Spanish Muslims decry Al Qaeda

Last Thursday, Spain's Islamic Commission issued a fatwa condemning Osama bin Laden and his followers.

Amid the anniversary events of the March 11 terrorist bombings, it was no great surprise that Al Qaeda representatives condemned last week's Democracy, Terrorism, and Security Summit here. What did grab attention was an unprecedented fatwa that Spain's own Islamic Commission issued Friday against Osama bin Laden and his followers.

The fatwa is unlikely to have much global impact, but in Spain - where Muslims, Jews, and Christians coexisted peacefully for centuries - the move by the country's largest Muslim organization is seen as a welcome gesture. Indeed, a year after Islamist terror groups made Spain a key front in their global jihad, Muslims here are speaking out against militant Islam with renewed vigor.

On Saturday, barely a day after the Summit - attended by world leaders including UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright - had issued its recommendations for democracy's response to terrorism, an Al Qaeda-linked website published its attack.

Threatening the Summit's participants, the inflammatory statement reportedly said, "You infidels, whatever you prepare, you will be defeated and never be victorious because Allah has promised us victory." The statement was attributed to Abu Maysara al-Iraqi, the "media coordinator" for Iraqi Al Qaeda affiliate Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

But Spain's Muslim leaders had already claimed the high ground.

The Islamic Cultural Center of Madrid, for example, which is the country's largest mosque, draped itself with a huge commemorative banner that denounced terrorism and applauded tolerance. It sent memorial wreaths that were displayed at the central commemorative festivities held at the Atocha train station last Friday.

In Fuengirola, cleric Mohammed Kamal Mustafa said Friday that the terrorists who committed the attacks in Madrid last March "are not Muslims and have nothing to do with Islam, but only exploit the religion's name to inflict harm on innocent people."

And in Valencia, an estimated 100 Muslims donated blood at their mosque to show solidarity with the victims of terrorism.

Most significant, however, was the fatwa issued by the Islamic Commission, the organization that mediates between the Spanish government and the nation's Muslim community.

The edict condemns bin Laden and Al Qaeda members as apostates for their use of violence, and it calls on Muslims to fight actively against terrorism. The fatwa is the first of its kind to use the weight of religious authority to specifically denounce Mr. bin Laden, and it serves as a powerful reminder that the vast majority of Spain's nearly 1 million Muslims condemn terrorist tactics.

"We see this as our contribution," says Mansur Escudero, secretary general of the Islamic Commission. "a declaration from the Muslim community that says that bin Laden and Al Qaeda are not Muslims - they are outside of Islam."

The edict cites the Koran and the traditions of the life of the Prophet Muhammad, or Sunna, in condemning bin Laden. "Since bin Laden and his organization defend the legality of terrorism and base that defense in the sacred Koran and the Sunna ... [they] have made themselves apostates."

According to Escudero the fatwa - issued on the eve of the anniversary of the March 11 attacks - serves "as a call to conscience" for Muslims here. Some religious leaders in Morocco - the country of origin for most of the suspects in the March 11 bombings - and Libya have supported the Spanish Commission's edict.

But there have been few signs of change among the Sunni preachers in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere who have backed bin Laden in the past - and who reject groups like the one in Spain. For tafkiris, or rejectionists, such as bin Laden's followers, Muslims who work with what are regarded as infidel regimes like Spain are themselves rejected as unIslamic.

And in the broader Islamic world, where the terrorist bombings like the one in Madrid are rejected, there is still a high degree of support for the political causes that allegedly motivate such attacks. This takes the edge off any specific condemnations of bin Laden.

"It would be wrong to say that the issues close to the hearts of terrorists like bin Laden don't matter to Muslims in general," says Toby Craig Jones, who tracks militant Islamic groups for the International Crisis Group, a think tank based in Brussels. "Militants like bin Laden tap into popular frustration with issues of concern to Muslims across the world ... and people easily disconnect that from his methods."

Moreover, some local experts on Islam question whether the fatwa will have significant impact. Waleed Salah, professor of Arabic and Islamic studies at the Autonomous University of Madrid, sees the statement as a nice symbolic gesture that will probably have little real impact.

"Those who embrace violence make up a tiny minority of the Muslim population," he says. "And it is difficult to correct those on the margins. This kind of statement won't affect them."

Professor Salah questions whether the declaration's true purpose may be to protect the group that issued it rather than to prompt genuine change. "This is a way for the Islamic Commission to distance itself from the people responsible for the attacks, to demonstrate their innocence," he says.

Mr. Jones agrees. "These sorts of statement are targeting a Western audience, so that Western audiences pick up on it," he says. "What's going on in Spain is so far out of the mainstream that it won't have much impact in the Muslim world."

The Islamic Commission, however, has plans to send the fatwa to Muslim organizations elsewhere, as well as to the religious authorities in Muslim states.

Although Escudero, the fatwa's primary author, was reportedly singled out as a target on the Abu Maysara al-Iraqi webpage, he maintains that he is not frightened by the threat. "I'm a Muslim," he says. "A Muslim only fears God. And his protection is with God."

Regardless of what lies ahead, the Commission's edict - and the response it has provoked - has confirmed a notable rise in efforts by mainstream Muslim groups in Europe to distance themselves from extremists who claim to share their faith. Indeed, on Friday, the imam of Madrid's Islamic Cultural Center, Moneir Mahmoud, thanked the Spanish people for "responding with maturity and exemplary prudence to a massacre that has wounded us all."

Dan Murphy contributed to this report from Baghdad.

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