Violence Against Innocents Violates Islamic Law, Imam Siraj Wahhaj Testifies
By Benjamin Weiser, New York Times, 25 April 2001
Muslim religious leader from Brooklyn testifying yesterday in the embassy bombings trial declared that Muslims are not obliged to blindly obey their leaders and are prohibited from committing violent acts against innocent people even if their leaders say such actions are justified.
"Islam doesn't teach anarchy," the defense witness, Imam Siraj Wahhaj, said in Federal District Court in Manhattan, "and people can't take it upon themselves when they don't like something, even though something seems to be unjust, to get up and do that kind of violence. It's not Islamic."
The testimony appeared to condemn what prosecutors say was a global anti-American conspiracy led by Osama bin Laden that included the 1998 African embassy bombings.
Imam Wahhaj, the leader of the At-Taqwa Mosque in Bedford-Stuyvesant, was called as a witness for Mohammed Saddiq Odeh, a 36-year- old Jordanian who has been accused of helping Mr. bin Laden's group prepare the attack in Nairobi, Kenya.
The testimony highlighted the differences in how Mr. Odeh and his co-defendants are defending themselves in court. Mr. Odeh's lawyers appeared to be trying to establish ethical boundaries for a jihad fighter, and they suggested through their questioning that they intend to show that Mr. Odeh, who left Kenya before the attack, was a religious man and a soldier who never deviated from the dictates of Islam and never sought to kill Americans.
But their strategy might have caused problems for another defendant, Mohamed Rashed Daoud al- 'Owhali, a 24-year-old Saudi who is accused of lping bomb the embassy in Nairobi. His lawyers have tried to paint him as a foot soldier who believed that he had no choice but to follow orders.
By day's end, what seemed to be a mostly unified defense throughout the trial for all four defendants was fracturing, with lawyers for Mr. Odeh and Mr. al-'Owhali snapping at each other, a lawyer for a third defendant, Wadih El-Hage, unsuccessfully demanding a mistrial, and prosecutors seemingly so pleased by the imam's testimony that they tried only to bolster it.
Imam Wahhaj spoke as an expert on Islam, not on the facts of embassy bombings case. In describing the obligations of individual Muslims, he repudiated the idea that a conspiracy of terrorists against Americans could be justified under Islam.
When Anthony L. Ricco, a lawyer for Mr. Odeh, asked whether a Muslim had the right to question or disobey an order, the imam replied, "You have to obey leadership, but not blindly, and we have a duty, a responsibility, to challenge leadership. When that leadership gives us the directions that are not sound, that's not correct."
Mr. Odeh's lawyers have cited evidence that he questioned a religious edict by Mr. bin Laden to kill Americans and told American agents after his arrest that he did "not follow blindly like a cat."
Mr. Ricco asked the imam whether there was any Islamic authority that endorsed the killing of individuals, such as Americans, "anywhere they could be found."
Imam Wahhaj said absolutely not.
Later, David P. Baugh, a lawyer for Mr. al-'Owhali, asked the imam, "If, hypothetically, I believe that millions of children are being killed by my enemy, and the only way to stop the death of those children is to blow up my enemy's facilities," was he "required to try and stop" the killing of the children?
The imam said no. "That's illegal, that's criminal," Imam Wahhaj said. "I am telling you that each one of us, we don't have the right to then interpret and to go commit acts of violence. Islam does not condone and accept that."
At one point, Imam Wahhaj cited the nonviolent tactics of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., "who fought against unjust laws and did it in a just kind of way."
"I think you would call him a hero," he said.
When Mr. Baugh asked about a Muslim who was willing to die for a cause an allusion to the suicide bombers who carried out the two embassy attacks the imam said Muslims should strive for change, "but not to commit suicide."
Mr. al-'Owhali is accused of having planned to die carrying out the bombing of the Nairobi embassy.
Later, Mr. Odeh's lawyers recalled a prosecution witness, L'Houssaine Kherchtou, a former aide to Mr. bin Laden who pleaded guilty to terrorism conspiracy charges and has been cooperating with the government.
Mr. Odeh's lawyers appeared to be trying, through their questioning of Mr. Kherchtou, to equate his case to Mr. Odeh's. Mr. Kherchtou, for example, said he had unwittingly assisted other members of Mr. bin Laden's group in 1994 as they conducted surveillance in Nairobi of the American embassy as a potential bomb target.
Mr. Odeh's lawyers have also suggested that their client was used unwittingly in the plot.