Following deadly bombings in Britain and other nations, American Muslim scholars issued an edict Thursday condemning religious extremism and calling terrorists "criminals, not 'martyrs."'
The 18-member Fiqh Council of North America (search) said Muslims were barred from helping "any individual or group that is involved in any act of terrorism or violence."
"There is no justification in Islam for extremism or terrorism," the scholars wrote in the edict, called a fatwa (search). "Targeting civilians' life and property through suicide bombings or any other method of attack is haram — or forbidden."
Many Muslim leaders overseas have made similar statements in recent weeks, but some have left an opening for violence to be used in certain situations. One group of British Muslim leaders who denounced the July 7 attacks in London said suicide bombings could still be justified against an occupying power — drawing criticism that it invited violence in Iraq, where civilians along with coalition troops have been killed.
However, the U.S. scholars said in a Washington news conference that their prohibition applied to attacks on civilians everywhere. Their fatwa states that Muslims are obligated to help law enforcement authorities "protect the lives of all civilians."
"Suicide bombing is forbidden in Islam," said Muzammil H. Siddiqi (search), head of the Fiqh Council. "This is not the solution, it is not the right way of doing things. Occupation is wrong, of course, but at the same time this is not the way."
Islam has no central authority and the council serves an advisory role for American Muslims, who could number as high as 6 million. But some question whether the panel's statements would sway extremists.
While the Muslim world does not look to America as a center of Islamic thinking, U.S. Muslims wanted to send a message about their faith. Muslim leaders lament that their repeated condemnations of terrorism since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks have been ignored by critics.
The Muslim Public Affairs Council, an advocacy group based in Los Angeles, started the "National Anti-Terrorism Campaign," urging Muslims to monitor their own communities, speak out more boldly against violence and work with law enforcement officials.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations is running a TV ad and a petition-drive called "Not in the Name of Islam," which repudiates terrorism. In New York and other cities, mosque leaders have joined advisory committees created by the FBI to build relations between law enforcement and their local communities.
"We have been speaking repeatedly, clearly, unequivocally for years, even before 9/11," said Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a civil rights organization based in Washington. "But apparently some people have just started to hear us."
Alan Wisdom, head of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a conservative Christian group in Washington, praised the scholars for issuing the edict. He said he hoped Muslim leaders would follow up the statement with action, by helping combat "specific movements that employ terrorism as a basic tactic" in Israel and elsewhere, and by lobbying for religious freedom in Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia.
"We look forward to working with Muslims as they find in their tradition, we hope, the tools to build and work within democratic, pluralist states," said Wisdom, a leader in encouraging evangelicals to build relations with Muslims.
Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington, was especially encouraged that the Fiqh Council said its edict applied in all countries. The term "fiqh" refers to Islamic legal issues.
"It's always helpful when prominent, mainstream religious leaders are willing to take a unified public stand against extremism," said Saperstein, a former member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. "Ultimately, it is Muslims who are going to need to win the battle about the direction and the future of Islam."