Special Report

Dial-a-Fatwa?

The information age meets radical Islam.

By 11.4.03

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TORONTO -- Salman Rushdie earned the muftis' wrath by insulting the prophet Mohammed. Raheel Raza's crime was trying to praise him.

A journalist and activist for inter-faith dialogue, Raza is no stranger to hate mail or crank calls. She's even been pepper sprayed for criticizing her fellow Muslim immigrants in print -- the "whining" ones "from despotic regimes where they don't have any rights, and as soon as they land here, they start yelling 'human rights' and 'racism.'" This October, however, Raza experienced a career first: a fatwa.

A month earlier, she sent out invitations to her annual Milaad, a celebration of Mohammed's birth, life, and achievements.

"Although this celebration is not an Islamic duty, it is a spiritual tradition developed by Muslims out of love and reverence for the Prophet and his family," Raza told the Toronto Star. "I've celebrated and participated in Milaads since I was a child; at that time there were no extremists hounding us" -- extremists who call Milaad inauthentic, a recent invention that mimics Christmas.

"I knew that sooner or later, some religious crank would find me. But still, I was surprised when I saw the e-mail with my name on it," she says.

That's right: Raza's fatwa, ruling #2/882, arrived as part of a "long and boring" e-mail from the American Muslim Association of North America (AMANA). The letter's signature boasts: "A member of the Florida State Advisory Committee to the United States Commission on Civil Rights."

"What an enriching life these guys must lead," muses Raza. "They even have a 1-800 number."

And there it is, on the links page: 1-800-95-FATWA. The same page links to combative conspiracy theorists whatreallyhappened.com; Radio Islam (which features articles like "How the Jews Rule the World" and photos of anti-war protesters); and science4islam.com (where the author of "Intermingling Between the Two Sexes" explains "Ex president of America, George Kenedy [sic] has stated in 1962 that the future of America is in danger, because its youth are degenerated, liquid and sunk deep in reckless animal desires.")

Raza's fatwa was based on "Milaad: A Caution Against Innovation," an oft-cited ruling by Saudi Sheik Abdel Aziz ibn Baz, for whom Raza has little regard. He's issued fatwas on "idiotic issues like whether women over 40 should wear bras or not! Seriously, yes!" she says.

She isn't kidding about idiotic fatwas. A quick search of Islam Online's Fatwa Bank turns up rulings by numerous clerics, about "sneezing," "clapping," "fixing cats," "wearing colored contact lenses," "writing romance novels," and something called "continuous urination."

So who snitched on Raza, and how? She believes news of her plans for Milaad spread from list-serve to list-serve before making its way to AMANA, who took it upon themselves to correct her. This despite the well-known, and often ignored, line in the Koran, "Let there be no compulsion or coercion in religion."

As for that toll-free line, 1-800-95-FATWA is actually run by the Islamic Assembly of North America, which donates copies of the Koran and other Islamic books to prison libraries.

Is "dial-a-fatwa" as sinister as it sounds? A spokesman for the 800 number said it is simply an advice line for Muslims seeking guidance about proper religious observance. Told about Raza's experience with unsolicited e-mail advice, he insisted, "We don't send anything to anybody." Raza hasn't called the 800 number herself. She doesn't want the group to see her home number on the call display, but she isn't exactly sweating it either. Her Milaad celebration proceeded as scheduled.

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About the Author

Kathy Shaidle runs the website Relapsed Catholic.