I met Ahmad Iskandar in the summer of 2004. He was living in the squalor of the Burj el-Barajneh refugee camp in Beirut. Aged in his early twenties, this Palestinian youth was filled with violent rage. "I am ready to explode myself in Israel," he told me, as we filmed a documentary inside the camp. Did he plan to become a suicide bomber? "It is not suicide, sorry. It is a martyr operation." Ahmad seemed indifferent towards the death and destruction he hoped to wreak, and the innocents who might be killed in his "martyr operation".
“Our heart is now dead," he said, with a shrug. "They make us forget everything. Just to go and kill them." How many Ahmads are there across the Muslim world, preparing for, or dreaming of carrying out, such abhorrent acts of murder? How many of them are under the illusion that such crimes against humanity are sanctioned by Islam?
There is, in fact, nothing Islamic about so-called Islamic terrorism. Suicide bombings, in particular, are alien to the Islamic tradition of warfare, having been inspired by Japanese kamikaze pilots and perfected by the Tamil Tigers. However, most Muslim suicide bombers justify their actions with reference to their religion. By March 2008, there had been 1,121 attacks of this kind in Iraq alone.
Being a Muslim, this appals me. The suicide bomber invades every aspect of our lives and our public spaces: from markets to cafes, schools to hospitals, places of worship to public transport. He (or she) violates every ethical, legal and Islamic precept in promoting the indiscriminate killing of unarmed civilians.
So why are many Muslims so reluctant to condemn such cold-blooded tactics of terror? Studies show that support for suicide attacks has plummeted across the Islamic world in recent years but, nonetheless, in the most recent poll for the Pew Global Attitudes Project, 68 per cent of Palestinian Muslims, 43 per cent of Nigerian Muslims and 38 per cent of Lebanese Muslims said they believed suicide bombings against civilian targets were often or sometimes justified in order to "defend Islam from its enemies".
Modern Islamic scholars have equivocated on this issue for too long. Even the so-called moderates of the Muslim world, such as the Sunni cleric Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi and the Shia ayatollah Sheikh Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, who have been outspoken in their criticisms of al-Qaeda and who denounced the 11 September suicide attacks, are also on record supporting the use of "human bombs" in a Palestinian context.
Do not kill yourselves
There are exceptions. Sheikh Muhammad Afifi al-Akiti is a Malaysian jurist who teaches theology at Oxford University, having studied in traditional Islamic madrasas across south Asia and North Africa. His fatwa, "Defending the Transgressed", published online in English(www.livingislam.org/maa/dcmm_e.html) in the wake of the July 2005 London bombings, is the most comprehensive critique of Islamist violence and, in particular, the innovation of suicide bombings that I have read. The fatwa makes it clear that all suicide attacks are morally inexcusable and theologically unsustainable. He cites three specific legal objections.
First, the target of attack. "To put it plainly," writes al-Akiti, "there is simply no legal precedent in the history of . . . Islam for the tactic of attacking civilians and overtly non-military targets." Al-Akiti goes further than scholars such as al-Qaradawi and Fadlallah - according to his fatwa, there are no grounds in Islamic theology or law for attacking off-duty soldiers, or female soldiers who are not engaged in direct combat, in Israel, Iraq or anywhere else.
Second, the authority behind the attack. Suicide bombings are often sanctioned and ordered by shadowy figures in remote or hidden locations. But according to al-Akiti, "whether one likes it or not, the decision and discretion and right to declare war or jihad for Muslims lie solely with the various authorities as represented today by the respective Muslim states - and not with any individual, even if he is a scholar or a soldier".
The likes of Osama Bin Laden, an engineer by training, and the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a high-school dropout, therefore, lack the political and theological authority with which to declare a jihad, or order attacks.
Third, the method of the attack. Suicide is prohibited in Islam. The Quran declares, in no uncertain terms: "Do not kill yourselves". Al-Akiti refers to suicide as a "cursed sin". The power of this moral and Islamic opprobrium, directed at a potential suicide bomber, cannot be understated.
Al-Akiti refutes those who rather romantically claim that a suicide attack is an act of self-sacrifice, rather than self-killing, accusing them of "breaching the scholarly consensus . . . [because] to endanger one's life is one thing and to commit suicide during the attack is obviously another".
Al-Akiti is a scholar who denounces Islamist terrorism, with unrivalled eloquence, passion and intellectual acumen. He has no political or sectarian agenda, is based only 50 miles from London and speaks perfect English. So where is the BBC interview with him? Or the national newspaper profile? Why has his fatwa never been published in a single national newspaper over the past four years?
The humble and soft-spoken Malaysian tells me that he prefers his quiet, academic life. He is not seeking a public profile. However, his fatwa has become hugely popular online, especially among younger British Muslims.Several ex-members of the extremist group al-Muhajiroun have contacted al-Akiti to thank him for providing them with the theological armour with which to resist radicalisation. His fatwa is a bold and necessary step in the right direction. When it comes to suicide bombing, there is no room for ifs, buts or maybes.
Next week: John Pilger