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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Against Terrorism and Hitchhiker Syndrome 1

CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts -- Last week, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei of Iran, one of the most conservative and anti-American Moslem clerical leaders, called the fight against terrorism a "holy war." He joins a host of learned Moslems who have loudly condemned terrorism as forbidden in Islamic law in the wake of the attacks on Sept. 11. Last May, the grand mufti of Saudi Arabia and the highest authority on Islamic law in that country, Abdul Aziz bin Abdallah Al al-Shaykh, stated publicly that those who kill themselves in attacks do not, as they might imagine, die as martyrs but as suicides, suicide being unequivocally forbidden in Islamic law.

Many people in the West may not realize what strong underpinnings such condemnations have in Islamic law. Islamic law forbids harm to noncombatants. Verse 190 of the second chapter of the Koran reads: "Fight in the path of God those who fight you, but do not transgress limits. God does not love transgressors."

An Arabic scholar of the 13th century, Baidawi, explains in a commentary on the Koran that is still popular among Moslems that "transgression" refers to fighting those associated with you through treaty.

The ninth-century scholar Tabari, a giant among pre-modern Moslem scholars, cites with approval the interpretation ascribed to the Prophet himself, who understood the verse to mean that one should never fight women, children, the elderly or the one who offers peace and restrains his hand.

Even in war, Islamic law and tradition clearly prohibit any damage to property. This injunction is partly based on a famous saying of the Prophet: "Do not burn a plant, or cut a tree in the territory of combatants."

While some politicians and imperfectly educated Moslem clerics have used the word "jihad" loosely in the sense of armed struggle (in the same careless way some American leaders have used the word "crusade"), this meaning is rejected by most modern Moslem scholars, who say it properly refers to the struggle against the distortion of Islam that impedes the call to Islam.

The more violent interpretation is at least as old as World War I, when the British incited some Indian Moslems to declare a jihad against the Central Powers and the Central Powers persuaded the Ottoman Turks to declare a jihad against the Allies. But a majority of learned Moslem thinkers, drawing on impeccable scholarship, insist that jihad must be understood as a struggle without arms.

But whatever the scholastic interpretations of the Koran, the more pertinent question is whether religion is the most important dimension to these terrorist attacks. When the Real IRA wounded hundreds and killed 29 victims, including a pregnant woman and an 18-month-old child, in a bomb attack in Omagh, Northern Ireland, in 1998, no one explained the atrocity in terms of Roman Catholic doctrine, nor should they have. Catholic law on just war emphatically condemns such behavior.

The rationale of the Catholic bombers had far more to do with their imaginings that they were acting to end colonial oppression -- just as lunatic imaginings motivated the perpetrators of the Sept. 11 attacks, whatever the Islamic language they may have used to justify their murders.

The people behind these atrocities committed a crime against all humanity. Under the precepts of every great religious tradition, they and their sponsors must be brought to justice.

Roy Mottahedeh is a professor of history and chairman of the committee on Islamic studies at Harvard. He contributed this comment to The New York Times.