(Achmad Ibrahim/AP/Indonesian painter S. Wito wipes his painting of Osama bin Laden and former U.S. president George W. Bush at his street-side studio in Jakarta, Indonesia.)

"Bin Laden was not a Muslim leader; he was a mass murderer of Muslims. Indeed, Al-Qaeda has slaughtered scores of Muslims in many countries including our own. So his demise should be welcomed by all who believe in peace and human dignity."

--President Obama, May 1, 2011

A reader questioned this assertion by President Obama when he made the dramatic announcement Sunday night that U.S. forces in Pakistan had killed Osama bin Laden. “The Fact Checker should let the American people know that the president has his facts wrong,” he said.

 The reader wrote that “bin Laden took inspiration from and was guided by his interpretation of the Koran. He considered himself a devout Muslim, and he was considered a Muslim leader by many Muslims.”

 The reader added that “it is a non sequitur for Mr. Obama to deny that Bin Laden was a Muslim leader because he was a mass murderer and Al Qaeda killed many Muslims. There is nothing in the a priori that says that a mass murderer and killer of many Muslims cannot be a Muslim leader.”

 This is an interesting question, worthy of debate.


The Facts

Obama said that bin Laden was not a Muslim leader after he emphasized that “our war is not against Islam.” In many ways, it was a rhetorical statement, allowing the president to disconnect bin Laden’s terrorist actions from his religious beliefs.

The general dictionary definition of a religious leader is someone who leads a religious order. A leader is someone who rules, guides or inspires others. The White House did not respond to a query about whether the president meant that bin Laden was not a religious leader, such as an imam, or not a leader of Muslims. (At another point in his speech, the president called bin Laden “al-Qaeda’s leader and symbol.”)

 Bin Laden, according to various accounts, was a very pious individual. He began his religious studies in eighth or ninth grade and continued them after he entered Jiddah’s King Abdulaziz University in 1976, though he did not graduate. He was not trained as a religious scholar, and indeed, never claimed to be one, according to Michael Scheuer, who formerly headed the CIA’s bureau tracking bin Laden, in his book, “Osama bin Laden,” which was published this year.

 “In one form or another he has often repeated a statement he made in August of 2000: ‘My job is not to lead but to follow…. I always seek guidance from many great religious scholars.’” Scheuer added that bin Laden “has repeatedly denied being a scholar, claiming only to be a ‘humble slave of God” forced to public speaking because the Islamic world’s ‘illustrious scholars’ have been silenced.”

There has been an effort by many Islamic scholars to argue that bin Laden’s worldview was un-Islamic, notably a conference in Turkey in 2010 which refuted bin Laden’s 1998 fatwa exhorting Muslims that to “kill Americans and their allies—civilian and military—is an individual duty for every Muslim.”  The conference concluded that the 13th-century fatwa that bin Laden’s fatwa was based on had been misconstrued because of a typographical error in some printed editions decades ago.

 According to the conference, a section saying non-Muslims “should be treated according to their rights” was instead rendered as “should be fought as is their due” – a change that, if correct, would seem to undercut the intellectual foundation of bin Laden’s call to arms.

 Scheuer, however, notes that bin Laden’s 1998 fatwa “was signed by fully credentialed Islamic scholars, thus giving it religious authority;” assemblies of Islamic scholars in Afghanistan and Pakistan then gave the fatwa “confirmation and authorization” shortly after its publication. He said that this approval provided bin Laden’s fatwa with “theological gravitas” that means there will be forever an “an unending debate about whose fatwa was bigger.”

 Indeed, Scheuer argues against the “consensus argument” that “bin Laden cannot speak authoritatively about Islam and its duties and therefore that Muslims will not listen to or follow his guidance.”

 Scheuer also rebuts the claim—advanced also by Obama—that because al-Qaeda has murdered many Muslims, he should have no support in the Muslim community. Scheuer notes that the war between al-Qaeda and the West has been being fought mostly on Muslim territory, and that the United States and its allies have killed many more Muslims in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. He quotes bin Laden as saying: “We do not spill the blood of Muslims carelessly. But if some Muslims get killed during Mujahedin operations, this falls under what is permitted.”

There is clear evidence that bin Laden’s influence in the Arab world was waning before his death. The Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project found that support for the terrorist leader had dropped sharply among Muslims: in Jordan, from 56 percent in 2003 to 13 percent in 2011, in the Palestinian territories, from 72 percent in 2003 to 34 percent in 2011; in Turkey, from 15 percent in 2003 to three percent in 2011. Al-Qaeda also received negative ratings.

 Yet, at the same time, the Muslim Brotherhood, a rising political force in Egypt, this week issued a statement deploring bin Laden’s death that referred to him by the honorific of “Sheikh”—meaning an elder, leader or man of stature.


The Pinocchio Test

 We do not believe this question can be easily resolved. Bin Laden certainly was not a religious leader or a political leader, but he did have influence over a shrinking number of Muslims. Does that make him a “Muslim leader”?

 We can understand why the president wanted to emphasize publicly that this was not an attack on Islam, and that bin Laden did not represent mainstream Islam. But Scheuer (who we should note has been a controversial analyst) argues in his book that it is “fatuous” to claim that he was outside “any legitimate form of Islam” and that “it is more important to understand—and vital if the West wants to counter his influence—that bin Laden is, and is seen as, a legitimate and good Muslim by his coreligionists.”

 Bin Laden is dead now, of course. But the debate over his legacy will continue. We invite reader comments on how this question should be settled.

Withholding Judgment

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