Beliefnet
WESTON, Mass. -- Ever since suicide terrorists killed upwards of3,000 in the name of Allah on Sept. 11, mainstream Muslims have rushedto denounce extremist violence against innocents as un-Islamic.

For some in Islam, however, public relations doesn't go far enough.What's needed in their religion, they say, are central authorities tohold renegades accountable and show the world -- with actions, not words-- where Islam stands.

"Certainly the onus is on Muslims to get their own house in order sothat, amongst other things, the events of 9-11 are never repeated," saidDr. A. Cader Asmal, an endocrinologist and spokesperson for the IslamicCouncil of New England.

His proposal: set up a pan-Islamic judicial council to issue rulingsfor all Muslims and appoint enforcers to ensure "persons who spread hatein the name of Islam are prosecuted in courts of Islamic law."

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Asmal is not alone in dreaming of stronger Islamic structures torein in those who give the religion a bad name. But not everyone isconvinced that more central authority is the answer.

Islam has always accommodated multiple schools of thought forinterpreting the Quran and the corpus of Islamic law, according to FredM. Donner, professor of Near Eastern History at the University ofChicago. One judicial body, operating as the voice of Islam, would neverspeak authoritatively for all Muslims, he said, even on basic issuessuch as the morality of targeting civilians for attack.



"It's a natural desire to want to have all this mess cleared up,"Donner said. "But there are always going to be many different opinions.... There is no one thing called `Islam.' It's a range of opinions. ...Creating this (judicial council) would actually exacerbate the problem,"by creating a gulf between official Islamic rulings and those of analienated populace that sees righteousness differently.

Like Judaism and Protestantism, Islam has no central authority torender verdicts on what constitutes righteous or unrighteous behavior.While it has courts to interpret Islamic law in particular cases, judgesin one region may contradict those of another who invoke a different setof interpretive principles. Scholars with religious authority may issuea ruling or "fatwa" on certain issues, such as terrorism againstinnocent civilians, though none has authority to speak finally for allIslam.

Yet the time for public unity on basic questions has come, accordingto Asmal, in light of "the speed of globalization and its impact oninternational communications."

"If Muslims fail to act to define themselves, they will be definedby those with an anti-Islamic agenda," Asmal told a recent gathering ofChristian clergy here. Such definition on matters of ethics might begin,he said, with a new judicial council "to reconcile the multitude ofdisparate interpretations" and "entertain zero tolerance for any decrees... calling for unprovoked assaults on persons of certainnationalities."

"I think this is a wonderful project," said Gordon D. Newby,professor of Middle Eastern Studies at Emory University. "It's neverbeen done before, but there's no inherent reason why it wouldn't work."

For some Muslims, the idea of increased central authority echoes anIslamic past when empires, such as the Ottomans, governed the entireMuslim world. The precedent of an Islam unified from above is worthrecovering even as a range of opinion persists within Islam, accordingto Hussam Ayloush.

"This sort of centrality was political (under the Ottomans), but itprovided a religious center point" through the unified pronouncements ofscholars at the time, said Ayloush, executive director of the SouthernCalifornia chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. "At alltimes, what we are looking for is a voice for the majority of Muslims,and that is good enough."

Establishment of a pan-Islamic judicial council would benefiteveryone, Ayloush said, but he would rather develop one by addingreputable scholars to existing bodies instead of creating a newinstitution from scratch.

Asmal confessed he isn't sure how a prosecutor or council would besanctioned or funded to acquire credibility throughout the diverseIslamic world. But in his view, logistics shouldn't be a barrier todoing what's right.

"I know what Islam stands for and what it doesn't stand for," Asmalsaid. "Maybe there needs to be a council of people legally issuingfatwas or saying, `We ostracize you,' or doing whatever it takes. Whatwas done recently (on Sept. 11) undermines the essence of Islam. Thiskind of abuse of Islam cannot be allowed by Muslims to take placeagain."

But can a central religious authority guarantee conformity acrossthe ranks? Donner is doubtful.

"I'm not sure there's quite as much uniformity as he thinks thereis," Donner said. "We'd like it to be easy, but it isn't so easy."

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