He described hearing about the tape in his car: "When I was in my car this morning, I heard this was being released and I thought, 'Oh no!' What came to mind is that people should not stereotype us because of bin Laden, and that bin Laden is quoting the Qur'an and is misunderstanding the Qur'an."

Magid pinpointed the critical question: What does the Qur'an really say, and does bin Laden accurately reflect what it says?

Like any world religion, Islam exists in many interpretations. In the limited space available here it is not possible to present even a superficial analysis of each of these. It is possible, however, to present the general flavor, the all-encompassing belief structure that cradles each of the many "denominations," to borrow a term from Christianity.

An analogous picture for Christianity would be something like this: (1) The framework: Humankind was created by God without sin, but fell into sin. Loving his fallible human creation, God sacrificed his son to atone for humankind's sins. Any human who purposefully accepts this atonement will be saved from the eternal damnation reserved for everyone else. (2) The underlying mindset: (a) Do no violence; (b) "Turn the other cheek," and (c) Forgive when asked. Differences in Christian denominations result from interpretations of specific verses, clauses, or phrases in the Bible, and more specifically the New Testament.

Islam rests on five pillars: (1) Profession of faith ("There is no god but Allah, and Mohammad is His messenger."). (2) The establishment of five daily prayers. (3) Payment of the Zakat – a mandatory charitable payment. (4) Observation of the fast of Ramadan. (5) The Hajj to Mecca – the obligatory pilgrimage to Mecca, if affordable. These are common to all forms of Islam.

Islam is based on two writings, the Qur'an, revealed by Allah to Mohammad over 23 years during the 7th century, and the Sunnah of the Prophet, which is a recording of the Prophet's life. The Sunnah is contained within a larger body of writings called the Hadith. Since the Hadith contains writings that are not necessarily "confirmed" as to their origin, only the Sunnah itself is considered sacred. The Qur'an and Sunnah, taken together, form the basis for Islamic jurisprudence. Differences between Islamic denominations or sects result from interpretations of specific verses, clauses, or phrases from either the Qur'an or Sunnah.

The Shari'ah consists of the Qur'an, Sunnah, and a constantly evolving collection of fatwas or rulings that deal with ideology and faith, behavior and manners, and practical daily matters. The fatwas are either prescribed, recommended, permissible, disliked, or unlawful.

Throughout Islamic history, Imams and Mullahs have issued these fatwas, which have the force of law among Muslims, similar to a ruling by a western court. As in the West, these rulings can be confirmed or overturned by a higher authority, by issuing a Fiqh. This is the gist of why the bin Laden tape is so important. The tape contains several significant fatwas, and makes reference to several well-established fiqhs, in effect linking them to the fatwas. If unchallenged by higher Islamic authority, these fatwas become part of Islamic law, and must be observed by all Muslims.

On the tape Shaykh Sulayman 'Ulwan is quoted by Khaled al-Harbi as having issued a fatwa containing these words: " … [the Sept. 11 attack] was Jihad, and those people [World Trade Center and Pentagon victims] were not innocent people." Then al-Harbi said, “Ulwan swore to Allah that this fatwa was transmitted to him by Allah,” implying its genuine authenticity. Unless challenged by higher Islamic authority, the non-innocence of the Sept. 11 attack victims will become an integral part of Islamic jurisprudence. To date, no authoritative Islamic cleric has issued a fiqh reversing this statement.

Bin Laden quotes a verse from the Hadith: "I was ordered to fight the people until they say there is no god but Allah, and his prophet Muhammad." In quoting this verse in this context, he is generating a fatwa linking the Sept. 11 attack to an order from Allah. Unless set aside by a specific fiqh from higher authority, this, also, becomes part of Islamic jurisprudence.

Bin Laden then said: "Some people may ask: Why do you want to fight us? There is an association between those who say: I believe in one god and Muhammad is his prophet, and those who don't. Those who do not follow the true fiqh, the fiqh of Muhammad, the real fiqh, are just accepting what is being said at face value. Those youth who conducted the operations did not accept any fiqh in the popular terms, but they accepted the fiqh that the prophet Muhammad brought. Those young men … said in deeds, in New York and Washington, speeches that overshadowed all other speeches made everywhere else in the world."

Here, bin Laden is assuming the cloak of Muhammad himself by connecting the actions of Sept. 11 directly to "the fiqh that the prophet Muhammad brought." He dismisses any alternative interpretation or fiqh as popular misinterpretation of Islam.

Unless specifically countered with a fiqh by an Islamic cleric recognized throughout the world for his authority, this interpretation will be taken by common Muslims everywhere as a universal call to Jihad. Already in mosques across the Islamic sphere of influence, clerics are exhorting to Jihad, confirming bin Laden's fatwa that Sept. 11 was ordered by Allah.

Moderate Islamic clerics in America are preaching that Jihad takes place inside the heart and soul of a Muslim – a basic struggle between good and evil – but this message pales in the face of a universal call to arms to approximately 1.2 billion Muslims worldwide.

Unless moderate Muslim clerics take a vociferous and clear stance renouncing bin Laden's fatwas, and unless the Imams and Mullahs of worldwide Islam unite to discredit bin Laden's insidious perversion of Islam, his version will prevail, and the world will be headed towards a disastrous world-encompassing Jihad for which there can be only one possible outcome: the total destruction of Islam and Islamic culture and society everywhere.