Whose fatwa is bigger?

Irshad Manji had a provocative piece in the Wall Street Journal this weekend. Here's how it began:

President Barack Obama should be applauded for his risky—and lonely—decision to take out Osama bin Laden. But in announcing bin Laden's demise, the president fudged a vital fact. Echoing George W. Bush, he insisted that al Qaeda's icon "was not a Muslim leader."

But this is untrue. Bin Laden and his followers represent a real interpretation of Islam that begs to be challenged relentlessly and visibly. Why does this happen so rarely?

Manji is a Muslim who believes that her religion needs fewer "moderates" who accept the status quo and more reformers who challenge and reinterpret some of the religion's long-held beliefs. That's what her opinion piece is about.

The quotes excerpted above reminded me, though, that we should have a discussion about the line from President Obama's speech mentioned above. Here's the line in context:

As we do, we must also reaffirm that the United States is not –- and never will be -– at war with Islam. I've made clear, just as President Bush did shortly after 9/11, that our war is not against Islam. Bin Laden was not a Muslim leader; he was a mass murderer of Muslims. Indeed, al Qaeda has slaughtered scores of Muslims in many countries, including our own. So his demise should be welcomed by all who believe in peace and human dignity.

When I listened to this speech a week ago, I understood exactly what President Obama was saying. Or what I believed he was saying, I should say. In my view, he was really hammering home the point that the U.S. is not at war with Islam. So when he said Osama was not a Muslim leader, I took it as him saying that while he may have the support of hundreds of millions of Muslims, it's wise to remember that this is a minority of the global Muslim population and, further, bin Laden has killed countless Muslims. To me, it was a rhetorical flourish that worked really well in the paragraph. It was insulting and dismissive but in that way you want to be insulting and dismissive against evildoers and those who support them.

Still, I was surprised that there wasn't more pushback on that line. Like we discussed last week, a Pew survey of only six countries with large, majority Muslim populations found that a percentage working out to some 150 million Muslims support al Qaeda. In just six countries. Again, that's not a majority in these countries, not even close. But neither is it nothing.

The Washington Post has one of those "Fact Checker" columns where journalists give their informed opinions and call those opinions "fact checks." Someone asked them to fact check the President's rhetoric and the end result was that they were unable to come down on one side or another as to whether Obama's words checked out. But the discussion prior to that was somewhat interesting.

The reader's argument was that bin Laden took inspiration from and was guided by his interpretation of the Koran, considered himself a devout Muslim, and was considered a Muslim leader by many Muslims. This is undoubtedly true. The reader also said "it is a non sequitur for Mr. Obama to deny that Bin Laden was a Muslim leader because he was a mass murderer and Al Qaeda killed many Muslims. There is nothing in the a priori that says that a mass murderer and killer of many Muslims cannot be a Muslim leader."

The fact checker basically says that a lot depends on what your definition of "leader" is. He notes that Osama was a lifelong studier of Islam but never claimed to be an imam or anything. Osama frequently said he was only speaking out because Muslim scholars had been silenced. But after making the case that he was no official leader of a religious order, there was this part:

There has been an effort by many Islamic scholars to argue that bin Laden’s worldview was un-Islamic, notably a conference in Turkey in 2010 which refuted bin Laden’s 1998 fatwa exhorting Muslims that to “kill Americans and their allies--civilian and military--is an individual duty for every Muslim.” The conference concluded that the 13th-century fatwa that bin Laden’s fatwa was based on had been misconstrued because of a typographical error in some printed editions decades ago.

Are fatwas typically issued by people who are not Muslim leaders? It seems odd to point out that he issued a fatwa without noting that it challenges the "not a religious leader" narrative.

The piece explains how the fatwa got something that other Muslims believe is wrong and quotes Michael Scheuer, who formerly headed the CIA's bureau tracking bin Laden and wrote the book “Osama bin Laden":

Scheuer, however, notes that bin Laden’s 1998 fatwa "was signed by fully credentialed Islamic scholars, thus giving it religious authority;" assemblies of Islamic scholars in Afghanistan and Pakistan then gave the fatwa "confirmation and authorization" shortly after its publication. He said that this approval provided bin Laden's fatwa with "theological gravitas" that means there will be forever an "an unending debate about whose fatwa was bigger."

Indeed, Scheuer argues against the “consensus argument” that “bin Laden cannot speak authoritatively about Islam and its duties and therefore that Muslims will not listen to or follow his guidance."

There's a lot more that's discussed in the piece, but it's along these lines. Again, though, presidential rhetoric isn't simply descriptive. It has other goals, too. This is why I find these fact checks so silly. No, Osama bin Laden was not the head of a theology department at an accredited university. Yes, he was considered by many Muslims to be a leader. Did Obama really need to parse all that in the tightly written paragraph above?

On the other hand, it does seem odd that this portion of the speech didn't attract more attention. Or maybe I missed the attention it did receive. It's a remarkably provocative line and a good hook for discussion on al Qaeda's influence (or on the influence of similar groups)

How do you think that the press should respond to presidential rhetoric such as this?

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