Muslim Religious Scholars at Odds over Palestinian Suicide Bombings
Muslim religious scholars in Egypt and Saudi Arabia who condemned Palestinian suicide attacks against Israeli civilians may have done so under government pressure, according to a prominent Kuwaiti Islamist politician.
Cairo and Riyadh would have urged the clerics to denounce the attacks because they are keen on "preserving the current Arab order," which would be threatened if Israel ousts Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, former MP Ismail al-Shatti, a leading member of the Islamic Constitutional Movement told AFP.
Muslim scholars from the Arab world openly disagreed this week on the legitimacy of Palestinian suicide bombings -- or "martyrdom operations" -- of the kind that killed 26 Israelis in a string of attacks in early December.
Mohammad Sayyed Tantawi, the government-appointed sheikh of Cairo's al-Azhar university, Sunni Islam's most prestigious center of religious learning, condemned "any attack on innocent civilians," drawing a sharp rebuke from Qatar-based Sheikh Yussuf Qaradawi.
"How can the head of al-Azhar incriminate mujahedin (Islamic fighters) who fight against aggressors?" asked the Egyptian-born Qaradawi, saying that "Israeli society was completely military in its make-up."
But Tantawi's view was echoed by a member of Saudi Arabia's official religious establishment, Sheikh Mohammad bin Abdullah al-Sbayyel, who said "any attack on innocent people" contradicted sharia, or Islamic law.
Egypt's Mufti Nasr Farid Wassel joined the fray to defend "martyrdom operations" by Palestinian Islamist militants as legitimate actions aimed at ending injustice and shielding Islam's holy sites.
Mohammad Abdullah al-Roken, a law professor at the UAE University who also heads the United Arab Emirates' Jurists Association, said Egypt's two top religious authorities had differed before on other issues.
But he did not believe that the Egyptian and Saudi governments, whose nationals are among the suspects for the September 11 attacks in the United States, instructed leading scholars to decry the Palestinian bombings in order to appease Washington, since their credentials as US allies are not in doubt.
The debate is a result of different interpretations of Islamic teachings, specifically the ban on attacking civilians as opposed to the legitimacy of fighting combatants, Roken said.
"Muslim scholars disagree on whether any Israelis can be considered 'non-combatants' or 'civilians.' Some say yes, while others argue that all Israelis are usurpers and reservists in the army and thus fair game," he said.
Each camp includes clerics from various Arab countries, and those who justify suicide bombings include Saudis -- though not members of the official religious establishment -- as well as Kuwait's top religious authority, Khaled al-Madhkur, Roken added.
Ismail al-Shatti, however, told AFP from Kuwait he doubted that religious scholars such as Tantawi and Sbayyel would have "volunteered to denounce the (suicide) operations while Israel is liquidating Palestinian civilians."
The two would "probably have come under pressure" to speak out against the attacks, said Shatti, who heads a Gulf forum set up to resist normalization of ties with Israel.
Wassel is less inclined to placate the Egyptian government than Tantawi, while Qaradawi enjoys a larger measure of freedom than the sheikh of al-Azhar, he argued.
Muslim religious scholars and Islamist activists, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and the Palestinian Hamas movement, agree that attacks on civilians are not permissible, Shatti said.
But this consensus excludes Israel, because it remains technically at war with the Arabs and because the Israeli army and Jewish settlers are constantly attacking Palestinian civilians, he said.
Shatti said it was significant that criticism of the suicide bombings had come from religious authorities in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the two Arab heavyweights that usually set the pace for the rest of the Arab world.
Cairo and Riyadh are more involved than others in the Middle East peace process, and they presumably believe that the Palestinian-Israeli confrontation has reached a point where Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon could topple Arafat, with potentially dire consequences for the "Arab order," he said.
The Egyptian and Saudi governments may therefore be trying to defuse the current crisis more in a bid to uphold the Arab order than in an effort to please the United States, Shatti added -- AFP
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