BOB ABERNETHY, anchor: In Egypt, a group of Islamic scholars at the prestigious Al Azar University this week said jihad -- meaning holy war -- becomes a duty for all Muslims if the U.S. attacks Iraq.
The scholars said such an attack would constitute a new "crusade" not only against Islamic territory but on Islam itself. Therefore, said the scholars, all Muslims are obligated to defend their land and their religion.
We want to explore the significance of that statement with Akbar Ahmed, Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington, where he also teaches international relations. Dr. Ahmed is a former Pakistani ambassador to Great Britain.
Dr. Ahmed, welcome. Why is that statement by the Egyptian scholars important?
Dr. AKBAR AHMED: (Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies, American University): Very significant for two reasons. Number one, Al Azar is the oldest, possibly the most respected, educational Islamic university in the world. It is very respected in the Sunni world, and the Sunni world is about 80 percent of Islam's total population. Secondly, it also reflects the thinking of the Egyptian government. Egypt is important in the Middle East because it is the country with the largest population. It's so far been spearheading a movement to have nominal relations with Israel. So this movement would suggest that there may be some rethinking in Egypt.
ABERNETHY: Were the scholars leading Muslim opinion, or trying to keep up with it?
Dr. AHMED: That's a good question. I suspect that they are keeping up with it. The mood in the Muslim street is turning ugly. It is turning angry, and this is from Morocco to Indonesia. We are seeing processions going into hundreds of thousands in even those countries that are traditionally very pro-West, very pro-America [those countries] are just backing off from any idea of war with Iraq. You saw in the United Nations the Security Council, Pakistan, which is a strong ally of the United States, has at best promised to abstain, but not to support the United States.
ABERNETHY: When the Egyptian scholars used that word, "jihad," exactly what do they mean?
Dr. AHMED: That is a very interesting question because the concept is important in Islam. Islam is an activist religion, it is not a pacifist religion, which means that Islam must respond to the world around it. There are two ways of responding. One, through military, physical action, and the second through spiritual, compassionate action. Now this statement by Al Azar, that's why I find it so interesting and significant, shifts the definition to a much more physical, military interpretation. And this is going to give the green light, if you like, to a lot of Muslims who have been waiting for an authoritative statement on the definition of jihad as applied today.