CONTROVERSIAL GATHERING OF ISLAMIC SCHOLARS REFUTES AL-QAEDA’S IDEOLOGICAL CORNERSTONE
Al-Qaeda and related Islamist militant groups have long relied on the works of a 14th century Syrian-born Islamic scholar for the ideological underpinnings of their radical approach to religion and politics. Shaykh Taqi al-Din ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328) was the author of the seminal “Mardin Fatwa,” frequently cited by militants as justification for political violence. A conference of Islamic scholars was held on March 27-28 at Turkey’s Mardin Artuklu University to re-examine Ibn Taymiyya’s controversial ruling. The conference was guided by a panel of 15 scholars from across the Islamic world and aired live (in part) by al-Jazeera TV. Mardin is an historical crossroads of trade and empires; though part of Turkey, most of its citizens are Arabs, Kurds, Syriac Christians and Yezidis.
Ibn Taymiyya was born into turbulent times, with his native Mamluk state of Syria and Egypt under constant threat of attack or invasion by nominally Muslim Mongol armies. The shaykh solved the tricky problem of Muslims fighting Muslims (forbidden by the Koran) by ruling that the Mongols occupying Mardin were not fully-practicing Muslims, thus legitimizing the mobilization of the state’s full resources in a jihad against the invaders. Though intended for very specific circumstances, the Mardin fatwa has survived as a means of legitimizing jihad against rulers who are judged to be insufficiently Islamic in governance and beliefs.
The Mardin fatwa and related works of Ibn Taymiyya and his disciples became pillars in the works of 20th century radical Islamists such as Sayyid Qutb, Abdullah Azzam and Muhammad Abd al-Salam Faraj, who relied on Ibn Taymiyya for justification of their opposition to secular “apostate” regimes and leaders in the Muslim world. The authority of the 14th century shaykh has been cited repeatedly in the statements and manifestos of numerous Salafist militants, most notably Osama bin Laden.
Some of the participating scholars argued that the traditional Islamic division of the world into Dar al-Islam (the Abode of Islam) and Dar al-Harb (the Abode of War) was outdated and did not anticipate the development of international law and human rights. The new Mardin declaration stated clearly, “Anyone who seeks support from [the Mardin] fatwa for killing Muslims or non-Muslims has erred in his interpretation and has misapplied the revealed texts” (Today’s Zaman, April 2; mardin-fatwa.com).
Dr. Ahmet Ozel of the Islamic Studies Center of Istanbul noted, “In the medieval age, all states were constantly at war with each other, and there was no system of international law. That is why medieval Islamic jurists saw non-Muslim countries as the Abode of War… Today, Muslims are not only secure and free in European countries; they can even be elected to parliaments” (Hurriyet, March 28; March 30).
The scholars also examined the problem of “textualism” (a rigid adherence to texts regardless of changing contexts). Bosnian Grand Mufti Mustafa Ceric observed, “Most ulema [Islamic scholars] have a problem. They know the classical texts very well, but they don’t know the contemporary world that much” (Hurriyet, March 28).
Among the conference’s important decisions:
• Muslim individuals or groups do not have the right to decide on their own to declare or conduct jihad.
• The emergence of civil states that guard religious, ethnic and national rights means the rigid divisions between “Abode of Islam” and “Abode of War” are no longer valid.
• The Mardin fatwa and similar texts had been misused not only as a result of changing contexts, but they had been interpreted incorrectly.
Organizers of the conference emphasized that the closing declaration was not itself a fatwa, though much of the Islamic press continued to refer to it as such.
The conference was sponsored by two Muslim NGOs: the Global Center for Renewal and Guidance (GCRG) and Canopus Consulting. The GCRG describes itself as an “independent educational charity.” Its president is Shaykh Abdullah bin Bayyah, a well known Mauritanian scholar of Islam who teaches at King Abdul Aziz University in Saudi Arabia. The GCRG vice-president is Shaykh Hamza Yusuf (a.k.a. Mark Hanson), an American convert to Islam who runs the Zaytuna Institute for Islamic studies in California. An internet search did not reveal any prior activities of an NGO using the name Canopus Consulting, though the name is used by an apparently unrelated software firm. The conference received financial support from the Turkish and British governments, though Turkey’s own Religious Affairs Directorate refused to participate (Hurriyet, March 28).
Opposition to the conference came from several directions. The top religious authority in Turkey, Directorate of Religious Affairs President Ali Bardakoglu, rejected the entire exercise, saying, “It’s incredibly meaningless for a group of people to gather after centuries have passed to try and invalidate a religious view given centuries ago” (Today’s Zaman, April 2). Reaction also came from an Iraqi militant group, Jaysh al-Fatihin (Conquering Army), which denied that circumstances had changed since the Mardin fatwa. “All of us know that the incidents most similar to our [present] situation were those that happened in the time of Imam Ibn Taymiyya…” (Media Commission of Jaysh al-Fatihin, April 1).
Elements of Turkey’s Islamic press derided the conference as an example of U.S. efforts to undermine the Islamic world and create a new form of Islam compatible with U.S. interests (Vakit, March 30; April 1). A well-known Turkish scholar, Hayrettin Karaman, insisted that opposition to an existing fatwa could only be expressed by a new fatwa on the same subject, allowing Muslims to decide which scholar’s opinion they trust more (Yeni Safak, April 1). Many Turkish scholars declined to attend out of fear that the conference was organized by the British government. “They’re worried that the conclusion of the conference will be that jihad is no longer valid in our day and age and that this will rule out resistance even under situations of oppression such as that in Palestine today” (Sunday Zaman, April 4). In India, however, the results of the conference were welcomed by a number of prominent Muslim leaders (Times of India, April 2).
AFGHANISTAN’S HIZB-I-ISLAMI DISTANCES ITSELF FROM TALIBAN
Since the arrest in Pakistan of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar and other leading members of the Afghan Taliban, negotiations between the movement and the Karzai government have ground to a halt. The opportunistic Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, leader of Afghanistan’s Hizb-i Islami (HI) appears ready to step into the peace talks as the representative of the armed Islamist opposition, leaving his Taliban allies outside of the process.
Hekmatyar was the single largest recipient of CIA military aid and funding in Afghanistan during the anti-Soviet jihad, as distributed by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), which regarded Hekmatyar as a favorite. Despite this, Hekmatyar’s forces did little fighting against the Soviets, preferring to stockpile their weapons for use against their former mujahideen allies in the post-war struggle for political dominance.
During the Afghan Civil War of 1992-1996, HI was notorious for targeting civilians, particularly in Kabul, where their barrages of rockets and artillery killed thousands. The strategy proved to be political suicide; while the Taliban assumed leadership of the Pashtun Islamist movement, Hekmatyar fled to exile in Iran. By 2008 he appeared to have rebuilt an insurgent force inside Afghanistan that was soon fighting alongside the Taliban. Nevertheless, as one Kabul daily noted, Hekmatyar has always betrayed his coalition partners in the past (Arman-e Melli [Kabul], March 31).
The HI delegation presented a 15-point Mesaq-e Melli Nejat (National Rescue Plan) to a government delegation consisting of the most powerful men in the Karzai regime (Pajhwok Afghan News, April 2). The delegates also had meetings with EU and UN envoys in Kabul. They rejected the idea of talks with U.S. representatives, but expressed interest in meeting the ambassadors of China, Russia, Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia (Tolo TV, March 30).
Qotboddin Helal, the leader of the delegation, told the Afghan press that HI and the Taliban share a common belief in the application of Shari’a, but have important differences in terms of governance. HI favors elections leading to an “elected Islamic government in Afghanistan,” while the Taliban favors the creation of an Islamic Emirate without elections (Hasht-e Sobh [Kabul], March 30). Unlike the Taliban, HI already has representatives in Afghanistan’s parliament, including Minister of Economy Abdul Hadi Arghandiwal.
Hekmatyar’s son-in-law, Dr. Ghairat Bahir, was also part of the HI delegation (Weesa [Kabul], March 30). Bahir spent four years in the American prison at Bagram air base on terrorism charges before being released in 2008 (Quqnoos.com, June 1, 2008). He has since acted as a go-between for Karzai and Hekmatyar, who was specially designated as a “Global Terrorist” by the United States in 2003.
Another member of the HI delegation, Mohammad Amin Karim, said his movement had officially recognized the Afghan government, the armed forces, the constitution and parliament as “realities.” According to the delegate, HI’s key demand was a six-month long withdrawal of all foreign troops from Afghanistan to begin in July along with the closure of foreign prisons, both of which demonstrated that Afghanistan was an occupied country (Tolo TV, March 30).
When details became public, Chairman of U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen quickly dismissed the HI “rescue plan” as “unacceptable” (Pajhwok Afghan News, March 31). HI forces continue to claim attacks on U.S. forces, most recently on Sehra Bagh airbase in Khost province (Shahadat [Peshawar], April 4).
The possible return of Hekmatyar was not welcomed by much of the press in Kabul, where he is not remembered fondly. Payam-e Mojahed reminded its readers of the fact that Hekmatyar was affiliated with Pakistan’s secret services, while Cheragh less diplomatically described the HI delegation as “Pakistani stooges” (Payam-e Mojahed, April 3; Cheragh, April 5).
Washington is facing a growing disinterest on the part of its allies for continuing military operations in Afghanistan. Karzai’s government has already engaged in secret negotiations with the Taliban in the Maldives while launching a series of aggressive criticisms of U.S. activities and policies in Afghanistan (see Terrorism Monitor, February 12). If these are correctly interpreted as signs that the war is drawing to a gradual close, Pakistan’s security services are well served by having the ISI-connected Hizb-i-Islami dialogue with the government while Mullah Omar’s Taliban continue to apply military pressure on the Karzai regime.