When Bombs Rip, Where Is Islam?

US presses Arafat on security but Muslim ambiguity on suicide attacks hinders efforts.

Behind the desk of Jerusalem Grand Mufti Ekrima Sabri are rows of bookshelves loaded with embellished Korans and numerous scholarly commentaries on the Islamic holy book.

But even with such resources at his fingertips, the top Palestinian Muslim cleric declines to give an absolute opinion on one of the most controversial acts in Islam: suicide bombings, such as the July 30 twin explosions that killed 13 Israelis, injured another 170, and plunged Middle East peacemaking deeper into doubt.

"The person who sacrifices his life as a Muslim will know if God accepts it and whether it's for the right reason," says Sheikh Sabri in an interview. "God in the end will judge him and whether he did that for a good purpose or not. We cannot judge. The measure is whether the person is doing that for his own purposes, or for Islam."

The United States, however, says the Palestinian Authority (PA) cannot be so ambiguous on its policy on acts of terror. Special envoy Dennis Ross returned to the region yesterday to meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Yasser Arafat. He is expected to press the Palestinian leader to step up security cooperation with Israel and crack down on Muslim militant groups suspected of last month's bombings. Complicating those demands, Mr. Arafat faces a predominantly Muslim public largely against any campaign to destroy Islamic opposition groups - and somewhat divided over whether the suicide bombings themselves are heinous or heroic.

In his position as imam of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third-holiest site in Islam that sits just outside his office door - Sheikh Sabri's Friday sermons are heard by hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who attend prayers or tune in to his preachings on live radio broadcasts. He often uses his pulpit to condemn Israeli policy, to blast the failings of the peace process, and to tell the faithful how to live as good Muslims.

But on the issue of whether young men should take their own lives and the lives of many others in the name of Islam, he leaves to individual choice.

To Israeli leaders, the mufti's silence serves as tacit approval of the bombings, which are almost always aimed at civilians. In any case, his ambivalence leaves the thing that poses perhaps the biggest danger to the peace process open to debate. Other Muslim spiritual leaders here - many of whom are affiliated with the Hamas and Islamic Jihad movements who recruit and equip the bombers - hail such deeds as acts of martyrdom. But other Palestinians say the bombings are a usurpation of Islam, even a defamation of the religion, for political use.

Above Sheikh Sabri's bookshelves is a gold-framed picture of Arafat, who appointed the mufti three years ago. Sheikh Sabri says he hasn't faced any pressure from Arafat to condemn the bombings as un-Islamic. "My work is not a service of the Palestinian Authority," he says.

As though mirroring his ambivalence, the Palestinian Authority-controlled radio station interviewed several sheikhs after the recent bombings and pressed them to opine that Islam does not encourage such actions. But the Voice of Palestine radio station avoided the use of terms like "suicide bombing" and instead referred to the attack on a crowded marketplace as an "operation," as though it was a military maneuver devoid of civilian casualties.

Evasion of the word suicide goes to the heart of the dispute over whether sending human bombs is halal or haram - permissible or forbidden.

Sheikh Moussa Za'bout, a Gaza Strip member of the Palestinian legislative council who is affiliated with Hamas, says such bombings are unlike suicides caused by personal despair. "In Islam, suicide is forbidden, and Allah punishes those who commit suicide," says Sheikh Za'bout. "But in Islamists' point of view, this is not a suicide bombing, this is struggle bombing, for jihad [holy war]. This is considered very precious work, to meet Allah and to become a shahid [martyr] ... if a man kills himself as a way for struggling against the enemy, this is very very good."

The charter of Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, also says as much. The group's founders declare that in Islam "death for the sake of Allah is its most sublime belief," author Judith Miller writes in "God Has Ninety-Nine Names," a study of militant Islam in the Middle East.

BUT Islam, like most world religions, is open to interpretation. Islam's two main branches, Sunni and Shia, take slightly different views on the matter. Analysts here say that long before Hamas began its bombings, Shiite Iranians used suicide missions during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. The issue of whether such actions meant "martyrdom" became theologically debatable. But Islamic Jihad - which receives backing from Iran - began taking cues from that country's position on suicide bombings. And though Palestinians are Sunni Muslims, Hamas has followed suit.

Palestinian intellectuals say that the bombings, however, are less firmly rooted in religion than politics. "This is political violence when applied by Islamic groups - of course they can lean on doctrine," says Prof. Ziad Abu Amr, an expert on Hamas at Bir Zeit University and a member of the Palestinian council. "I don't think it's a matter of verses in the Koran, because you can always find verses to support one thing or another."

Khalil Shikaki, the head of the Palestine Center for Research Studies, also says that there is less scriptural basis in the bombings than the Islamic militants would have their followers believe.

"It becomes a political more than a religious question," says Mr. Shikaki, whose brother Fathi Shikaki was an Islamic Jihad leader until his assassination two years ago. "The question is not whether it's halal or haram, but whether it is politically useful."

Many Muslims are opposed to such bombings, though it is hard to judge how many. Frustrations with the peace process often intertwine with feelings about religion. According to a June public opinion poll, some 40 percent of Palestinians support violent attacks on Israelis as carried out by Islamic groups.

But whether as many people think such attacks are sanctioned by Islam is questionable. "Any sane Palestinian Muslim wouldn't accept the killing of any innocent human being," says Abdel Latif Barghouthi, a professor of Islamic studies at Bir Zeit. "Such incidents as the exploding of the bombs in Mahane Yehuda [market] are not in the spirit of Islam."

"The Koran says that anybody who kills one soul unjustly is like a person who killed all human beings," he adds.

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