Dr. Krister Stendahl, former Dean of Harvard University’s School of Divinity, famously said, “When you are trying to understand another religion, you should ask the adherents of that religion and not its enemies.”
I commend Dov Lieber for his Times of Israel article of January 10, in which he addresses a momentous event that was all too easily overlooked by most of mainstream media. Lieber described the reactions of some Palestinians and Hamas affiliates to the religious ruling announced last November by the Muslim cleric Sheikh Yussuf Al Qaradawi, in which Qaradawi reversed his own ruling from 2000 legitimizing Palestinian suicide bombings against Israelis. This is an important occurrence that is worthy of much more media attention than it received, given that it has raised serious debate in Palestinian society and will impact the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in very concrete ways.
With that said, Lieber misses several critical points. The overarching theme of the article, indeed, its headline, is that Hamas is not listening to Qaradawi. I fully understand the public’s and journalists’ skepticism, even more so, that of the Israeli security establishment, who need to look very carefully at any changes occurring in the Muslim world. At the same time this is a sensational reversal of Qaradawi’s previous ruling that influences the entire community of believers in Islam, and certainly Palestinians – Hamas members included. In order to fully understand its significance, one must see the broader context within which this decision was made. In that way, we can also try to understand an important Islamic event not only from the perspective of Islam’s enemies, but also, as Stendahl suggests we do, from the perspective of its adherents.
It is not that Hamas isn’t listening to Qaradawi. Rather, it is that Qaradawi is listening, and responding, to what he sees and hears from Hamas and the Palestinians themselves. Why did Sheikh Qaradawi reverse his ruling and why now? Just prior to announcing his decision on Saudi television, Qaradawi met with Dr. Nasser al-Din al-Shaer, a renowned Islamic scholar, former deputy prime minister for Hamas in the joint Fatah-Hamas Government and a key Palestinian figure in an initiative my colleagues and I have been working on for several years. The Religious Peace Initiative was largely unknown to the public until this past November 19th, when, as reported in the Times of Israel, we held a “Summit of Religious Leaders for Peace in the Middle East” in Alicante, Spain.
Al-Shaer reported to Qaradawi about the Religious Peace Initiative and its unique approach of pursuing peace by including, rather than excluding, religious Jews and Islamists. Al-Shaer also requested Qaradawi’s support and blessing for the Initiative and asked him to publicly renounce his earlier Fatwa. Qaradawi reported this meeting on his website and took to the airwaves. I have no illusions that Qaradawi has become a pacifist, and have no doubt he would surely condone the use of rockets and violence should another war break out in Gaza. But, he has stated clearly that there are leading Palestinian Islamists who have presented “other capabilities,” meaning a different path, that is, the Religious Peace Initiative, to secure what he views as the rights of the Palestinian people. I have now spoken and met with dozens of respected Islamic scholars, many of them members of Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, and this is the context in which they understand Qaradawi’s new ruling.
It is also important to understand why the original Fatwa was so significant to Palestinians and how, despite the claims of a few Hamas political operatives and sheikhs who have no authority as Islamic legal scholars, devout Muslims, who include most potential suicide bombers, have no choice but to listen now. According to Islamic law, committing suicide is strictly forbidden and anyone who does so cannot reach heaven. Qaradawi’s original Fatwa didn’t just permit religious Palestinians to become martyrs by taking Israeli lives through suicide bombings, it obligated all those capable of doing so to carry out such attacks. Since the ruling was issued, and especially during the Second Intifada, this Fatwa has been cited consistently to both justify and incite violence and terror against Israelis.
As early as 2009, Qaradawi had already expressed reservations in writing about his original Fatwa. However, because he only wrote of his reservations in one article, the issue was never broadly known nor debated at all, neither among Islamic scholars nor Palestinians. In November 2016, Qaradawi announced the reversal during an interview broadcast on Saudi television with Dr. Sheikh Salman Al-Awdah, another well-known and respected Islamic scholar and television personality. Al-Awdah himself has undergone a major change in his worldview over the last several years and it is clear from the interview that both of these respected Islamic scholars wanted to make a major public statement that would represent a tectonic shift in the Muslim and Palestinian world. With millions watching the original broadcast, any believing Muslim has now heard of the new ruling and understood the authority with which it was delivered. The vast majority of Muslim believers will see themselves as obligated by the authoritative sources of Islam, like Sheikh Qaradawi and Al-Awdah. If Qaradawi tells Palestinians who want to become Shahids (Martyrs) that suicide will send them to hell and not to heaven, it will at least instill great doubt in their hearts. As a result of this new ruling, it will be a great deal more difficult to find volunteers to commit suicide attacks against Israel.
Another point worth making is my own political analysis. And that is that Hamas’s claim of independence from the Muslim Brotherhood has less to do with Qaradawi and the Muslim Brotherhood directly, and more to do with appearances. Hamas is dependent in many ways on the Egyptian authorities and therefore needs to show itself as more in-step with the Egyptians than it truly is. Given that Egypt has outlawed the Brotherhood and banned Qaradawi from the country, a Hamas spokesman’s claim of independence from the most senior religious leader of the Muslim Brotherhood is not a reliable indicator of the health and strength of that relationship. Rather than weakening his standing with Hamas, Egypt’s displeasure with the Sheikh can in fact only strengthen his standing amongst Islamic believers.
Finally, there is a broader issue that we as a society must grapple with. We have a serious problem in that we have an inclination to believe that religion, and especially the “other’s” religion, is an obstacle to peace and can only get in the way of positive change. The Religious Peace Initiative and the Summit held in Spain are an effort to turn that belief on its head. My Jewish and Muslim colleagues and I believe that peace cannot be achieved without including the religious, traditional identities of those at the center of this conflict. We are therefore building a coalition of authoritative religious leaders from the region as well as a younger generation of influential religious leaders to explicitly support compromise and peace over violence and incitement.
Western society’s fear of Islam and its inclination to only see bad in it threaten to blind us to the possibility of change and doom us to forever miss true opportunities for progress toward peace. Sheikh Qaradawi’s new ruling forbidding suicide bombings should therefore be seen for what it is – a major breakthrough and a true opportunity upon which we can build.