Osama Bin Ladin’s February 23, 1998 fatwa says, “The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies — civilians and military — is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it, in order to liberate the al-Aqsa Mosque and the holy mosque from their grip, and in order for their armies to move out of all the lands of Islam, defeated and unable to threaten any Muslim.”

Some American Muslims have responded to Osama Bin Ladin’s call. For example, in October 2004, an American Muslim from New York, James Elshafay, pled guilty to conspiring to blow up a New York subway station. In November 2007, an American Muslim from Illinois, Derrick Shareef, pled guilty to plotting to attack a shopping mall with hand grenades. In January 2009, an American Muslim from New York, Bryant Neal Vinas, pled guilty to providing Al Qaeda with information that could have been used to attack the Long Island Rail Road. In April 2010, an American Muslim from New York, Zarein Ahmedzay, pled guilty to plotting to bomb the New York City subway system. Ahmedzay told the judge that he planned to bomb the subway to pressure the U.S. military to withdraw from Afghanistan. In June 2010, an American Muslim from Connecticut, Faisal Shahzad, pled guilty to attempting to set off a car bomb in New York City’s Times Square. When the judge asked Shahzad whether he had realized that his car bomb could have killed children in Times Square, Shahzad said, “It’s a war. I am part of the answer to the U.S. terrorizing the Muslim nations and the Muslim people. On behalf of that, I’m revenging the attack. Living in the United States, Americans only care about their people, but they don’t care about the people elsewhere in the world when they die.” The judge said that civilians in Times Square did not have anything to do with American foreign policy, and Shahzad replied, “The people select the government. We consider them all the same.” Shahzad told the judge he was a “Muslim soldier.” Shahzad said he chose a warm Saturday night in May 2010 for the bombing, because he knew that Times Square would be more crowded on a warm weekend night, so more people would be injured or killed. Several other American Muslims (and Muslims of other nationalities) have been convicted of plotting attacks against targets inside the U.S.

Many American and European Muslim scholars and organizations have repeatedly condemned attacks on civilians since the 9/11 attacks. Following the London bombings, the Fiqh Council of North America issued a fatwa stating, “Targeting civilians’ life and property through suicide bombings or any other method of attack is haram — or forbidden.”

Arguments By Those Who Oppose Attacks on Civilians

1. Human life must be protected. The Qur’an says, “On that account: We ordained for the Children of Israel that if any one slew a person - unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land – it would be as if he slew the whole people: and if any one saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole people.” (5:32) Therefore, killing one American civilian is like killing all of humanity.

2. Killing civilians is prohibited under Islamic rules of warfare. Even though the new Muslim community was under constant attack, the Prophet (peace be upon him) explicitly prohibited Muslims in combat from killing the elderly, children, women, or monks in monasteries. When he saw the corpse of a woman during a war, he was upset that she had been killed.

3. Muslims should fight only those who fight them. The American government and military, not American civilians, are responsible for making and implementing foreign policy decisions affecting the Muslim world. In fact, many American civilians oppose American foreign policies. Many American civilians (including children) have nothing to do with their government’s foreign policy.

4. Al Qaeda and its allies are capable of attacks on governmental or military targets. They attacked American governmental or military targets in Yemen in 1992, Somalia in 1993, Saudi Arabia in 1995 and 1996, Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, Yemen in 2000, and Virginia (the Pentagon) on 9/11. There is no reason for Al Qaeda and its allies to expand their list of targets beyond governmental or military targets.

5. The U.S. and its allies do not deliberately target Muslim civilians in military conflicts overseas, and they seek to minimize the number of Muslim civilian casualties.

6. Western Muslim civilians are killed in attacks on Western civilian targets. Muslims working in the World Trade Center and working with rescuers in NY were killed on 9/11, and British Muslim passengers were killed in the London bombings. In addition, when there are attacks on Western civilian targets, there is a backlash against Western Muslim civilians.

Arguments By Those Who Justify Attacks on Civilians

1. People, both civilians and others, must be held accountable for their actions. The Qur’an says, “On that account: We ordained for the Children of Israel that if any one slew a person – unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land – it would be as if he slew the whole people: and if any one saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole people.” (5:32) Therefore, it is permissible to kill American civilians who help to spread murder and mischief through their political and financial support for American foreign policy.

2. Attacking American civilians is permitted when Muslim civilians have been attacked, in order to deter future attacks on Muslim civilians. “O ye who believe! the law of equality is prescribed to you in cases of murder: the free for the free, the slave for the slave, the woman for the woman. But if any remission is made by the brother of the slain, then grant any reasonable demand, and compensate him with handsome gratitude, this is a concession and a Mercy from your Lord. After this whoever exceeds the limits shall be in grave penalty.” (2:178) “The prohibited month for the prohibited month, and so for all things prohibited, there is the law of equality. If then anyone transgresses the prohibition against you, Transgress ye likewise against him. But fear Allah, and know that Allah is with those who restrain themselves.” (2:194) “If ye punish, then punish with the like of that wherewith ye were afflicted. But if ye endure patiently, verily it is better for the patient.” (16:126) While God prefers restraint and patience, revenge is permitted.

3. Attacks on civilians in democratic states are acceptable when civilians, who have the power to change their government’s foreign policy through the democratic process, continue to elect (or tolerate the election of) leaders who support American foreign policy. Civilians also pay the taxes that make American foreign policy and military attacks possible. “They send their sons to armies to fight us and they continue their financial and moral support, while our countries are burned and our houses are bombed and our people are killed,” Osama Bin Ladin said on an audiotape broadcast by Al Jazeera in April 2006.

4. Al Qaeda and its allies do not have weapons that would allow them to strike at American governmental and military targets in a sustained and significant manner that would impact American foreign policy.

5. The U.S. and its allies claim that they seek to minimize the number of Muslim civilian casualties in conflicts in the Muslim world, but they engage in military operations (including the enforcement of economic sanctions) that are one-hundred-percent guaranteed to produce Muslim civilian casualties. The bottom line is that the U.S. and its allies have “unintentionally” killed many times more Muslim civilians than the number of Western civilians killed by Al Qaeda and its allies. In addition, the U.S. has established a precedent for intentionally targeting civilians; the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

6. The deaths of Western Muslim civilians are unavoidable, because Western Muslim civilians choose to live with and work with civilian targets of other faiths. In addition, many Western Muslim civilians deserve what they get because they have rejected their responsibility to try to change Western foreign policy towards the Muslim world.

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7 Responses to Are Western Civilians Legitimate Targets in War?
  1. Nice posting. It would be useful to add WHO is saying this and WHO is saying that! In Islamic law, there are rules for WHO can issue a ruling (a fatwa). Mention the names or the groups and let the people decide.

    You should mention that scholars on this issue are not like 50-50! Only a tiny minority of self-identified Muslims (not even scholars) support the targeting of civilians while all the credible scholars consider it a crime against God and humanity.

    This is a very important factors for Muslims and non-Muslims to know.

    Of course, the arguments on the criminal side is easily refuted and self-contradictory, but this is not my point.

    Thank you for your efforts after all.

  2. This is a very interesting exchange or juxtaposition of views. The commentator, Ahmed, says that those justifying indiscriminate violence are a small minority. Speaking as a non-Muslim American, I certainly hope so! But another, more interesting question immediately arises: who or what provides the religiously authorized view for “mainstream” Islam? What is the source of authoritative religious guidance for members of the Muslim “diaspora” and how does one gain access to this source? Islam seems to embrace a wide range of views on religious and moral issues, but what are the limits that define or mark out the range of “permissible” views and how are they defined? Is a kind of “virtual Caliphate” conceivable as a source of religious and moral guidance, at least in terms of defining the limits of what is religiously permissible? Who or what could form the basis for such a virtual forum? Would it be a kind of Muslim Wikipedia for religious and theological guidance and analysis?

  3. Western civilians and ALL civilians of any origin, race, country, age or religion MUST be protected and safe during the war time. Same protection applies to animals and trees. This protection for civilians, animals and trees is stated in the Quran and the Hadith. Read the Quarn and Hadith, without bias of any sort, you will find these facts as clear and shiny as the sun at noon time.

  4. I am a Muslim, but I just wanted to say one thing:

    I don’t believe that you have to kill someone because they killed someone in Islam: we already have court law which is enough to not need physical murder. Also, Islam only commands to actually kill if Islam there is being endangered and destroyed and tortured, which is NOT happening in America.

  5. Mirakmal Niyazmat March 4, 2009 at 5:51 am Reply

    Just wanted to add one set of “for” and “against” arguments…

    Among the arguments AGAINST attacking civilians we have to consider fundamental norms of modern laws of war as well (also referred as international humanitarian law or Geneva Conventions). Geneva Conventions are universally recognized set of fundamental rules that must be respected during any type of armed conflict. All States signed and prevailing majority ratified them. Geneva Conventions do not conflict with basic tenets of Islamic law. Though sometimes rules of war during active hostilities are either ignored or intentionally violated (eg., recent Gaza war), they at least grant effective legal remedies on national level (eg., Hamdam v. Rumsfeld, and other following cases). So when we argue AGAINST attacking civilians we have to also refer to modern rules of warfare as a clear indication that Muslims recognize them and willing/able to act in accordance with their provisions.

    Surely, those who argue FOR killing civilians will argue that Muslims should not follow legal rules that are [a] man-made law; [b] and worse than that, made by non-Muslims, and thus Geneva Conventions must be ignored.

  6. Speaking in general…

    It seems that far to many in our human family that:
    1) are NOT very in charge of their thoughts and beliefs which is why many are so easily misled.
    2) find it easy to find information, objects, beliefs and events that match their subconscious pre-existing confirmation biases.

    Quote, interpret and/or follow: ink characters on parchment, rice paper, or wood pulp… chiseled stones, carved wood, formations of clouds, colored sand mandalas, words from songs… take your pick… sacred or made up… those that you perceive to be folish or wise beliefs and actions…

    BUT… I personally chose to question the: sanity, brain chemical balance, logic, bias, prejudice… of any human being that condones the murder (premeditated killing) of ANY CIVIL (“civilian”) BEING.

  7. As a Jew, i respect the rules laid down in the Holy Quran for the
    protection of civilains in time of war. I do not accept the argument for attacks on civlians that seeks to justify this hillul ha-shem (Hebrew for desecaration of the Name – the term for an act considered contrary to the will of the Almight and abhorrent to him). Attacks on civilians have taken place in many countiries whose foreign policy was no threat to Moslems, eg. in Mumbai in India, in Tunisia, Turkey, Denmark, etc. Furthermore, it should be borne in mind that we voters have very little control over the actions of our governments once they are elected. Firstly, they may chose just to ignore public opionion even when it is manifested in the form of mass demonstrations int he UK against the wars in Iraq and Afghanisation. Secondly, I reject the notion of collective responsibility. The fact that a Moslem terrorist kills one or more Jews does not justify our killing Moslems who are not responsible for this crime. For this, we have courts of laws and developed systems of jurisprudence. Each individual is responsible in the eyes of society and in the sight of the Creator for his or her own actions. Another point that is sometimes neglected is than in the United Kingdom, a political party may win a majority of seats in the House of Commons (and often does) but still fail to obtain the largest share of the popular vote. Likewise, in the US presidential elections, which use an idirect system of electors, a President may be elected on a minority share of the popular vote.

    We know live in an age where the very survival of our divinely created world is in peril. It is our duty as human beings to act as responsible guardians and act accordingly. In the Middle East, the problems that this reason faces ona ccount of global warming, population increases, etc. can only solved where all its diverse peoples can live together in peace. In 1948, Egypt and Trnasjordan annexed the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, respectively, thus renering the creastion of a Paletinian state impossible. Today, Hamas seeks to replace the state of Israel by an Islamic republic, even at the cost of incessant bloodshed. With peace all things are possible; without it there is no hope.

    Moslems are heirs to one of the high points of human civlisation in the form of Moorish Spain, while the humane behaviour of Mosslem military leaders during the Crusades, in which many Jews and Moslems were senselessly butchered, is a shining example of correct behaviour. Please continue to oppose those who would use religious teachings to justify a political agenda that can lead to disaster for all concerned.


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