Pokemon, fatwas and terrorism
The focus on fatwas is based on the premise that clerics have a strong hold on the conscience of the average Muslim
In the aftermath of the new terror attack in France, the issue of eradicating Islamist terrorism is once more brought to the forefront. This attack comes a couple of weeks after the terror attacks in Iraq and Madinah, collectively claiming hundreds of lives.
The response toward the attack in Nice, France, was predictable. Most Muslims distanced themselves from the crime allegedly perpetrated in the name of Islam, a vocal minority blamed Western aggression against Islam and Muslims, radical politicians called for more restrictions on Muslims, and moderate politicians called for restraint and distinguishing between 99.99 percent of the 1.5 billion Muslims worldwide, and the 0.01 percent responsible for such carnage.
Muslims condemning the attack have reiterated the need for a unanimous fatwa (religious edict) excommunicating terrorists. Such calls have been frequently made, and are being considered as an important prerequisite to ending terror in the name of Islam. Such calls assume that Muslim clerics have influence on would-be terrorists, and that a threat of excommunication would be a deterrent. There are also stronger calls to punish clerics who issue fatwas encouraging terrorism.
The focus on fatwas is based on the premise that clerics have a strong hold on the conscience of the average Muslim, and that a Muslim would thus abide by their edicts. This premise has been the basis of various efforts by clerics to play a role in de-radicalization and eradicating terrorism. It has also been a basis of laws, policies and budget allocations made by various governments in Muslim countries, tracking and punishing radical fatwas and encouraging moderate ones.
Such efforts are commendable and important in the process of developing a moderate discourse among Muslims in the long run. However, it will not be useful for the purposes of de-radicalization and eradicating terrorism, and not even for inoculating Muslims from the influence of the radical Islamist discourse promoted by the Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoots, or by al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
If we want to eradicate terrorism, we need to stop speaking about religion and focus solely on ideologyAbdullah Hamidaddin
Firstly, it is not religion that motivates terrorism, it is ideology. The difference between them cannot be overstated. Religion primarily defines one’s relation to God, and ideology primarily defines one’s course of political action. What motivates religious action is piety, and what motivates ideological action is the perception of oppression, real or imagined.
A fatwa will not resonate with an actual or potential terrorist because it belongs to a different sphere; it attempts to influence one motivated by a perception of oppression using a statement that speaks to a motivation of piety.
Secondly, even if we assume that some terrorists are religiously motivated, the fact is that clerics have lost their influence over Muslims. Anyone comparing the lives of most Muslims worldwide and clerical fatwas will see that. An example is a fatwa a few days ago prohibiting Pokemon Go.
The response from lay Muslims varied from outright ridicule to rejection. Many Muslims used the edict to emphasize individual religiosity, and dismantling clerical authority and the institution of the fatwa. This is merely one example among scores that illustrate clerical status. We can debate the authenticity of that fatwa and its context, but the point is that many Muslims believed it to be authentic and responded to it as such.
Fatwas that incite terrorism are influential not because Muslims abide by edicts or bind themselves to clerics. That fatwa resonated with an ideological impulse, or - as in most cases - was initiated by an ideologized cleric in the spirit of resisting a perceived oppression, not in the spirit of piety.
If we want to eradicate terrorism, we need to stop speaking about religion and focus solely on ideology. Otherwise we are wasting our time, and more significantly, doing little to stop the next terrorist attack.
Abdullah Hamidaddin is a writer and commentator on religion, Middle Eastern societies and politics with a focus on Saudi Arabia and Yemen. He is currently a PhD candidate in King’s College London. He can be followed on Twitter: @amiq1