Melanie Stetson Freeman
Women pray outside the tomb at Dargah-e-Ala Hazrat, a Sufi Muslim shrine, in Bareilly, India in this 2011 photo.

70,000 Indian clerics issue fatwa against terrorists

Nearly 1.5 million Sunni Muslim followers of the Indian Barelvi movement have formally decried violent extremists. 70,000 clerics at the annual commemoration of the founders' death now condemn terrorist groups, saying they are 'not Islamic organizations.'

In non-Muslim countries, fatwas, or Islamic religious rulings, are often associated with death threats: radical leaders have been known to issue such threats to non-believers such as prize-winning author Salman Rushdie and anti-Islam Dutch politician Geert Wilders.

But fatwas are simply religious pronouncements by Muslim legal experts – rarely are they violent. They've been issued on everything from cigarettes to fishing rules. And in Bareilly, India, 70,000 Sunni clerics have now turned the tables on extremist leaders by issuing a ruling against terrorist organizations from the Islamic State to the Taliban, as the Times of India reports.

Mufti Mohammed Saleem Noori and other clerics stressed that they do not consider terrorists truly Muslim, and hope that the media will stop referring to groups like Al Qaeda as "Muslim organizations."

Thousands of followers of Ahmed Raza Khan, a 19th-century Sufi scholar who opposed the stricter Wahhabi school of Sunni Islam, gather at his tomb in Bareilly, Dargah Aala Hazrat, for three days each year to commemorate Khan's death. Nearly 1.5 million of them signed a condemnation of terrorist ideology, as did 70,000 clerics from around the world.

Attendees also protested bombings in Syria on account of civilian deaths, and expressed specific condemnation for Islamic State's November Paris attacks which killed 130, as well as US presidential contender Donald Trump's call for a ban on Muslim travelers. Leaders in the movement have also said they will not read last rite prayers for anyone involved in terror attacks.

Similar condemnations, although not a formal fatwa, were issued at the festival in 2014.

India is home to the world's second-highest number of Muslims, although they make up only 14 percent of the majority-Hindu country. Despite historic tensions between the two religions, which some say are resurgent thanks to the rise of Hindu nationalism, Indian Islam tends to be far more moderate than extremist ideologies, and few Indians have attempted trips to the Middle East to support Islamic State.

Indian Muslim leaders have formally condemned terrorism before, but never in such numbers.

Some Muslims say they feel constant pressure to denounce all crimes committed by co-religionists, with many left frustrated that their opposition to violent terrorism isn't taken for granted. But many prominent Islamic groups have issued statements condemning radical Islam, such as a 2010 fatwa from Muhammad Tahir ul-Qadri, a scholar who founded a global movement, Minhaj-ul-Quran International. Mr. Qadri's decree sought to prove that terrorist attacks are "haraam," or forbidden, in more detail than previous condemnations; his 600-page document "didn't leave a single, minor aspect that, in the mind of radicals or extremists, can take them to the direction of martyrdom," he told CNN.

In 2014, more than 120 Muslims scholars addressed Islamic State's self-declared leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his followers directly, crafting an 18-page ruling that uses traditional Islamic methods to declare that the Quran forbids killing innocents, as well as journalists and aid workers; mandates protecting other monotheistic believers such as Christians and Yazidis; and that it is forbidden to declare a caliphate without the assent of all Muslims, among other points.

Increasingly, Muslim leaders are under pressure from their governments to publicly denounce extremists, and help detect people vulnerable to radicalization.

In his recent Oval Office address on fighting terror, President Obama asked Muslims to speak out against interpretations that are "incompatible with the values of religious tolerance, mutual respect, and human dignity," as has the UK's Prime Minister David Cameron, who emphasizes that Muslim communities are the first to benefit from victories against terrorism, both at home and abroad.

Terrorists have "hijacked our faith," one British imam told the Guardian. Moderate Muslims often face death threats themselves if they speak out against more conservative Muslims.

As another stressed, "To them, [Islamic State], I am not any different to any other person in this cafe, or in a restaurant in Paris. For them, I am not a Muslim either." Nor do some imams view extremists as Muslims – an attitude made popular by the #YouAintNoMuslimBruv response to last week's stabbing attack on the London Tube.

In India, some leaders worry that online propaganda will reach their young people, even if few Muslims there today have been radicalized. But others hope that a continued journey towards peaceful coexistence between the country's two major religions will keep terrorism at bay.

New Delhi terrorism expert Ajai Sahni believes that Muslims don't feel as "isolated" in India as in many Western countries, he told The Wall Street Journal: although neighborhoods tend to be one religion or the other, education and employment bring Muslims and Hindus together each day.

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