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Home > Opinions Last Updated: 15:03 03/09/2007
October 2001

Islamic Extremists Violating the Islamic Law

Toshio KURODA (Professor, International University of Japan)

The terrorist attacks to the Pentagon and the World Trade Center were an unprecedented shocking incident. The U.S. authorities have found that almost all the attackers were of Arab origin and seemed to have belonged to various Islamic extremist groups. It has been concluded that Osama Bin Ladin, who had been charged for a series of terrorist incidents in the past, was also involved in the U.S. attacks.

Attacking innocent civilians is not permissible in any act of war. It is natural, therefore, that criticisms against the terrorism in the U.S. are pouring in from all over the world. It should be noted that Muslim leaders in various countries are denouncing the terrorist attacks, and it is not political lip service, but is their true opinion in light of Islamic law.

What I am afraid of is a possible confusion on the part of the general public who cannot distinguish between Islamic extremists on one hand and Islamic fundamentalists or ordinary Muslims on the other. If I may use an analogy, the difference is similar to that between the Aum cult and Buddhism. Just as it is a grave mistake to judge Buddhism in general by looking at the doctrine and behavior of Aum, one should not judge the entire Islamic world of more than one billion believers, based on a small deviant group which claims to be "Islamic."

Islam is quite a lenient religion, as there are no priests between the God and its believers. There are virtually no barriers to admission and no registration needed. While basic obligations are clearly specified such as "six articles of belief and five obligatory actions," the ways of fulfilling and practicing those obligations are up to individuals. As a result, there exist a large number of factions and variations in the religion of Islam. For our purposes, it is probably more useful to consider such tripartite variations as "extremists", "fundamentalists" and "ordinary Muslims," rather than factional classifications such as Sunnism, Shiism, etc.

Definition of Islamic Fundamentalism

Although the word Islamic "fundamentalists" is now well known among the general public, there is no such word as "fundamentalism" in original Arabic. In fact, the word "fundamentalism" has become a source of misunderstanding, and some pious Muslims are included in the category of fundamentalists. All Muslims may be regarded as potential fundamentalists, but it is clear that by no means fundamentalists are equal to extremists.

How should we define Islamic "fundamentalists"? They are those who are trying to go back to the original teaching of Islam in the 7th century and to reinterpret their beliefs in today's world. They are trying to strengthen the social solidarity of believers and improve the quality of their community by purifying their own beliefs as a catalyst and thereby facilitate political and social reform in the end. In other words, they are different from general believers in that they emphasize the social aspects of Islam in their beliefs and actions.

The tide toward fundamentalism to revive Islam has been strengthening in proportion to the increased inability and corruption of political rulers in the Islamic world. This movement is to increase the solidarity of believers in small communities and regions, and to change nations' laws to Islamic law at the political level. However, that is dangerous to some rulers as it could upset the stability of their political base. Therefore, this movement has been counteracted and often suppressed forcefully.

For example, this situation can be clearly observed in Algeria, which has taken a non-Islamic stance as a nation, while having a large number of Muslims living in the country. On the other hand, Iran has replaced monarchy with Islamic rule at the national level, and the situation is similar in Afghanistan under Taliban rule. So there are various cases regarding the relation between Islam and nations.

Since the recent terrorist attacks, the expression "Islamic extremists" has become widely used in place of "Islamic fundamentalists" in various media. The correct usage of these expressions is desirable, since it helps the understanding of the truth. Otherwise, all one billion Muslims could be identified with terrorists.

Definition of Islamic Extremists

How should we define Islamic "extremists"? As already pointed out, there are a large number of factions in Islam. Among them, there are those that may be regarded as "heretic." The watershed between orthodoxy and heresy centers on concrete matters, rather than theological principles. Islam preaches that "you must not step beyond the law. Allah shall not love those who violate the law" (chapter 5, section 87), and therefore, the law should be strictly observed.

Let us focus on the matter of "murder" which is associated with terrorism. Needless to say, Islam regards the act of taking of life, (i.e, murder) as the most serious sin. One might say that a similar treatment can be seen in any other religion, but there is a unique aspect in Islam regarding this matter. Since the emergence of Islam in the 7th century, a unique system of international law has been developed, where detailed codes to deal with heterogeneous people are specified. The first system of international law in the history of mankind is called "Siyar," and it does not differentiate Muslims from non-Muslims regarding the matter of murder in peace times. Even in war times, the act of war should only be directed to warriors, and never to civilians.

While the Christian crusaders' advance toward Jerusalem involved very cruel indiscriminate killings, the second Caliph Umar and wise generalissimo Salah-d-Din (Saladin) both succeeded to occupy Jerusalem without attacking any civilians. Thus killing civilians, whether Muslims or not, has been prohibited and strictly observed in Islam since its emergence.

Those who violate this principle are considered "those who step beyond the law (ghulat)," that is, "extremists," and are regarded as heretics. In fact, there existed in history some extremely pious groups that approved the murder of fellow believers or others, and were regarded as heretics due to their excessive piousness. We have now defined general Muslims, fundamentalists and extremists, and made clear how they are different from each other, although they identify themselves as being Islamic.

Fundamental Solution to the Problem

U.S. retaliatory attacks have already launched against the suspected terrorist group and those forces that are protecting the terrorists. It is a legitimate right for those who are attacked to take countermeasures against attackers. However, its legitimacy could be questioned unless its purpose and target are clearly defined. For now, the slogan that the war is that of democratic society against terrorism is publicized, but the problem is that the target of the war is not quite clear. The true identities of those who planned and executed the terrorist act are unknown and their nationalities may not be clearly determined.

In dealing with invisible enemies, it is difficult to distinguish between those who are involved in terrorism and those who are not. While there may be no clear demarcation, we must not forget the distinction among the three groups, ordinary Muslims, fundamentalists and extremists, all of whom identify themselves with Islam. If one ignores the distinction between innocent civilians and those who are involved in terrorism directly or indirectly, terror cannot be eliminated, but rather might be fostered. This should be clear from the response of the Islamic nations to the U.S.-led military action in that those nations have approved such action, while asking the U.S. for consideration not to harm the general public.

What we should not forget is the fact that military action alone could not possibly achieve the objective of eliminating terrorism. It is indispensable to remove the factors that cause terrorism. Unfortunately, in the history of the Islamic world, there have been a number of conflicts with the Western world. There used to be clashes of civilizations, such as the Crusades and colonialism, leading to various conflicts today.

Japan has not been involved in those conflicts between the Islamic world and the Western world, and therefore might act as a mediator for true conciliation and cooperation between civilizations from a standpoint above mutual antagonism and prejudice. We must not forget that there exists an independent path toward fundamental solution to the problem as an alternative to superficial contributions to the war against terrorism. Japan can play an important role in avoiding the imminent clash of civilizations.

(A larger paper on this topic was published in Japanese in the special Octorber 2001 issue of Bungei-Shunju.")

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