A key issue that has emerged in these debates is that of proportionality, that the response or retaliation must be in proportion to the crime committed. Those who seek to justify the killing of civilians argue that in Israel there are no innocent civilians both because Israeli society is a military society (men and women have to serve in the military and continue to serve in the reserves) and because Israeli occupation and policies indiscriminately kill Palestinian civilians.

The debate - what some call the war of fatwas - among religious leaders is reflected in the harsh criticism by Sheikh Yusuf al-Qardawi, whom many regard as the most pre-eminent and influential religious authority in the Arab and Muslim media, of Sheikh Tantawi, who condemned the suicide attack that killed 26 Israelis in December 2001:

"How can the head of Al-Azhar incriminate mujahedin (Islamic fighters) who fight against aggressors? How can he consider these aggressors as innocent civilians? ...I am astonished that some sheikhs deliver fatwas that betray the mujahedin, instead of supporting them and urging them to sacrifice and martyrdom."

Qaradawi also criticised Sheikh Muhammad bin 'Abdallah as-Sabil, the imam of the grand mosque in Mecca, for declaring that killing Israelis is not permissible. Qaradawi declared,

"The Palestinian who blows himself up is a person who is defending his homeland. When he attacks an occupier enemy, he is attacking a legitimate target. This is different from someone who leaves his country and goes to strike a target with which he has no dispute."

In contrast, Timothy Winter (Sheikh Abdal Hakim Murad) of Cambridge University maintains, "this kind of targeting of civilians, for instance, the aberrant use of terrorist violence is something that really is very new... It hasn't gained much inroad into the leadership of the religion, but in the masses on the streets, as it were, particularly in very tense, unnatural places like Gaza, the slums of Baghdad and other places, it does have a certain standing unfortunately. And this is the great challenge of the leadership of the religion - how to reassert orthodoxy in the face of a growing groundswell of fundamentalist revolt."

The point is this. Islam, like other religions, distinguishes between legitimate and illegitimate acts of violence.


Reprinted with permission from On Faith.

John L. Esposito is professor of religion and international affairs at Georgetown University, founding director of its Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Centre for Muslim-Christian Understanding and author of What Everyone Needs to Know about Islam and Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam.