Osama's Islam-violence link weighs heavy on Muslims
* Bin Laden linked Islam and violence
* Peaceful Muslims struggle to shake off suspicions
* Arab revolts push religious factor into background
By Tom Heneghan, Religion Editor
PARIS, May 2 (Reuters) - Osama bin Laden's radical Islamism has had a devastating impact on Muslims around the world by linking their faith with violence and using religious texts to justify mass killings.
His "jihadist" strategy has claimed the lives of many thousands of Muslims in Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan, as well as in the United States, Europe and Africa.
It has also tarred Muslims with suspicion and helped feed prejudice against them. Especially in the West, many Muslims felt pressured to denounce a man they never identified with.
"The link he made between violence and Islam made people think this was a religion of terrorists," said Dalil Boubakeur, rector of the Grand Mosque of Paris.
"In Western countries, we've had to show on a daily basis that Islam is not violent and Osama bin Laden does not represent Muslims," he said. France is home to Europe's largest Muslim minority of about five million people.
Muslim leaders have issued many denunciations of the radical Islamist violence championed by bin Laden. Mainstream scholars have drawn up declarations and fatwas to counter his arguments with opposing views from the Koran.
While these may have influenced some undecided Muslims, they had little apparent success in shaking a view that bin Laden represented an important current within Islam.
ARAB REVOLTS HELP CHANGE IMAGE
The recent wave of pro-democracy uprisings in the Arab world has gone some way to weakening the perceived link between Islam and violence.
The world's media have shown pictures of young Muslims campaigning for civil rights without resorting to religious violence.
"In public and private discussion on the main issues facing the Muslim world, violence through radical religious means used to be quite prominent," said H.A. Hellyer, a fellow at Warwick University in Britain. "That has disappeared in recent months."
"Two main stereotypes about the Muslim world, and especially the Arab world, have been broken," he said by phone from Cairo. "The first is that you need a strongman to keep people in check, otherwise they will opt for radical violent Islamism.
"The stereotype about violence has also been broken by and large. These revolutions started as peaceful revolutions and only became violent when the regimes -- which are areligious -- used violence."
Bin Laden made heavy use of Islamic rhetoric to defend a struggle against the United States, Israel and the Saudi royal family.
Although not a trained Islamic scholar, he issued fatwas in 1996 and 1998 urging Muslims to kill Americans and Israelis to avenge the stationing of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia and the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands.
In several messages since 2001, he urged Muslims to fight the United States, using the Koranic term jihad ("struggle") for "holy war" despite the fact -- as many scholars pointed out -- that its primary meaning is a Muslim's inner struggle to do God's will.
EFFORTS TO COUNTER BIN LADEN
Muslim scholars have issued many statements refuting his radical interpretation of Islam. In 2004, the Amman Message strictly limited takfir, or excommunication, a practice radicals have used to justify killing fellow Muslims they disagreed with.
Last year, prominent scholars recast a medieval fatwa on jihad that bin Laden and his supporters have often cited to declare their Muslim opponents infidels and wage war on them.
Also in 2010, Pakistani Sufi scholar Muhammad Tahir ul-Qadri published a 600-page fatwa refuting a long list of arguments radical Islamists have cited to justify their violent acts.
Opinion polls have also shown bin Laden's violent tactics had little support among Muslims.
In the months leading up to his death, a survey by the Pew Research Center's Global Attitudes Project found only 1 percent of Muslims in Lebanon expressed confidence in bin Laden and 13 percent in Jordan.
The highest level of support was in the Palestinian territories -- although even there only 34 percent said they had confidence in the terrorist leader to do the right thing in world affairs.
In Pakistan, where 2011 data is still not available, confidence in bin Laden fell from 52 percent in 2005 to just 18 percent in last year's survey.
But getting that message across in the non-Muslim world was an uphill struggle, said Hellyer.
"Despite all the fatwas and declarations against violence, it hasn't seemed to seep into the public consciousness what Muslims do or do not support," he said. (Editing by Andrew Heavens)
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