Al-Hayat reports today that after meeting with Jordan's King Abdullah, Abu Dhabi's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayd has called for bin Laden and Zarqawi to be expelled from the Islamic community. This responds to a demand which has been circulating for years now, from the West and from some Muslim liberals. While such a declaration is appealing on its face - a firm, non-negotiable rejection of terrorism by Muslim leaders - I think that real liberals should be profoundly uneasy about such a step.
Declaring takfir on the jihadist leaders is the rhetorical equivalent of fighting terror with terror. The practice of takfir is the hallmark of the most radical, totalitarian fringe of Islamism: the assumption of the right to unilaterally declare a Muslim a non-Muslim and thereby condemn him or her to death (literally or figuratively). Any vision of a liberal or moderate Islamism should reject takfir on principle. Succumbing to the takfiri temptation betrays the very core of the liberal project. Those who want to encourage Muslim liberalism and moderation should really avoid encouraging such a move, no matter how strategically useful it might first appear.
A minor controversy surrounding Yusuf al-Qaradawi recently illustrates this controversy rather well. After an article in Der Spiegel had claimed that Qaradawi had declared bin Laden an infidel, Qaradawi issued a statement on his own website which denied that he had said it (translation by MEMRI, although their link to his website doesn't work):
"Question: Do the Muslim ulama condemn Osama [bin Laden] for [his] actions and say that he is not a Muslim?"
"Answer: The Muslim people condemn these actions, but do not say that he is not a Muslim or that he is an unbeliever, no. This issue is dangerous, since takfir is the basis of extremism. We do not want to be like bin Laden and his associates [in accusing others of unbelief]. But we [do] say: this action [bin Laden's action] is not permitted according to the Shari ' a, since Islam is very strict regarding the sanctity of human life, [and states that] human life is inviolable both in times of peace and [in times of] war. The Muslim ulama have not declared even the khawarij to be unbelievers, even though they allowed the killing of other Muslims."
While MEMRI presents this as a "gotcha!" moment, in fact Qaradawi isn't talking out of two mouths here - he's standing on principle, and refusing to allow himself to be harnessed into a takfiri campaign. His rejection of the act of takfir, even when it might be politically expedient to do otherwise, should be applauded for what it is: an important stand for moderation and against extremism.
This isn't an easy call - the attractiveness of Muslims forcefully rejecting Zarqawi and bin Laden is undeniable, and I can understand and respect the motives of those who are calling for it. It would certainly be a forceful rhetorical move in the escalating public arguments which are increasingly a central front in the struggle with al-Qaeda. But liberals adopting the takfiri move strikes me as profoundly dangerous in the long run. Takfir is a weapon to be banned and discredited and made taboo - like nuclear weapons - not one to be emulated and adopted.
[UPDATE: see, in comments, a clarification (or at least a conflicting report) of what Shaykh Zayd said. If he in fact carefully distinguished between stigmatizing al-Qaeda and declaring takfir, then I have no problem with his statements. There are a number of people out there who are calling for the takfir route, but Zayd may not be one of them.]