Saturday, March 9, 2013

The Religious Fatwa as a Political Weapon

Guest contributor, Ali Alhbabi, a doctoral candidate in the Political Science Department, Rutgers University, New  Brunswick, New Jersey, USA, is a graduate of the University of the United Arab Emirates, and a specialist in political Islam and contemporary Islamic thought.
For many years, Islamist movements have declared that Islam is the only solution to the problems facing Arab and Muslim majority  states.  Following the Arab Spring revolutions, Islamists have gained power in some states, including Egypt and Tunisia.  Democratic elections in these Arab spring states brought Islamists to power due to their organization prior to the Arab Spring and thus their greater ability to mobilize the masses.  Now that they have acquired power, the main challenge facing Islamists is:  how will they will deal with the opposition?

During the period of authoritarian rule, Islamist movements themselves constituted the opposition and suffered from violent repression by these state. For Islamists, religion is an essential part of their political and social project which is to lead the Arab  and Islamic world to a renaissance that will echo the glories of the early Arab-Islamic empires that flourished between the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 CE and the collapse of the Abbasid Empire in n1258 CE.

However, Islamists have increasingly used religion in negative and destructive ways to deal with the “other”. Following the popularization of social media, a strange phenomenon has developed: Islamist regimes  have begun to use the religious decree (fatwa; pl. fatawa) to attack the opposition (i.e., secular liberals and leftists) in Egypt and Tunisia, as well as other non-Muslim ethnic groups, such as Egypt's Coptic Christian community.  Such decrees can be circulated very rapidly via social media.

A fatwa is normally used by men of religion in Islam to make a religious determination on specifically earthly matters facing a society. Ulama (clerics) declare fatwa related to specific issues to guide Muslims' attitudes and behavior, without then breaking any religious taboos.  Issuing a fatwa is a form of authority that is designated for the Ulama because it is part of their religious duty to educate and lead the people.

Issuing a fatwa is restricted to the Ulama because they, by definition, are knowledgeable about religion. But this field of expertise, which is supposed to limited to religion has, not prevented some ulama from issuing political fatwas which often have dangerous implications. Islamist political systems tend to integrate religious and political authority.  As a result, it is difficult to distinguish between what is religious and what is political.

Many Ulama have moved into the realm of politics and political Islam and have issued fatwas which do not conform to traditional Islamic doctrine to justify the use of violence against those whom they consider to be their opponents.  In Egypt, for example, the Ulama issued a fatwa calling for killing anyone who opposes the ruling political system because he/she would thus be considered a Kharij, namely a person who disobeys the Imam – namely the president of Egypt. (See:

These fatwas are dangerous because they can be acted upon by anyone who is an ardent believer.  In addition to the physical danger posed by political fatwas, they represent an intellectual threat. The idea of distorting how the opposition is perceived in the minds of ordinary people by portraying them as enemies of religion who import foreign ideas and seek to westernize Muslim countries is very dangerous. The danger of political fatwas lies in denying that the opposition has an important role to play in any functioning democracy.

Being a political opponent of the ruling political party should not lead to political marginalization exclusion or even physical liquidation. Many religious fatwas have been issued calling upon people to be killed in the name of Islam, because they are opposed to an Islamist political system and the mixing of religion and politics.  Accusing opposition leaders of being liberal and secular, or even atheist, encourages people to act on the fatwa, with the incentive that their behavior will lead to a reward in the afterlife.     

In recent months we have witnessed fatwas openly calling for the use of violence against the opposition in the name of Islam. In Tunisia, a popular and highly respected lawyer, poet and politician, Shukri Belaid was assassinated because of his secular ideas.  Following the Belaid assassination, the first political assassination in over 30 years,video footage featured on several prominent websites revealed that some Tunisian Salafists have advocated for killing secularist opposition members, including Belaid  (See:

In Egypt, many politically minded Ulama similarly use religious fatwas politically to justify killing protesters around Al-Ittihadiya presidential palace on the grounds that they were trying to overthrow the political system which is ruled by a democratically elected president. The transformation of political discourse in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world that only exists within the context of Islamist beliefs and values will undermine the notion of cultural tolerance, political pluralism and acceptance of the other as a part of a post-authoritarian process of national reconciliation.

In reality, these fatwas that advocate violence contradict the essence of Islam. Killing is rejected by most religions and using religion to justify a violent act is a form of "invented religion" that reflects tendency of many Islamists to use religion in inappropriate ways to promote narrow political agendas. Moreover, the majority of the Ulama are firm in their belief that the Qur’an does not condone killing anyone who threatens the religion of Islam.

Therefore, political fatwas that justify using violence against the other rely on weak interpretations that contradict Islamic principles and Prophetic traditions. Islam stresses the norm of spreading peace among people and respecting the other regardless religion or color.  Nevertheless, fatwas that promote extremist political agendas are used politically by militant Islamists to justify the killing and exclusion of the opposition as a part of what they (conveniently) interpret a part of their religious duty.

Because of fatwas based on flawed interpretations of Islam, many core Islamic values are threatened, including tolerance, peaceful coexistence among religions, and recognition of the value of dialogue generated by opposing points of view. More importantly, Islamist political fatwas are creating deep divisions between Islamists and non-Islamists: Islamists are viewed as true Muslims and the non-Islamists or anti-Islamists as non-Muslims. This creation of this distinction in Islamic discourse is highly dangerous, particularly because it promotes hatred and sectarian divisions among people, especially in multi-ethnic and multi-religious countries, such as Egypt.
By declaring fatwas that are political in nature and condone the use of violence, Islamists believe that they are protecting their religion and the rule of political Islam. Moreover, they view the political use of fatwas as a way of legitimizing Islamists’ political positions and opinions. However, this reflects  a superficial understanding of the rules of Islamic jurisprudence. Political jurisprudence, al-fiqh al-siyassi, is different from any other type of Islamic jurisprudence because it requires Ulama who want to become involved in political matters to first possess a comprehensive knowledge of politics, as well as cultural, social and economic conditions.

Religious knowledge alone is not sufficient to explain the political phenomena I am describing from a religious point of view. It is the nature of political jurisprudence to be unstable and prone to change. However, other kinds of jurisprudence in Islam are more stable because they rely on basic pillars of Islam as they relate to worship.           

In the end, the Islamists’ use of fatwas as a political weapon constitutes a threat to the personal security of citizen in Muslim majority countries who are opposed to political Islam, namely the subordination of politics to a misinterpretation of Islam. Islamists in Egypt and Tunisia use their own television channels and social media as popular vehicles to disseminate fatwas designed  to achieve political ends, including attacking opposition force.  In Islam fatwas are meant to be used to alleviate difficulties in a believer's life, not to end it. 

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