NYT wonders: Does Islamic law authorize nuclear jihad?

If it didn’t before, it does now. In theory, writes Noah Feldman, the Koran forbids attacks on Muslims, women, and children. Those strictures have been relaxed, however, as warfare — and popular opinion — have evolved. Shari’a, no less than man-made law, tends to follow the facts on the ground, God’s will be damned:

The equivocation by Muslim scholars with respect to the technique of suicide bombing reflected the reality that throughout the Muslim world, Palestinian suicide bombers were by 2001 identified as martyrs dying in a just cause. This, in turn, was the natural outgrowth of the decades before suicide bombing, when Palestinian terrorists were applauded for killing Israeli civilians, including women and children. Given that embracing Palestinian suicide bombing had become a widespread social norm, it would have been essentially unthinkable for an important Muslim scholar to condemn the practice without losing his standing among Muslims worldwide. In the Islamic world, as in the U.S. Supreme Court, the legal authorities cannot get too far away from their public constituency without paying a price.

What happened, in other words, is that without the scholars paying too much attention to the question, the killing of Israeli women and children had become a kind of exception to the ordinary laws of jihad…

If the Islamic laws of war are under revision, or at least the subject of intense debate, what does that mean for the question of the Islamic bomb? The answer is that the expanding religious sanction for violence once thought unacceptable opens the way for new kinds of violence to be introduced and seen as legitimate in turn. First Israeli women and children became acceptable targets; then Americans; then Shiites; and now Sunnis of unstinting orthodoxy. It would seem that no one is out of bounds.

If you can bend shari’a one way then, hypothetically, you can bend it the other way too. (In fact, it’s been done before.) That’s the good news. The bad news is, it’s bent so far in the wrong direction it’ll take decades to turn around — particularly given that anti-Americanism is itself now a component of fundamentalist Islam.

Iranian-rooted Islamist anti-Americanism has worked far better than its designers might have imagined, spreading to Sunni Islamists who have little love to lose for Iran. The marriage of Islamism and anti-Americanism will probably be considered by history as the most significant consequence of the Iranian revolution. Anti-Americanism has become a staple of Islamist sermons and Web postings, an effective tool for drawing to the movement angry young people who might not naturally be drawn to religion. Bin Ladenism, in this sense, owes much to the Iranian revolution even though Al Qaeda was never Iran’s direct ally. United States support for Israel has always been an important part of the argument for Islamist anti-Americanism, but today it is by no means a necessary component. If U.S. support of Israel were to weaken, the American presence in Iraq and elsewhere in the gulf would easily substitute as a basis for hatred.

The United States therefore has strong reason to block its enemy Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons — not simply because Iran will seek to become a greater regional power, as any nation might do, but because the Islamic Republic of Iran as currently constituted is definitionally anti-American. There need not be a direct threat of Iranian first use against either the United States or Israel for this reason to weigh heavily. A nuclear Iran will be a stronger and more effective enemy in pursuing anti-American policies under the banner of Islam.

Speaking of which, the nutroots has been buzzing for weeks about the American naval maneuvers in the Persian Gulf and how Bush is allegedly planning to attack Iran as an October surprise.

Debka thinks they’re right.

Update: For the moment, according to Khamenei, shari’a forbids the use of nuclear weapons.

For the moment.

Update: Feldman also talks at length in the article about how Sunnis are apt to respond to Iran’s proliferation with nukes of their own. And sure enough.