The Deobandi Fatwa Against Terrorism Didn't Treat the Jihadi Root

Many in the West and in other regions of the world were impressed by the issuing of a fatwa (Islamic theological edict) condemning Terrorism by one of the leading religious centers in the Muslim world, the Darool-Uloom Deoband in India. An Islamic seminary said to have 'inspired' the Taliban has, according to the said document denounced "terrorism" as against Islam, calling it an "unpardonable sin."

Hoping for a major change in ideology, international counter terrorism authorities and policy makers have been asking experts to determine if the Deobandi declaration will help counter the calls for violent Jihad by al Qaeda and its ilk around the world. In the war of ideas with the Jihadists, many Western architects of strategic communications look for any sign that hearts and minds may be changing course and sympathies. From Washington DC to Brussels and beyond, bureaucrats tasked with exploring the Muslim world for new trends, shop around for what they call "counter-narrative against extremism."

The Deobandi School, a classical third branch for Salafi Islamism (along with Wahabism and Muslim Brotherhood), has significant weight in the South Asia Theater. Its teachings based on a strict interpretation of Islamic law have reached many countries, including Afghanistan and Britain, where they are said to have indoctrinated the Taliban.

"If they change course, al Qaeda and the Taliban are finished," I heard in Europe and the United States. So the question now is have they changed doctrinal direction and is this fatwa the evidence?

I regretfully conclude that it is not the case yet.

It looked good at first

Tens of thousands of clerics and students from around India attended a meeting at the 150-year-old Deoband, north of New Delhi, and declared that they stand "against acts of terrorism."

"There is no place for terrorism in Islam," Maulana Marghoobur Rahman, the older rector of Deoband, told Reuters. "Terrorism, killing of the innocent is against Islam. It is a faith of love and peace, not violence."  Rahman said it was unjust to equate Islam with terrorism, to see every Muslim as a suspect or for governments to use this to harass innocent Muslims. 

"There are so many examples of people from other communities being caught with bombs and weapons, why are they never convicted?" said Qazi Mohammed Usman, deputy head of Deoband. The meeting defined terrorism as any action targeting innocent people, both Muslim and non-Muslim, whether committed by an individual, an institution or a government.

These statements could be seen as impressive when quoted by news agencies rushing to break the good news, but to the seasoned analysts of Salafism, the solid doctrinal roots of Jihadism were kept untouched. Here is why.

Goals of the fatwa

From the fatwa itself and the statements made as it was issued, the following political goals likely motivated the gathering and the fatwa.

Create a separation in the eyes of the public discourse between Islam (as a religion) and terrorism as an illegal violent activity.

Such a move is legitimate and to be encouraged as it diminishes the tensions towards Muslims in non-Muslim countries, particularly in the West, as some are claiming that the Islamic religion is theologically linked to the acts and statements of the Jihadists. The logic of "we are Muslims and we are against Terrorism," helps significantly the disassociation between the community and the acts of violence. However, without criticizing the ideological roots of this violence, the fatwa seem to state a wishful thinking, not an injunction. A more powerful fatwa should have openly and expressly said: "we reject the calls for violent Jihad regardless of the motives." For the followers of Jihadism do not consider their Jihad as "terrorism." Their answer has always been -to these types of fatwas- "but we aren't performing terrorism, we are conducting Jihad." Thus, at this crucial level, the Deobandi fatwa missed the crux of the problem.

Deny governments the ability to use the accusation that Islam condones Terrorism to oppress Muslims.

The fatwa is concerned with geopolitics more than theological reform. Concern for the safety of one's co-religfionists is of course legitimate and should be addressed. But Jihadism, the legitimizing root of political violence, cannot be ignored in any effort to protect the lives of Muslims.

There is no evidence that modern day governments have expressly linked religion to terrorism; quite the opposite. Almost all national leaders involved in the confrontation with Jihadi forces since 9/11 have clearly made a clear distinction between religion and terrorism.

Some even went further by negating any link whatsoever between theological texts and Jihadism, which of course is not accurate. For in the texts, there are passages used by the Terrorists in their indoctrination. Hence, the Deobandi fatwa should have instead asked clearly the Jihadists not to use these citations or else they would be considered as sinners themselves. But instead of using their religious prominence to remove the theological weapon from the hands of the Jihadists, the Deobandi clerics are attempting to shield the Jihadists from the actions of Governments by denying that these extremists are indeed using -- and abusing -- religion.

Some may argue that the fatwa's open goal is to defend Muslims from being unjustly targeted by non-Muslim governments (a positive move) but a thorough analysis of the text used shows that the main intention of that declaration is to defend the Islamists from being contained by both Muslim and non-Muslim Governments around the world. In other words by denying that Jihadism is the root cause of many acts of Terror in Europe, the US, Africa, the Greater Middle East and Asia, the Deobandi fatwa in fact is shielding the Jihadists from the accusation of Terrorism, thus protecting them. 

Who is "innocent"?

The fatwa defined terrorism as violence "targeting innocent people." Such a definition is not new and doesn't set clear boundaries. For the question at hand is what does "innocent" mean? On several web sites and on many shows on al Jazeera television, Jihadi apologists often use the Arabic term"bare'e"  for "innocent" and assure the audience that Jihad cannot target the latter.

But Usama Bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri, and to some extent Hassan Nasrallah, all claim that innocence is relative. Al Qaeda explicitly targets innocent civilians and has authorized the massacre of 4 million US citizens as of 2001. Bin laden explains that civilians who vote for and pay taxes to the infidel enemy are not "innocent."

Hezbollah targets innocent civilians as well, not only in Israel but also in Lebanon and overseas (as in Argentina). The concept of "innocent" isn't that innocent in Jihadism. For the militant ideologues can render individuals and groups "bare'e' or not "bare'e" at their discretion.

Leading Islamist scholar Sheikh Yusuf al Qardawi expounds at will on the innocence of civilians, detailing how civilian populations have been considered as part of the war efforts of the enemies of the Caliphate. In short, the status of "innocence" doesn't overlap fully with the status of "civilians." It is a matter of discretion in Jihadi warfare. Hence, to claim that Terrorism is defined as targeting innocent people is to claim that not all civilians are innocent, and that not only breaches international law, but gives credence to Jihadi violence.

Who is a "terrorist"?

Moreover, still the fatwa doesn't identify al Qaeda, or any other similar group, including the Taliban, as Terrorist organizations. And as of now, no subsequent fatwas based on this Deobandi fatwa have done so yet. Therefore, in terms of identification of terror entities, the edict has failed to show its followers who is the terror perpetrator.

This text simply doesn't bring novelty to the debate about Jihadi-rooted Terrorism. For years, particularly since 2001, Islamist ideologues and militant groups have refrained from simply naming those terror groups as such. Spokespersons have constantly repeated that condemning terrorism in general is enough.

If the Muslim scholars followed this logic on the question of occupations, then neither Iraq nor Palestine should be specifically mention. But that is not the case.  

Legal basis

The Deobandi fatwa didn't explain what where the legal basis for the edict. Was there any new ground broken? Which were the previous rules that have changed regarding terrorism? Is the fatwa a reminder of a principle or a new principle to be adopted? Is the rejection of terrorism a duty (wajib) and what kind of obligation?

All these questions are warranted so that a fair assessment of the statement can be issued. Unfortunately, the legal grounds are not specific enough to enable readers -- and eventually followers -- to understand the absolute injunction of rejection of Terrorism. 

The body of fatwas

Historically, there have been similar statements and fatwas issued in other quarters of the Middle East, yet they haven't had a definitive impact on reality. And by exploring the reason behind the inefficiency of these declarations, one finds that the body of fatwas remains below the level of a reform, of a doctrinal radical rejection of Jihadism as a aqidah (doctrine).

The Deobandi fatwa -- like its predecessors -- tells followers that the principle of Jihadi wars (efforts) is sound and that the level of innocence of the target is discretionary but that engagement in violence has to be disciplined and not chaotic. In short, don't give the infidels an alibi to compromise the ultimate goals by waging irresponsible acts of violence. Simply put: we don't need Jihadism to be labeled as Terrorism.

Because of its unclear stipulations, there is room for more precise fatwas calling for violence against one or another targets, and receiving support from indoctrinated segments of society. These future fatwas could undo this Deobandi fatwa.

So in the end, how to deal with this and with similar edicts? At first one should welcome any statement that delegitimizes al Qaeda's hot-headed Jihadism, even if the fatwa doesn't cross the doctrinal line. Any call to stop terrorism is positive and should be built upon.

In principle the Deobandi fatwa should be considered as a step that needs more steps in the direction of a doctrinal reform. Minimally, these fatwas should name al Qaeda and similar groups as Terrorists. But to be considered as breaking a new ground, they must render Jihadi violence illegitimate and terrorism against non combatants illegal, regardless of any theological, ideological or political goals.

Dr Walid Phares is the Director of the Future Terrorism Project at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington and a visiting scholar at the European Foundation for Democracy in Brussels. He is the author of The Confrontation: Winning the War Against Future Jihad.