December 20 2002

Bush’s Fatwa — Assassination Orders Trample American Justice

William O. Beeman

President George W. Bush has issued orders to the CIA authorizing assassination — without further White House approval — of a group of individuals designated as terrorist leaders. This amounts to an American “fatwa,” and should alarm the American public.

In the Islamic world, a fatwa is essentially a decree from a religious authority prescribing or proscribing actions for the faithful. Because it is an individual pronouncement, it cannot be countermanded or appealed. The most famous fatwas in recent times were the order issued by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini for the death of author Salman Rushdie, and the order by Osama bin Laden to “kill the Americans and their allies, civilians and military ... in order for their armies to move out of all the lands of Islam,” issued in 1998.

President Bush’s orders to the CIA have an eerie similarity to the Khomeini and bin Laden decrees. Bush’s orders, like those other fatwas, call for the murder of persons who have not been subject to any trial or review of their crimes.

It may perhaps be assumed that the top names on Bush’s list — Osama bin Laden, his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri and other senior al Qaeda leaders and operatives — are guilty on a prima facie basis. But many of the other names on the list are relatively unknown figures whose guilt may be based on innuendo, rumor or mistaken identity. After they are dead, no one will know if they were mistakenly targeted.

The Bush administration claims that this list is not a violation of a longstanding American prohibition against assassination, since these individuals have been declared “enemy combatants.” This is a sophistry. Bush justifies his assassination orders through the mere application of a label. The reasoning is circular: The administration wants these people dead, so it summarily declares them to be members of a class that can be killed.

President Bush wants to have his cake and eat it, too. He wants the powers of a nation at war with none of the responsibility that accrues from a formal war declaration, including adhering to the Geneva conventions and other bothersome international agreements. The convenient and flexible “enemy combatant” designation provides a carte blanche mandate for violence that the Bush administration desires.

All of this chicanery sullies American morality in a particularly ugly way. It also confirms to the rest of the world what they already suspect — that the United States government will not bow to any authority, moral or legal, other than itself. For the Islamic world — already registering public disapproval of American actions in the 60 to 70 percent range, according to recent polls — President Bush’s action is further proof that the United States is engaging in “cowboy justice,” complete with kangaroo courts and lynch mobs directed at the Islamic world.

One wonders if it was precisely the desire for this kind of swaggering policy that prompted the Bush administration to oppose American participation in the International Court of Criminal Justice. Certainly, if CIA operatives summarily execute a person later shown to be innocent of any wrongdoing, they should have to answer to some authority. The United States seems to be telling the world that it wants to be insulated from all responsibility for any mistakes in advance of their execution.

Americans should not let their horror over the tragedy of Sept. 11 blind them to the terrible abuse the administration is delivering to the American system of justice. With expanded surveillance of economic activity and restrictions on personal movement and expression of opinion, it is important to ask if the “enemy combatant” label might someday be used against dissenters among the United States, making them targets —

our own version of the fatwa.

Beeman is director of Middle East Studies at Brown University ( and has conducted research in the Middle East for more than 30 years.

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