The recent terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India, are part of a disturbing trend across the Muslim world of groups that target civilians in the name of Islam. Less visible to Western eyes, but potentially just as significant, is a growing backlash among Muslims who condemn such attacks as unethical.
The Mumbai perpetrators arrived by boat and launched small-arms assaults at several prominent hotels, a cafe, a hospital, a Jewish center, the city's main commuter rail station and a range of smaller targets.
Sajjad Karim, a British member of the European Parliament, was at the Taj Mahal Palace hotel when a gunman burst into the foyer. "He was standing there with a big automatic machine-gun type of weapon," Mr. Karim said. "And he just lifted it up and started firing it at us." The senselessness of the act was incomprehensible.
The Mumbai attacks are part of a broad array of terrorist incidents that have jolted India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq and numerous other countries. Terrorism is so pervasive across South Asia and the Near East that the region accounts for 87 percent of all attacks globally that led to casualties, according to a study by the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center released in early 2008.
One of the results is a growing debate within the Muslim community about the tactic of targeting civilians. There appears to be renewed and ever-broader acceptance of the principle that such terrorism is fundamentally unethical and immoral.
In India, throngs of Muslims have demonstrated against the Mumbai attacks, holding aloft banners with slogans such as "Killers of Innocents are Enemies of Islam." Several Muslim clerics harshly condemned them, including Maulana Abul Irfan Mian Farangi Mahali, a prominent cleric from the northern city of Lucknow. He stated that the terrorists should not be called legitimate followers of any religion, including Islam, and that terrorism is an act of cowardice.
Mumbai's top Muslim clerics vowed to block the burial of the nine attackers killed during the fighting with Indian forces, declaring their acts an affront to Islam. "Such demons -- they will not find an inch of land in any Muslim cemetery," remarked Maulana Sayed Moinuddin Ahsraf, secretary of the All-India Sunni Jamiat-ulema.
This backlash also has begun to confound al-Qaida. One of the most prominent critics of the group and its practices is Sayyid Imam al-Sharif, better known as Dr. Fadl. He is the former leader of the Egyptian terrorist group al-Jihad and was a close associate of al-Qaida's deputy leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri. In late 2007, in a major break with the past, Dr. Fadl published a book from his prison cell in Egypt calling for an end to violent jihad in the West and in Muslim countries. "We are prohibited from committing aggression," he wrote.
In his book, "Rationalizing Jihad in Egypt and the World," Dr. Fadl argues that "there is nothing that invokes the anger of God and His wrath like the unwarranted spilling of blood and wrecking of property." He characterizes terrorism as unethical and illegal under Islamic law, and contends that the "blowing up of hotels, buildings and public transportation" is not permitted under Islam.
This backlash from Dr. Fadl and Muslim clerics has not been confined to a few prominent figures. Public opinion surveys suggest a growing affinity for their views throughout the Muslim world. A 2008 Pew Research Center report shows declining support among Muslims for both terrorism and al-Qaida. Since 2002, there has been a major decline in the percentage of respondents saying that suicide bombing and other forms of violence against civilians are justified to defend Islam. In 2002, for example, three-quarters of Lebanese Muslims said such attacks could often or sometimes be justified. Today, only one-third agree.
Opinions about Osama bin Laden have followed a similar trend. Three years ago, nearly two-thirds of Jordanian Muslims voiced at least some confidence in the al-Qaida leader. Today, just 19 percent have a positive view of him. In 2003, 20 percent of Lebanese Muslims and 15 percent of Turkish Muslims had positive views of bin Laden. Today, bin Laden's ratings have plummeted to 3 percent in Turkey and 2 percent in Lebanon.
But the voices of Muslims who denounce terrorism have received scant attention in the Western press -- even though prominent Western groups like the Council on American Islamic Relations regularly condemn terrorist acts and hold forums aimed at broadening an understanding of mainstream Islam.
It also is apparent that many who may wish to publicly denounce terrorism have not, fearing retribution. Prominent clerics in Afghanistan and Pakistan, for example, have been killed for publicly condemning the Taliban as un-Islamic for targeting civilians.
Nevertheless, the trend is unmistakable. The attacks in Mumbai offer a window of opportunity for people from all religions to condemn terrorism in all of its forms as unethical and contrary to basic human dignity. And given their excessive gruesomeness, these recent attacks ironically may make it easier for more Muslims to condemn those who would hijack Islam to further their extremist agendas.
Seth G. Jones, author of the forthcoming book "In the Graveyard of Empires: America's War in Afghanistan," is a political scientist at the RAND Corp. (firstname.lastname@example.org). This article first appeared in Ethics Newsline, (C) 2008 The Institute for Global Ethics.
This commentary originally appeared in The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on December 21, 2008.