17 August 2009

Fatwas and Terrorism...

The idea of issuing a fatwa (edict) against terrorism is an appealing one. If for no other reason than it would serve to distance the more moderate adherents to the faith from the more radical. However, the big question is how binding are these fatwas on Muslims and what are the real world punishments for failing to adhere to them?

More importantly, how should Muslims respond to competing fatwas or competing interpretations of what is acceptable with respect to violence perpetrated in the defense of the religion of Allah? There are plenty of Muslim organizations, and Muslims, throughout the world that are seeking to issue fatwas against terrorism as a means of distancing the faith from the criminal acts of a few. The YouTube video below relates to a fatwa issued in India.

This post is not suggesting that terrorism is a Muslim issue alone or that only Muslims perpetrate terror. However, the post is dealing with the issue of fatwas and terrorism, and this is a discussion within the framework of Islam and the interpretation of what is forbidden (haram) and what is permitted / legitimate (halal).

This is an interesting question. I thank Harry over at Multibrand for, in essence, challenging me on the issue, and also Tikno over at Love Ely for pointing me to the Indonesia version of a 2004 Fatwa on terrorism issued by the Indonesian Ulema Council (Majelis Ulama Indonesia / MUI).

In the Indonesian context, a fatwa is not binding in a strict legal sense. The government may consider them and may even adopt them if they are so inclined. However, adoption would require the codification of the fatwa into law. This is something that happens to a certain degree in matters relating to Islamic finance where the MUI plays a role in determining what financial products are legitimate under the rules of Islam. These are then codified in laws and regulations enacted by the state.

Furthermore, Indonesia already has an Anti-Terrorism Law (Interim Law No. 1 of 2002 / Law No. 15 of 2003) so is there a need for a fatwa forbidding conduct which is already prohibited in the criminal legal sense? For an interesting paper on the subject you can read Simon Butt's paper by downloading it from here.

I have taken the time to translate the MUI fatwa and would be happy to send it out if anyone wanted a copy in English. I am reluctant just to post it here because I am hopeless at formatting and "stuff" within the blogspot framework.

The fatwa is interesting because it does not forbid in an absolute sense the killing of oneself in the defense of the religion of Allah. Yet, the fatwa goes to considerable lengths to try and point out that random suicide bombings with undefined targets is absolutely against the teachings of Islam.

The primary difference in the fatwa between terrorism and jihad is that terrorism is used for destructive purposes and to cause chaos and fear whereas jihad is a legitimate struggle to defend the faith. Unfortunately, the violence perpetrated in both cases can be the same, but the intent of the perpetrator is what makes the difference. If the perpetrator is amaliyah al-istisyhad or undertaking the action in search of syahid, then this is acceptable. In contrast, where the perpetrator is one who kills themselves and others because they are a pessimist has therefore sinned in the eyes of God and has committed a crime that can never be permitted by Allah or Islam.

Therefore, the violence is a matter of perception with respect to whether it is legitimate or forbidden. Yet, the fatwa states that the act of suicide bombing is an act of despair and is therefore forbidden under the laws of Islam irrespective of whether it is done in a time of peace or a time of war or in an area dominated by Muslims or in areas dominated by other faiths.

But, in the next point of the fatwa a suicide death where the losses inflicted on the enemies of Islam are greater than those inflicted upon Islam would constitute amaliyah al-istisyhad. However, this is seemingly modified by the phrase dar al-harb which is reasonably translated as regions at war. Yet, it can also be translated to places where Muslims are in the minority and are therefore in constant struggle to practice their faith.

What is interesting about the MUI fatwa was that it was issued in 2004 and even today it is not widely known and has not been widely discussed. It is interesting because wider and more open discussion of the fatwa and terrorism could have made a significant contribution to the understanding of the "problem" of terror and how the Indonesian Muslim community is seeking to deal with it.

There are plenty of sites dedicated to debunking fatwas on terrorism as nothing more than fakes of ways of diverting attention from the real intents and purposes of terrorism. To each their own.


lawbee said...

This is an amazing post. I say amazing because IM sure it took a lot of work, and was difficult to write. I would have to study it carefully and read the links you cite to start to have an opinion.

I cant help feel though that like internatinoal rules of war; they can never cover all cases and be clear; and there are always going to be people like George Bush who say they dont apply to him/his country.

well done. I say it is also a brave post.

Rob Baiton said...


Not suggesting that a fatwa has to cover all cases. What I am suggesting is that a fatwa needs to make a compelling case for a certain course of action. It, therefore, by definition cannot be ambiguous in any way.

I find the MUI fatwa somewhat ambiguous and it reads like an organization wanting to come out against terrorism, particularly suicide bombings, but in order not to alienate it hedges its bets.

Not so brave. If it starts some discussion even here as comments or gets people talking elsewhere, then that is a good thing. I believe that the best way forward is full, frank, and painfully blunt discussion of the issues and how they must be confronted.

Read away and let me know when you have formed an opinion on the topic at hand :D

Pramudya A. Oktavinanda said...

Allow me to join in the discussion. If we see this from Indonesian legal perspective, it is easy to conclude that a fatwa does not have any binding power, even if such fatwa is issued by MUI. People my choose to obey such fatwa, but they can also choose fatwas issued by other Islamic organizations. It depends on their own preferences.

It is misleading if someone claims that MUI is the highest Islamic authority in Indonesia. Indonesia does not recognize this kind of system. While MUI consists of several Islamic organizations, it doesn't mean that it becomes a supra Islamic organization.

I don't object MUI to issue any fatwa on terrorism, after all not only that they have full rights to do so, they already done that in 2004.

The problem with this fatwa is that it is not systematic at all, as they discuss too many subjects like the concept of jihad, suicidal bombing, and terrorism. People may get confused and take a wrong impression that what truly matters in differing terrorism and jihad is the intention of the perpetrator.

My advice would be, just issue a new fatwa dealing strictly with the terrorism and states that it is not a part of jihad whatsoever. Because whether moslems like this fact or not, it is not that hard to convince some low educated moslems to conduct suicidal bombing on the basis of jihad, simply because the main target is somehow controlled by Western countries. The fatwa might not have significant impact to those who have already decided to conduct the bombing, but at least it can be deemed as a qualification from Islamic scholars that terrorism is not a part of Islamic culture.

In my opinion, rather than spending times asking MUI to issue fatwas, it is better to take some radical actions. One of my crazy ideas would be to have a law penalizing the family in one degree vertical and horizontal of any suicide bomber, including putting these guys in prison. This kind of law would provide an incentive for each family to clearly watch their members from any fundamentalist movement, and will also provide an incentive to the proposed bomber from doing his/her action, because I believe that while these bomber might not care about their own lives, I doubt that they want to cause any danger to their beloved ones.

I understand that this might be a double-edged solution, but in any case, maybe this can actually help us in preventing terrorism.

Rob Baiton said...


Thanks for dropping by and leaving a comment. Comments are always appreciated.

Responding specifically to your points.

Perhaps the MUI is not a supra Islamic organization representing all Muslim interests in Indonesia. However, it does wield influence and it is, as I noted, a significant player on the Islamic finance front.

Yes, my point was that this particular fatwa from 2004 is ambiguous. It is ambiguous because the definitions that it attempts to make do not sufficiently distinguish between terrorism (suicide bombings in this case) and jihad.

I believe that you can deal with both in one fatwa. Not hard, just plain, simple, and clear language will do the trick.

The problem of this fatwa is that even though it is clear that terrorism is not part of Islam, it is a whole lot less clear in disavowing violence. In fact it suggests that in certain circumstances violence is permitted provided the objective is valid or halal.

Have to say that I totally disagree with your crazy idea. I just do not see how it is fair, reasonable, or just to hold family members responsible for the actions of their adult children in the parents case or the siblings for any brothers and sisters.

For example, how would it be fair to hold a parent who lives in Jakarta for the violence perpetrated by an adult child who lives in Surabaya? The system would never survive a legal challenge because ultimately you are punishing people who have never committed any crime(s).

All the same, it is an interesting point and worthy of more discussion.

Once again, thanks for dropping by and leaving a long, thought-provoking, and interesting comment.

Pramudya A. Oktavinanda said...

Thank you for the quick reply, I must admit that my idea is crazy enough, but let me elaborate some more.

As far as I know, most of these suicidal bombers are not afraid of death, rather they want to die immediately so that they can go to heaven (that's what they believe). In any case, it is also a common fact that the family members of the bomber will most likely receive donation for the rest of their life. This is a case in Palestine, as detailed by Barbara Rose in the "Army of Roses."

So there would be a plenty of incentives for these bombers to conduct their actions: (i) they can die quickly and go straight to heaven; (ii) they can send some evil men to hell; and (iii) their families will be taken care of by their boss. Bingo, for these guys, all have been settled, and they can cross to the other world without any more problems.

That's why some drastic measures must be taken. Of course, sending people to jail for a crime committed by other person is definitely a huge issue. But, let us think from the terrorists side, if there is a law which penalizes their families for their deed, wouldn't they think twice before conducting a reckless action? Now, they cannot easily leave this world, because their families are no longer in good hands, but are definitely in danger.

Maybe, we can think of some sanction that will not cause too much issue of the families left behind, says in the form of fines, or maybe their names will be announced to the public, or it can be in the form of moral sanctions. Need still some elaboration here. Besides, like I said, this kind of sanction might provide some incentives to Indonesian families in preventing fundamentalism from spreading in Indonesia, simply by paying more attention to their closest relatives. I'm not encouraging spying, what I'm trying to achieve is that family member should know their closes relatives better and protect them from being brainwashed by some crazy clergy. And who could do this better than our own family?

My ultimate point is, we need to find a better incentive to stop this stupid rampage. Thanks again for the great discussion.

Rob Baiton said...


If I am online then I tend to answer / reply fairly quickly.

I am always open to frank, full, and blunt discussion.

Yes, on the incentive issue, I understand your point. However, rather than criminally punish the families of the perpetrators, wouldn't it be better to enact legislation (or enforce it) that prohibits people profiting from the proceeds of crime.

The legislation could, for example, specifically prohibit payments to surviving family members of a suicide bomber.

I am not convinced that punishing their families, the suicide bombers that is, is the answer. Suicide bombers once they reach the stage of getting ready to complete their abhorrent task are not really thinking about much beyond their primary objective, are they?

I will need to read more on the psychology of suicide bombing.

I agree that "something" must be done. I am not sure that punishing the families of would be suicide bombers is incentive enough for them to give much pause on what they are about to do. I wonder, whose will would prevail, that of Allah or that of the family?

Pramudya A. Oktavinanda said...

Hi Rob,

I made some elaboration to our discussion here in my blog. Would be great if you can provide some comments there.


Many thanks.

Rob Baiton said...


I have dropped by. I am yet to comment as I sort of scanned your post but have not read through it in a detailed manner, yet.

I have whacked a link to your blog in my blogroll. I am not sure that it will help you get any additional readers, but it might. My blogroll really is just a way of making it easier to get back to the blogs I read most days :D

Pramudya A. Oktavinanda said...

Haha, thanks a lot Rob.

MuqthiJurnal said...

@Pramudya : What have been done by suicide bombers (terrorist) is considerably despair action to what they said a JIHAD againts America and its allignment. Would it be also somekind of despair legal approach on your crazy idea???

Rob Baiton said...

Muqthi Jurnal...

Thanks for dropping by and leaving a comment. Comments are always appreciated.

Seeing your comment is directed to Pramudya I will leave it to him to answer.

However, feel free to elaborate if you wish.