It is good that the theological motivations for jihadi movements are being acknowledged and engaged with by peaceable Muslims.
This is not a new strategy. It is necessary and the strategy has long been used by authorities as a counter to jihadi movements. For example the British empire extracted fatwas from Mecca and Istanbul in the 19th century to declare that British India was not 'Dar al-Harb' [House of War], but Dar al-Islam [House of Islam]', which meant that it was forbidden for Muslims to engage in insurgencies against the British. Muslim leaders have always asked their scholars to produce such rulings to counter violent rebellions. This is a traditional Islamic technique to control the undeniable tendency that Islamic theology has to generate violent rebel movements.
This project is also helpful because it acknowledges what is often denied – that the credibility of radical jihadism relies upon religious, theological claims. It claims Islamic legitimacy and this is how, in practice, it gains converts. To counter this religious legitimacy it is also necessary to use theological arguments.
However there are some dangers here for Western governments. One is that there will be a cost to adopting theological positions on Islam. Is a secular state really in a position to make an announcement that one particular form of Islam is 'correct' over others? This is like saying that catholicism is correct, but the baptist faith is not. And if the state does canonize a "theologically correct" view on Islam, would it really be persuasive to the minds of young radically inclined Muslims that a secular government is teaching Islam to them, or would it just incite suspicion, and detract from the credibility of voices of moderation within the Muslim community? Also where does combating radicalism start and promoting Islam start? (The al-Azar Sheikh in his introduction [in Arabic] to the report sees the report as an exercise in spreading Islam, not just in combating radicalism.)
The great weakness in the arguments offered is that they appear to be opportunistic, often ignoring conflicting evidence. For example on the subject of suicide bombing, a wide range of modern Muslim scholars have endorsed martyrdom operations against Israel, and to counter these means a more whole-hearted acknowledgement of the weight of the opposing voices. It is not just al-Qaradawi or Al-Qaida ideologues who say this.
Also there is a tendency to cherry pick texts. For example Al-Ghazali is cited to support an argument against killing women and children, but his justification of collateral damage against civilians is not cited:
"[O]ne must go on jihad at least once a year… one may use a catapult against them when they are in a fortress, even if among them are women and children. One may set fire to them and/or drown them."
Another example is the discussion of 'perfidy' or 'subterfuge' in warfare. It is argued on the basis of a hadith from [hadith collection] Muslim that Islam forbids the use of deception in warfare, a key point in the theology of martyrdom operations / suicide bombing. However the hadith is cited from a secondary source, and the translation is not accurate. The actual Arabic in Sahih Muslim (translated more accurately here) forbids stealing booty and a Muslim is not supposed to break his 'pledge'. This is not about 'cheating' in general. Also the authors ignore the well-known hadith which supports deceit in which Muhammad said: 'War is deceit'. This approach runs the risk of setting up a straw man only to knock it down. In Islam, support for deception in warfare is more resistant to re-analysis than this.
In the discussion on citizenship - which is a very important issue in Islamic law: can Muslims be loyal citizens? - the authors overlook important rulings collected by the International Fiqh Academy on this issue, which go against their position.
Yet as soon as one raises such objections, one runs the risk of being accused of supporting the jihadis. My overall view is that the jihadis have more support than this document would acknowledge, and the arguments used against them would not be convincing to many.
The question I ask is whether these arguments will be convincing to a well-trained Muslim scholar. I am not convinced.
I believe the strongest Islamic argument of all against jihadi theology is the 'necessity' argument: it will harm Islam by causing its reputation to be destroyed, as we see already in Egypt.
What about the Al-Azhar Sheikh's support? Well this is political. Al-Azhar must support the anti-jihadi cause, because the Brotherhood are being killed and wiped out due to their views. The wind is blowing against the jihadi position. Also I note that the Sheikh does not endorse specific arguments, just the general thrust of the project.
Revd Dr Mark Durie is an Anglican priest, Fellow of the Australian Academy for the Humanities, and a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum in the US. He is the author of The Third Choice: Islam Dhimmitude and Freedom published by Deror Books.