Are Western Civilians Legitimate Targets in War?

Osama Bin Ladin’s February 23, 1998 fatwa says, “The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies — civilians and military — is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it, in order to liberate the al-Aqsa Mosque and the holy mosque from their grip, and in order for their armies to move out of all the lands of Islam, defeated and unable to threaten any Muslim.”

Some American Muslims have responded to Osama Bin Ladin’s call.  For example, in October 2004, an American Muslim from New York, James Elshafay, pled guilty to conspiring to blow up a New York subway station.  In November 2007, an American Muslim from Illinois, Derrick Shareef, pled guilty to plotting to attack a shopping mall with hand grenades.  In January 2009, an American Muslim from New York, Bryant Neal Vinas, pled guilty to providing Al Qaeda with information that could have been used to attack the Long Island Rail Road.  In April 2010, an American Muslim from New York, Zarein Ahmedzay, pled guilty to plotting to bomb the New York City subway system.  Ahmedzay told the judge that he planned to bomb the subway to pressure the U.S. military to withdraw from Afghanistan.  In June 2010, an American Muslim from Connecticut, Faisal Shahzad, pled guilty to attempting to set off a car bomb in New York City’s Times Square.  When the judge asked Shahzad whether he had realized that his car bomb could have killed children in Times Square, Shahzad said, “It’s a war. I am part of the answer to the U.S. terrorizing the Muslim nations and the Muslim people.  On behalf of that, I’m revenging the attack. Living in the United States, Americans only care about their people, but they don’t care about the people elsewhere in the world when they die.”  The judge said that civilians in Times Square did not have anything to do with American foreign policy, and Shahzad replied, “The people select the government. We consider them all the same.”  Shahzad told the judge he was a “Muslim soldier.”  Shahzad said he chose a warm Saturday night in May 2010 for the bombing, because he knew that Times Square would be more crowded on a warm weekend night, so more people would be injured or killed.  Several other American Muslims (and Muslims of other nationalities) have been convicted of plotting attacks against targets inside the U.S.

Many American and European Muslim scholars and organizations have repeatedly condemned attacks on civilians since the 9/11 attacks.  Following the London bombings, the Fiqh Council of North America issued a fatwa stating, “Targeting civilians’ life and property through suicide bombings or any other method of attack is haram — or forbidden.”

Arguments By Those Who Oppose Attacks on Civilians

1.  Human life must be protected.  The Qur’an says, “On that account: We ordained for the Children of Israel that if any one slew a person - unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land – it would be as if he slew the whole people: and if any one saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole people.” (5:32)  Therefore, killing one American civilian is like killing all of humanity.

2.  Killing civilians is prohibited under Islamic rules of warfare.  Even though the new Muslim community was under constant attack, the Prophet (peace be upon him) explicitly prohibited Muslims in combat from killing the elderly, children, women, or monks in monasteries.  When he saw the corpse of a woman during a war, he was upset that she had been killed.

3.  Muslims should fight only those who fight them.  The American government and military, not American civilians, are responsible for making and implementing foreign policy decisions affecting the Muslim world.  In fact, many American civilians oppose American foreign policies.  Many American civilians (including children) have nothing to do with their government’s foreign policy.

4.  Al Qaeda and its allies are capable of attacks on governmental or military targets.  They attacked American governmental or military targets in Yemen in 1992, Somalia in 1993, Saudi Arabia in 1995 and 1996, Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, Yemen in 2000, and Virginia (the Pentagon) on 9/11.  There is no reason for Al Qaeda and its allies to expand their list of targets beyond governmental or military targets.

5.  The U.S. and its allies do not deliberately target Muslim civilians in military conflicts overseas, and they seek to minimize the number of Muslim civilian casualties.

6.  Western Muslim civilians are killed in attacks on Western civilian targets.  Muslims working in the World Trade Center and working with rescuers in NY were killed on 9/11, and British Muslim passengers were killed in the London bombings.  In addition, when there are attacks on Western civilian targets, there is a backlash against Western Muslim civilians.

Arguments By Those Who Justify Attacks on Civilians

1.  People, both civilians and others, must be held accountable for their actions.  The Qur’an says, “On that account: We ordained for the Children of Israel that if any one slew a person – unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land – it would be as if he slew the whole people: and if any one saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole people.” (5:32)  Therefore, it is permissible to kill American civilians who help to spread murder and mischief through their political and financial support for American foreign policy.

2.  Attacking American civilians is permitted when Muslim civilians have been attacked, in order to deter future attacks on Muslim civilians.  “O ye who believe! the law of equality is prescribed to you in cases of murder: the free for the free, the slave for the slave, the woman for the woman. But if any remission is made by the brother of the slain, then grant any reasonable demand, and compensate him with handsome gratitude, this is a concession and a Mercy from your Lord. After this whoever exceeds the limits shall be in grave penalty.” (2:178) “The prohibited month for the prohibited month, and so for all things prohibited, there is the law of equality. If then anyone transgresses the prohibition against you, Transgress ye likewise against him. But fear Allah, and know that Allah is with those who restrain themselves.” (2:194)  “If ye punish, then punish with the like of that wherewith ye were afflicted. But if ye endure patiently, verily it is better for the patient.” (16:126)  While God prefers restraint and patience, revenge is permitted.

3.  Attacks on civilians in democratic states are acceptable when civilians, who have the power to change their government’s foreign policy through the democratic process, continue to elect (or tolerate the election of) leaders who support American foreign policy.  Civilians also pay the taxes that make American foreign policy and military attacks possible.  “They send their sons to armies to fight us and they continue their financial and moral support, while our countries are burned and our houses are bombed and our people are killed,” Osama Bin Ladin said on an audiotape broadcast by Al Jazeera in April 2006.

4.  Al Qaeda and its allies do not have weapons that would allow them to strike at American governmental and military targets in a sustained and significant manner that would impact American foreign policy.

5.  The U.S. and its allies claim that they seek to minimize the number of Muslim civilian casualties in conflicts in the Muslim world, but they engage in military operations (including the enforcement of economic sanctions) that are one-hundred-percent guaranteed to produce Muslim civilian casualties.  The bottom line is that the U.S. and its allies have “unintentionally” killed many times more Muslim civilians than the number of Western civilians killed by Al Qaeda and its allies.  In addition, the U.S. has established a precedent for intentionally targeting civilians; the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

6.  The deaths of Western Muslim civilians are unavoidable, because Western Muslim civilians choose to live with and work with civilian targets of other faiths.  In addition, many Western Muslim civilians deserve what they get because they have rejected their responsibility to try to change Western foreign policy towards the Muslim world.

Kamran Memon is the founder of Muslims For A Safe America, a 501(c)(3) organization based in Chicago. Muslims For A Safe America encourages honest and informed discussion about how to make Muslims and America safer. Kamran can be reached at kamran@muslimsforasafeamerica.org.

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