Doctrinal debates about how to take lives

1101010914 400It’s time for another trip into tmatt’s personal GetReligion Guilt folder.

Two weeks ago, the New York Times ran an article by Michael Moss and Souad Mekhennet that has haunted me ever since, especially since I read it just after returning from a trip to Istanbul. The leaders of religious minorities are still pretty tense there after the recent torture and murder of three Christians at a publishing company in Malatya.

Questions linger in the background, after events of this kind, hellish events that have almost become perfectly normal in Iraq.

Why do Islamists kill people like this? In this manner? On a doctrinal level, what are they thinking?

These are the questions at the heart of the Times article titled “Permission — The Guidebook for Taking a Life.” Ever since then, I have been trying to reach several of the Muslim researchers I met in Istanbul, seeking their commentary on this piece.

The bottom line: This is an amazing article. It is either amazingly good or amazingly bad, depending on whether it is dealing fairly with the source materials that it quotes. I do not know if I can make that judgment, to be honest with you.

If you read the lede you will not stop until the end:

We were in a small house in Zarqa, Jordan, trying to interview two heavily bearded Islamic militants about their distribution of recruitment videos when one of us asked one too many questions.

“He’s American?” one of the militants growled. “Let’s kidnap and kill him.”

The room fell silent. But before anyone could act on this impulse, the rules of jihadi etiquette kicked in. You can’t just slaughter a visitor, militants are taught by sympathetic Islamic scholars. You need permission from whoever arranges the meeting. And in this case, the arranger who helped us to meet this pair declined to sign off.

“He’s my guest,” Marwan Shehadeh, a Jordanian researcher, told the bearded men.

With Islamist violence brewing in various parts of the world, the set of rules that seek to guide and justify the killing that militants do is growing more complex.

This jihad etiquette is not written down, and for good reason. It varies as much in interpretation and practice as extremist groups vary in their goals. But the rules have some general themes that underlie actions ranging from the recent rash of suicide bombings in Algeria and Somalia, to the surge in beheadings and bombings by separatist Muslims in Thailand.

The article sets out to list the rules, as commonly understood by the small percentage of Muslims who interpret their scriptures to allow actions of this kind. Here is a list of the rules, as described in the Times article.

Rule No. 1: You can kill bystanders without feeling a lot of guilt.

Rule No. 2: You can kill children, too, without needing to feel distress.

Rule No. 3: Sometimes, you can single out civilians for killing; bankers are an example.

Rule No. 4: You cannot kill in the country where you reside unless you were born there.

Rule No. 5: You can lie or hide your religion if you do this for jihad.

Rule No. 6. You may need to ask your parents for their consent.

In each case, the reporters turn to mainstream Muslim scholars and to leaders in Islamist groups seeking input on the doctrinal debates that shape arguments about when and how people can be killed if they are viewed as enemies of Islam.

This is serious business and, like it or not, these debates are taking place within Islamic communities. As the article states:

Islamic militants who embrace violence may account for a minuscule fraction of Muslims in the world, but they lay claim to the breadth of Islamic teachings in their efforts to justify their actions. “No jihadi will do any action until he is certain this action is morally acceptable,” says Dr. Mohammad al-Massari, a Saudi dissident who runs a leading jihad Internet forum,, in London, where he now lives.

040511 beheading hmed3p hmedium 01And what do these debates sound like?

Consider Rule No. 4, which will continue to grow in importance in Europe and the United States in the years ahead. This is a long quote, but I want you to see what the reporters are doing and how they are doing it:

Militants living in a country that respects the rights of Muslims have something like a peace contract with the country, says Omar Bakri, a radical sheik who moved from London to Lebanon two years ago under pressure from British authorities.

Militants who go to Iraq get a pass as expeditionary warriors. And the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks did not violate this rule since the hijackers came from outside the United States, Mr. Bakri said.

“When I heard about the London bombings, I prayed that no bombers from Britain were involved,” he said, fearing immigrants were responsible. As it turned out, the July 7, 2005, attack largely complied with this rule. Three of the four men who set off the bombs had been born in Britain; the fourth moved there from Jamaica as an infant.

Mr. Bakri says he does not condone violence against innocent people anywhere. But some of the several hundred young men who studied Islam with him say they have no such qualms.

“We have a voting system here in Britain, so anyone who is voting for Tony Blair is not a civilian and therefore would be a legitimate target,” says Khalid Kelly, an Irish-born Islamic convert who says he studied with Mr. Bakri in London.

Like I said, I am sure there are many moderate and liberal Muslims who totally disagree with the interpretations featured in this article. That goes without saying.

However, in a way, that’s the very point that Moss and Mekhennet are making. They are not trying to say that these are the official Muslim rules for taking lives. There are no official rules. They demonstrate that these are the rules being debated in some small sectors of Muslim communities, including here in the West.

And that is stunning enough. Please read and comment.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • undergroundpewster

    The article chooses to focus on fundamentalist thinking rather to include alternative Islamic thought. Of course, the fundamentalist is not interested in alternative ways of thinking, and the article seems to aimed at increasing our fears. The mental machinations these jihadists have to go through to justify killing points out their core weakness. The “core” weakness is the use of the Koran as the ultimate authority for their human decisions.

  • tmatt

    Wait a minute.

    So you think that any Muslim who believes that the Koran is the ultimate authority over their lives is automatically a fundamentalist?

  • undergroundpewster

    No, but the way the jihadist uses it to justify killing identifies a type of fundamentalism. If the fundamentalist believes that the Koran is a recording of God’s exact words, that it represents the ultimate final word of God, and the fundamentalist takes the radical violent interpretation to be the only correct view of things, then you have a perfect mind trap for a jihadist.

  • Rick the Texan

    Fascinating stuff. A couple comments.

    1 Back in the first Iraq war under Bush #41, a pastoral colleague was a chaplain with the task of educating US military personnel re the particulars of Islamic beliefs and specifically behaviors that would unintentionally incite offense – so that personnel could be effective and not make matters worse. One of the lessons he told me about was for those guarding prisoners taken in the conflict. They were told that faithful muslims, when treated fairly and respectfully as prisoners, were obligated by the faith to behave as guests; but if they were treated wrongly, jihad was a duty. By receiving the right training, it was possible for a very few military personnel to supervise a very large number of prisoners – by treating them respectfully. (Of course at that time we in the west were far less familiar with the existence of those who use Islam as a screen for terribly immoral killings)

    2 I had the wonderful experience a year ago of speaking at a local mosque to an audience of muslims, christians and jews. To a person, every muslim I spoke to repudiated the violence we’ve all become so familiar with. I wish every GetReligion reader (indeed, every westerner)could have such an experience. I came away with a respect for my new friends.

  • Jerry

    To me a great source to understand what is going on here, is Khaled abou el-Fadl. He’s a very knowledgeable Islamic scholar who’s written extensively contrasting the authoritative versus authoritarian views of Islam.

    This is a quote from the Amazon blurb on his book: And God Knows the Soldiers: The Authoritative and Authoritarian in Islamic Discourses

    the author documents the disintegration of the Islamic juristic tradition, and the prevalence of authoritarianism in contemporary Muslim discourses. The author analyzes the rise of what he describes as puritan and despotic trends in modern Islam, and asserts that such trends nullify the richness and diversity of the Islamic tradition. By declaring themselves the true soldiers of God and the defenders of religion, Muslim puritan movements are able to degrade women, eradicate critical thinking, and empty Islam of its moral content… Anchoring himself in the rich Islamic jurisprudential tradition, the author argues for upholding the authoritativeness of the religious text without succumbing to authoritarian methodologies of interpretation.

    After reading one of his books, I agree that understanding the authoritarian nature of the terrorists is key to understanding what is going on. And that one can be very religious, accepting the Quran and Hadith as authoritative without being authoritarian.

    FYI, the book I read was Speaking in God’s Name: Islamic Law, Authority and Women. I know some consider him a crypto-fellow traveler communist, I mean Islamist and the terrorists have threatened to kill him. But I found his views about the decline of Islam (Islamic jurisprudence) cogent and persuasive.

  • Johnny T. Helms

    The West’s ignorance of Islam is astounding and very disturbing. We are all too eager to label Christians who believe the Bible to be God’s only and final Word as “fundamentalists.” While we are so afraid of offending a Muslim that we refuse to call a Koran-believing Muslim a fundamentalist. Or a US hating, bomb-toting, suicide- bombing, terrorists what he is, an offended Muslim.

    Of course a Muslim who holds that the Koran is the ultimate authority over his life is a fundamentalist. The confusion comes when we mistake being a fundamentalist with being a terrorists. All terrorists are fundamentalists; not all fundamentalists are terrorists; in any religion.

    The fundamentalist is not “interested in an alternative way of thinking,” then he would not be a fundamentalist. A consistent fundamentalist in any faith will not be interested or open to an alternative way of thinking about the fundamentals of his religion. A consistent fundamentalist is wary of any alternative way of thinking that smacks of compromise. Compromise to the fundamentalist is tantamount to apostasy.

    And with a careful observation of the statements of Muslims here in the West and elsewhere, one will discover that describing only Islamist terrorists as “radicals” may itself be a seriously misleading description as most Muslims are radical without being practicing terrorists. Read the news. Pay attention to how many Muslims in Europe and the US agree with the 9/11 attacks, the attacks in Spain and in Great Britain. And then ask them if they would side with the West if push came to shove over who will rule the world. Will they choose Allah over the West? Probably.

    Have any of you read The Beliefnet Guide to Islam? Or Karen Armstrong’s book, Islam. Or any of the Koran? Or Robert Spencer’s books? Do you ever visit Islamic web sites? Very informative…and scary.

  • Brian

    There’s just no hope–if the media doesn’t “get” Christianity, how can it possibly hope to “get” Islam? Does the media know that Christianity does NOT hold the Bible as “a recording of God’s exact words”? Does the media (or the public) know that Islam does explicitly do so for the Koran? Much more generally, does the media (or the public) know anything at all about the Reformation/Counter-Reformation/Thirty-Year’s War and how and why the modern West’s ideas for “religious tolerance” evolved? Does the media (or the public) know anything at all about European history between the French Revolution & World War I, and how all the conflicts of that time massively (fatally?) traumatized European culture? Does the media (or the public) know anything at all about the history of the Middle East between the Crusades (bet essentially no one in the media could even name the starting or ending centuries of the Crusades) and, oh, the Iranian embassy takeover (check that–the CIA overthrow of the Iranian gov’t in 1953(?) is a very trendy citation to make)? Or going backwards, between the Crusades and the birth of Christ?
    Knowing history doesn’t mean that one knows all the present answers, or knows the future, but it gives perspective and allows one to recognize ahistorical twaddle when one sees it.

  • caveat bettor

    This reminded me of the biblical Lot, who offered his guests protection to the point of sending his daughters out into the crazed crowds of Sodom and Gommorrah to appease them.

  • Larry “Grumpy” Rasczak

    Brian is right about the media’s near total lack of historical context or education.

    Tmatt- I think when you ask “So you think that any Muslim who believes that the Koran is the ultimate authority over their lives is automatically a fundamentalist? ” an issue to consider is the difference between the Koran and the Bible.

    As you know, Christians understand that the Bible is a collection of various writings from various sources. Even for someone who sincerely believes that the Bible is the word of God the 4 (count ‘em 4) Gospels all give us slightly different views of Jesus, especially how John is different from the other 3, and in what the put in and what they leave out etc. (You know the Bible far better than I. )In any case, there is enough room in the New Testament for sincere, believing Christians to strongly disagree in good faith (as the 30 Years War showed…).

    The Koran is different. My copy of the Koran is in English, so it is called “The Meaning of the Glorious Koran”, because no Koran that is not in Arabic can be properly called a Koran.

    As you know, Islam the Koran is taken to be the LITERAL word of Allah, in that THESE EXACT WORDS, IN ARABIC, (including punctuation, etc.) are what Mohammed (or Allah speaking through Mohammed) said. (To quote Wikipedia “Muslims believe the Qur’an to be the book of divine guidance and direction for mankind, consider the text in its original Arabic to be the literal word of Allah revealed to Muhammad over a period of twenty-three years, and view the Qur’an as God’s final revelation to humanity.)

    Takes “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” to a whole new level.

    Jesus speaks in stories and analogies… Christians can debate what the second son in the Prodigal Son story means and who he represents.

    But when a Moslem sees “[17.33] And do not kill any one whom Allah has forbidden, except for a just cause, and whoever is slain unjustly, We have indeed given to his heir authority, so let him not exceed the just limits in slaying; surely he is aided.” THAT is what Allah Himself said, (except in Arabic of course). Allah (one presumes) chose His words deliberately and with a purpose in mind, and going against the plain meaning of the text makes no sense.

    So in a way, it really doesn’t make a lot of sense NOT to be a “fundamentalist” if you are a Moslem. Either the Koran is exatly what the “fundamentalist” Moslems say it is… the EXACT and LITERAL word of Allah; or it is just the rantings of a power hungry, mysoginistic, mass murdering, 7th Century version of L.Ron Hubbard… logic does not permit a whole lot of middle ground on the issue.

    So in a sense, the answer to your question is yes. IF one is a sincerely believing Moslem, it is simply not logical to be anything other than a “fundamentalist”.

    Perhaps the press would be better served if they realized this, and realized that that many (not all perhaps, but many) of the “moderate” Moslems, “Westernized Moslems”, “progressive Moslems” etc. they endlessly chatter about would more properly be called “cultural Moslems” or “Non-observant Moslems”.

  • jeanie

    Oh for goodness sake!!!! Doctrine? Stop dignifying it. It’s a license for thugs to justify doing whatever they feel like doing.

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