LONDON – The two meetings by Muslim leaders occurred only three days apart, one in Birmingham (search) and one in London. Both condemned the terrorist attacks in the British capital, but they couldn't agree on one key issue: Are suicide attacks forbidden by religious law?
The fact that one group said "yes" and the other group said "not always" could be one reason Muslim radicals sometimes succeed in recruiting disaffected young people as suicide bombers, even in Western democracies such as Britain. Some clerics argue that such strikes can be used against an occupying power — an exception that offers the radicals religious backing for their attacks.
Britain's allegiance with the United States in Iraq has brought that debate home, even as it remains unclear what, precisely, motivated the July 7 London bombers.
"There is a very clear split between what the Islamic leaders said about whether suicide bombing is right or wrong in places such as Palestine, Kashmir (search) or Chechnya (search)," said Lord Nazir Ahmed, a House of Lords legislator and a well-known Muslim moderate in Britain.
The split makes it easier for extremists to take root, Ahmed said in an interview with The Associated Press.
"What happened in London has no justification in Islam," he said. "We have to make that clear in our fight against Muslim radicals."
Britain's largest Sunni Muslim group met in Birmingham on Sunday and issued a binding religious edict, or fatwa, condemning the suicide attacks that killed dozens on three London subway trains and a double-decker bus as the work of a "perverted ideology." The group's governing council said the Quran forbade suicide attacks and called such terrorism a sin that could send the perpetrators to hell.
Three days earlier at the London Central Mosque, 22 imams and scholars also condemned the July 7 attacks and said the four British Muslim suspects should not be considered martyrs because innocent civilians were killed. But the Muslim leaders stopped short of condemning all suicide bombings.
"There should be a clear distinction between the suicide bombing of those who are trying to defend themselves from occupiers, which is something different from those who kill civilians, which is a big crime," said Sayed Mohammed Musawi, the head of the World Islamic League in London.
Underlining the sensitivity of the issue, Musawi's contention that attacks are justified against "occupiers" came only after a spokesman for the leaders read a carefully worded statement condemning the London attacks. Even so, none of the other scholars and imams at the event expressed disagreement with his stance.
As in other religions, Islam contains denominations with differing interpretations of its holy book, including liberal, moderate and fundamentalist factions. That is especially true in Britain, given the diversity of its 2 million Muslims, many immigrants from countries as diverse as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Still, the recent reaction by Muslim leaders in Britain about suicide bombings could confuse some Muslims, given the cloudy definition of what constitutes "occupying forces."
Debates rage over whether the suicide bombings that target Westerners in Afghanistan, Russians because of Chechnya and Israelis in response to the occupation of the Gaza Strip and West Bank are permitted by the Quran.
And what about attacks such as those in Iraq that kill civilians and relief workers in an effort to force U.S., British and other foreign forces to withdraw?
When Prime Minister Tony Blair met with leaders of Britain's Islamic community on Tuesday to discuss the response to the London bomb attacks and how to root out extremists blamed for radicalizing Muslim youth, some imams said the occupation of Iraq by U.S. and British forces is a key challenge
Imam Ibrahim Mogra said he believed the widespread public opposition to the war in Iraq had played a part in the London attacks, which he criticized as murderous and unjustified.
"As Muslims, we feel the pain and suffering of our brothers and sisters around the globe every single day," he said. "It has been a successful recruitment sergeant for people who wish to preach hatred for our country and our government."