In August 2009, an African-American Muslim from Texas, Kobie Williams, was sentenced to four-and-a-half years in prison after pleading guilty to getting paramilitary training in Houston so he could prepare to join the Taliban and fight against U.S. troops in Afghanistan, and donating $350 to the Taliban. (Several American Muslims have been convicted on similar charges.)
Williams’ case has renewed a debate among some American Muslims: If the U.S. invades a Muslim country, whose side are American Muslims supposed to be on? What religious responsibility do American Muslims have to assist Muslims whose country is invaded by the U.S.?
John Floyd, William’s lawyer, said Williams was angered by the killing of Muslim civilians in Afghanistan. At the time of Williams’ arrest in 2006, Floyd said, “There is a certain segment of the Muslim population, especially among younger men, who are very upset about affairs in the Middle East and the [Bush] administration’s handling of those affairs. They truly believe that defending those Muslim countries invaded by outsiders is not only justified under Islamic law but is obligatory. I can’t tell you whether Kobie reached that level, but I know from researching these issues that it’s not a widespread or commonly held belief among Muslims in this country, but does exist among a certain small segment of the youth.”
The Recitation (or Qur’an) instructs Muslims to fight those who fight them. “Fight in the cause of Allah those who fight you, but do not transgress limits; for Allah loveth not transgressors. And slay them wherever ye catch them, and turn them out from where they have Turned you out; for tumult and oppression are worse than slaughter; but fight them not at the Sacred Mosque, unless they (first) fight you there; but if they fight you, slay them. Such is the reward of those who suppress faith. But if they cease, Allah is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful. And fight them on until there is no more Tumult or oppression, and there prevail justice and faith in Allah; but if they cease, Let there be no hostility except to those who practice oppression.” (2:190-193)
Do these verses mean that Muslims should fight only if they are personally attacked, or should all Muslims fight when any Muslim is attacked?
Does an American Muslim’s view of the legitimacy of the American invasion of Afghanistan affect the religious analysis? Polling and anecdotal evidence show that most American Muslims believe that America was not justified in invading Afghanistan after 9/11. (That’s because most American Muslims are not convinced that Muslims carried out the 9/11 attacks.) If an American Muslim believes that the American invasion of Afghanistan was unjustified, does that create a religious obligation to fight American troops in Afghanistan?
Some American Muslims argue that an American Muslim is never religiously permitted to take up arms against U.S. forces. They say that citizenship is a treaty between an individual and his country, which implies a pledge by the individual to not attack his countrymen. They argue that Prophet Muhammad never waged war against hostile, oppressive, anti-Muslim Meccan forces while he was a citizen/resident of Mecca; he only waged war against Meccan forces after leaving Mecca and permanently moving to Medina. These American Muslims say that an American Muslim who wants to fight American troops in Afghanistan can only do so if he cuts ties with America and moves away (rather than secretly traveling back and forth between Afghanistan and America, while pretending to remain a loyal American citizen).
Some American Muslims respond that this analysis, regarding the Prophet’s departure from Mecca prior to fighting Meccan forces, is off the mark. Their argument is as follows: The Prophet did not leave Mecca in anticipation of going to war against Meccan forces. He left Mecca to establish an Islamic state elsewhere, because Mecca was not prepared to become an Islamic state at the time. He left Mecca and hoped that he and the Muslim community would be left alone in Medina. (The Muslims raided Meccan caravans to recoup their losses relating to property left behind in Mecca, but the Muslims did not seek all-out war with Meccan forces.) The Muslims fought Meccan forces only when the Meccan army came after them at the Battle of Badr. That’s different from the present-day U.S.-Afghan situation. The Prophet’s situation would have been more analogous to the present-day U.S.-Afghan situation if Mecca had already been at war with another city, and if the Prophet had moved to Medina in order to join the fight against Mecca; then one could argue that American Muslims who want to help the Afghans by fighting U.S. forces must move out of America. It would be interesting to know about the actions of those Muslims (if any) who lived openly or “undercover” in Mecca while Mecca was at war with Medina; were they “loyal Meccans,” or did they take any steps to assist the Muslims of Medina against Meccan forces?
It’s also religiously significant for some American Muslims that American law prohibits Americans from fighting against U.S. forces. Some American Muslims believe they have a religious obligation to follow the laws of the country where they live. They believe that Prophet Muhammad said, “It is necessary upon a Muslim to listen to and obey the ruler, as long as one is not ordered to carry out a sin. If he is commanded to commit a sin, then there is no adherence and obedience.” That takes us back to the above-mentioned verse from the Recitation; if an American Muslim is commanded to not help Muslims whose country is invaded by the U.S, is he “commanded to commit a sin”?
Regardless of how they resolve these religious issues, the fear of prosecution leads most American Muslims to sit on the sidelines, and Williams’ prison term will reinforce that fear.