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Radical Imams and Terrorists By: Michael Radu
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, August 12, 2005

Islamist terrorism began its attacks in the West more than a decade ago, with the 1993 World Trade Center attack and the 1995 Paris metro bombings, and reached a higher stage of effectiveness with 9/11, the 2004 assassination of Theodore van Gogh in the Netherlands, the Madrid train bombings and, most recently, the London transit system bombings. By now, most of the methods planned or used previously elsewhere, including remote-controlled and suicide bombings and chemical attacks, have been introduced in Europe, and there are good reasons to believe that they will be attempted again in the United States as well. This is a conflict with essential ideological implications and, whether the West likes it or not, a civilizational conflict between a significant segment of Islam and the rest of the world. Nor, by the way, is the pernicious influence of radical imams on ignorant populations limited to terrorism — their opposition to “Western” polio and measles vaccines in Nigeria killed thousands throughout the world during the past three years—mostly through the pilgrimages to Mecca.

The legitimizers and bearers of Islamism are religious figures— the radical imams, even if the ideologues (such as Hassan al Banna, Sayid Qutb, Bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri) seldom are. Without them, the entire ideological, political, and psychological edifice of Islamism would crumble. It thus follows that any long-term solution to the threat of Islamist terrorism has to start with Islam’s radical clerics —especially in the West, where they are more free to operate than in Muslim countries. In contrast, the terrorist operatives themselves, most obviously those willing to commit suicide, are expendable, since their motivators and recruiters can always produce more— and they always do.

The problems with applying this obvious logic to counterterrorism in the West is familiar—where does free expression and religion stop and incitement to murder start? What is the personal responsibility of a Muslim cleric who has never personally committed a violent act, but only recruited, indoctrinated, and motivated the actual murderers?

Islam, and especially Sunni Islam (85 percent of Muslims are Sunni) does not have a clergy in the strictest sense of the word. In theory, every Muslim man is entitled to lead Friday sermons at the mosque. In practice, learned, professional scholars of Islam are more highly respected and influential than any Ali or Osman claiming to be an imam. Some institutions, most prominently Al Azhar University in Cairo, therefore have a large pan-Islamic influence—but not the right to decide for all Muslims.

In theory, only formally trained imams have a right to issue fatwas— religious interpretations of legal cases, issues or problems. But especially in the West, self-proclaimed imams abound and find willing followers, since Western Muslims’ knowledge of Islam is often skimpy or nil, but their interest in it is growing. Thus, in the United Kingdom, innumerable Urdu-only speakers from Pakistan, with no check on their training at all, were allowed to enter the country under a special religious personnel visa allowance.

This is important when it comes to terrorism, because all Islamist terrorist groups and individuals are bound to act under religious auspices, which could only be given by an imam - real or self-declared. And because (Sunni) Islam, unlike other monotheistic religions, lacks a universally recognized center of legitimacy, such as the Vatican for the Catholics, there is no universally recognized central body able to determine who is a “true” Muslim and who is not. This makes declarations to the effect that Islamist terrorist attacks are a “perversion of Islam” somewhat dubious, whether they come from Muslims or Western politicians. Indeed, if the Quran makes it clear that a Muslim is a Muslim once he makes a statement of his faith, and no one who is not an open apostate could be denied the quality of Muslim, how could Tony Blair or President Bush , or even Al Azhar, declare that Bin Laden is not a “true” Muslim?

All of the above is nothing new to Muslim majority countries and, especially, their governments, which are perfectly aware of the imam problem and the threats it poses to their security and survival. In Turkey, a 99 percent Muslim country, imams are required to complete formal studies where the secular government establishes the curriculum, and are only allowed to preach if they have a government-provided license. As a result, the more than 2 million strong Turkish diaspora in Western Europe is far less involved in Islamist activities than Arabs are. In Turkey, but also in many other Muslim countries—Egypt, Algeria and Saudi Arabia included—the salaries of imams are paid by the government, another instrument of control. While some Western countries do have a state religion (Anglicanism in England, Lutheranism in Scandinavia) and taxpayers’ subsidized clergy, that clergy is free to act and express itself as it wishes—including, in some cases, going as far as denying basic tenets of their own religion, with no fear of government reprisals.

When imams, legitimate or not, go beyond the limits tolerated by Muslim states, those governments take decisive action. Thus, when Muslim “scholar” Abdul Rehman of Pakistan organized a widely attended service for Shehzad Tanweer, one of the London suicide terrorists, he was arrested; when Ali Belhadj, the former number two of the banned Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) of Algeria, supported the murder of Algerian diplomats in Iraq, he was arrested; when Yemeni cleric Ali Yahya supported the rebellion led by the Zaidi cleric Sheikh Badr al-Din al-Huthi, he was sentenced to death.

Belatedly, some European countries are beginning to realize the threat the imams pose to their security, and to address the closely related matter of their Muslim communities’ ability or willingness to integrate, if not assimilate—belatedly, because some of them, especially Britain, have long tolerated activities by UK-based imams that led directly to murder elsewhere. Abu Qatada, a Palestinian, gave religious cover to the Algerian GIA (Group Islamique Armee) and its atrocities, which produced some 150,000 deaths; London-based Abu Hamza planned, legitimized, and encouraged (including by sending his own son to participate) the kidnapping and murder of foreign (Christian) tourists and locals in Yemen; and Omar Bakri Mohammed, also based in London, recruited volunteers for Islamist terrorism in Bosnia, Chechnya, Iraq and elsewhere — by his own admission.

But those in the West who have long been serious about fighting Islamist ideology are now less alone. The French were the first and still the most effective in tackling this problem — especially under the leadership of their ambitious interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy. No matter how long they have lived in France, Islamist clerics are now being routinely expelled— usually to Algeria — under Sarkozy’s “zero tolerance” approach for such things as explaining how to beat one’s wife in a “correct Islamic way,” calling Jews “apes,” or inciting jihad.

Even traditionally “tolerant” Belgium has created a plan mosque, placing mosques under police surveillance; in Germany, “spiritual inciters of disorder” are to be prosecuted; in Austria, radical imams could now be expelled for “speeches threatening public security"; in Italy, radical imams could be expelled by the Interior minister.[1] And the UK is finally dealing with the radical imams on its territory, by proposed criminalization of their acts and sermons and extradition or expulsion, even to countries like Egypt, Jordan or Saudi Arabia, traditionally the taboo “human rights violators” of the powerful NGO human rights lobbies and their supporters in the judiciary. On the other hand, with relatively few (but growing) numbers of Muslims in their midst and no terrorism (yet), Sweden and Finland are leading a Scandinavian resistance to this EU-based European crackdown on radical imams.

The general intention, in Europe at least, is to ensure that imams help establish a European Islam, rather than the present Islam in Europe —hence the newly required (in Denmark, Netherlands, etc.) insistence on imams’ proficiency in those countries languages, training in European institutions, and familiarity with local/national traditions, including oaths of loyalty to the countries’ respective monarchs.

In one remarkable development, the United States is joining France in implementing the strongest, and most realistic and practical, approach to Islamist “clerics” of all Western democracies. But where France often expels radical inciters to their unpleasant fate in North Africa, the United States is trying them and imposing stiff sentences at home. Sheikh Mohammed Ali Hassan al-Moayad, 57, a Yemeni imam-recruiter of terror, was sentenced in New York on July 28, 2005 to 75 years in prison for conspiring to support and fund Al Qaeda and Hamas; Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman, blind and diabetic, got a life sentence for legitimizing the 1993 World Trade Center attack (his sympathetic American lawyer was also imprisoned); Ali Timimi, a northern Virginia “spiritual” Islamic leader, was convicted of encouraging others to attend terrorist camps and received a life sentence. The bottom line is that, under U.S. law, there are clear limits between freedom of expression and using it as a pretext to call for mass murder. This bottom line is ultimately less “legal” than self-preserving — U.S. prosecutors, like French interior ministry officials, have to work around a generally obsolete legal system, poorly designed for dealing with Islamist terror, in order to protect their citizens—against terrorists and, more difficult still, anti-antiterrorist human rights fundamentalists.

Ultimately, it all comes down to common sense—and law not supported by common sense is law not supported. The fact that a blind or mutilated imam does not commit a violent crime because he is physically unable to do so, but “just” recruits and encourages Islamist terrorists, is no excuse or safe legal protection— nor is it, or should it be, harbored by “freedom of speech religion or expression” laws. Thus, French and Italian, as well as American laws are now moving toward applying the same legal rules once limited to the Mafia and criminal gangs in general, to Islamist terrorists and crack down on clerics—and for good reason: incitement and recruitment for terrorism should be seen and treated at least as seriously as actual terrorist acts, and in fact, far more seriously. If falsely shouting fire in a crowded theater is not protected by the first amendment, as Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously argued in 1917, then calling for murder in the name of Islam is not protected, either.


[1] Marc Semo and Brigitte Vitalle-Durand, “L’Europe face aux prêcheurs de haine,” Liberation, July 30, 2005

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Michael Radu is Senior Fellow and Co - Chair, Center on Terrorism and Counterterrorism, at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia.

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