STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
President Obama borrowed a term from literature when talking of ISIS in Syria and Iraq. He said the group's barbarity forces us to look into the heart of darkness. The president spoke at the United Nations, calling on the world to fight religious extremism and he singled out one man as a model. He is Sheikh Abdullah bin Bayyah, of the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies. He's considered one of the world's most influential Muslim scholars. And he has issued edicts saying why he thinks groups like ISIS have it wrong.
NPR's Dina Temple-Raston met with the Sheikh.
DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: Last week there were two fatwas, or religious edicts, against the group known as ISIS. One came from senior clerics in Saudi Arabia and the other came from the man President Obama mentioned in his U.N. speech, 79-year-old Sheikh Abdullah bin Bayyah.
Sheikh bin Bayyah's fatwa calls for dialogue and questions just about everything ISIS stands for. It says establishing a caliphate by force is a misreading of Islam. The fatwa says the killing of innocents and violence is wrong, too. Sheikh bin Bayyah says he hopes the religious ruling will slow the group's momentum.
He spoke through an interpreter.
SHEIKH ABDULLAH BIN BAYYAH: (Through translator) Primarily it's really addressing the mistakes and it's really warning them and advising them that what you're doing is clearly wrong.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Sheikh bin Bayyah's fatwa is significant because he's seen as one of the preeminent Islamic scholars in the world. His edicts are respected by both Sunni and Shia Muslims and he has a track record - he has helped defuse violent extremism in the past. In May, he issued a fatwa against Boko Haram. That's the Nigerian terrorist group responsible for kidnapping hundreds of schoolgirls last spring.
WILLIAM VENDLEY: Within the discussion of the Islamic this community and far beyond it, it is a vital voice and a vital moment for authentic teaching.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Dr. William Vendley is the secretary general of Religions For Peace, a global multi-religious organization that works in 90 countries. Sheikh bin Bayyah is a member of the group.
VENDLEY: It's not a cure-all pill.
TEMPLE-RASTON: When a figure like Sheikh bin Bayyah issues a fatwa, it doesn't have an immediate effect. It filters down from scholars, to teachers, to local imams, to people on the street. And Sheikh bin Bayyah has no illusions that an fatwa will stop the violence overnight.
BIN BAYYAH: (Through translator) These people aren't going to lay down suddenly - lay down their weapons and come to the peace table. In the middle range and in the long range, if enough scholars come on board and really begin to address these issues at this level, the level of ideas, it will have an impact lessening the effects that it has amongst the youth, the radicalization of the youth, but it's going to take time.
TEMPLE-RASTON: It is going to take time. But he says it is time worth spending because military action alone won't work.
BIN BAYYAH: (Through translator) The problem is that even if you defeat these ideas militarily by killing the people, if you don't defeat the ideas intellectually then the ideas will re-emerge.
TEMPLE-RASTON: That's what his Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies is trying to do. Still, Sheikh bin Bayyah is somewhat controversial in the U.S. His detractors say he's anti-Semitic and that he has called the killing of American soldiers in Iraq justified. Those criticisms are linked to his role as co-director of the International Union of Muslim Scholars. The group supported those kinds of ideas. Sheikh bin Bayyah said he left the international Union of Muslim Scholars a year ago because he didn't agree with many of the group's positions.
At the U.N. yesterday, President Obama said it was time for the Muslim world to explicitly reject the violent ideologies that fuel terrorism. I asked Sheikh bin Bayyah what he thought of people who join forces with ISIS.
BIN BAYYAH: (Foreign language spoken).
TEMPLE-RASTON: I actually consider these people to be mentally imbalanced, he said, and I personally stand behind that statement. These people don't have religious knowledge, he added, so their understanding is shallow, and, he said, completely incorrect. Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News, New York.
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