When you are a Jew who represents a dovish position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, you will read and hear a lot of hateful speech from your fellow Jews. You’re called a traitor, self-hating Jew, anti-Zionist, Arab lover, etc. And what they say about the Arabs is even less flattering and much more racist and hateful. Among the most tiresome of the many leading questions you are asked by opponents of peace is: “It’s all well and good for you bleeding hearts peaceniks, but where are the peaceniks on the other side?” After a particularly fruitless “dialogue” at the Middle East Information Center discussion board on this subject, I’ve decided to compile “profiles” of Arab moderates who favor Israeli-Palestinian peace and Jewish-Arab dialogue. You may read my previous profiles of Tariq Ramadan and Irshad Manji on this blog.
Khaled Abou El Fadl is a Professor of Law at the UCLA School of Law where he teaches Islamic law, Immigration, Human Rights, International and National Security Law. El Fadl is a rare breed: a Muslim intellectual and legal scholar who embraces a moderate form of Islam. He is also opposed to all forms of terrorism, including Al Qaeda and the 9/11 attacks, and sees it as a corruption and distortion of the authentic message of Islam. El Fadl’s moderate views bring him into conflict with the strict fundamentalist version of Islam represented by the Wahabism practiced by the House of Saud. He remains implacably opposed to Saudi Arabia’s approach to Islam and to its royal family and their religious representatives. Furthermore, El Fadl expresses strong opposition to other Islamic institutions like Egypt’s Al Azhar Mosque and seminary which has been appropriated by the Wahabists. This in turn has brought him into conflict with the Egyptian authorities. He is persona non grata in many countries in the Middle East.
Teresa Watanabe, the Los Angeles Times’ Religion Editor wrote, Battling Islamic ‘Puritans’ (January 2, 2002), a profile of Professor El Fadl. He spoke to her of his own intolerant practice of Islam as a child:
I found it remarkably empowering to spew my hatred with the banner of God in my hand,” he says. But challenged by his father to take up true religious scholarship, Abou El Fadl began a journey of Islamic learning that would transform him into a nemesis of the extremists he once endorsed. Today, at 38, he is a leading warrior in the intellectual struggle that exploded into America’s consciousness Sept. 11: Who speaks for Islam? Who defines it?
With breathtaking bluntness, Abou El Fadl attacks Muslims who promote a strict, literalist trend in Islam, most prominently the creed of Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia. In his writings and through the electronic media, he accuses them of an “intolerant puritanism” that values ritual over morality. He blames them for oppressing millions of women, creating hostility toward non-Muslims and giving the likes of Osama bin Laden their theological justification for terrorism.
It is easy to imagine, when you take on the religious establishment, that you will not earn many friends and indeed this is true in El Fadl’s case:
For tackling the puritans in high-profile forums, Abou El Fadl has received death threats. His books are banned in Saudi Arabia and his visa applications denied in Egypt.
[His battles against Islamic fundamentalists provide] critical insights into the fierce ideological tensions raging within Islam between the forces of puritanism and moderation. They shed light on how Islam can produce such chilling extremists as Bin Laden, who exults in the carnage of Sept. 11 as “blessed strikes.”
By devoting himself to a modern interpretation of the Koran, Abou El Fadl is perhaps the most articulate enemy of the Wahhabi creed that shaped Bin Laden’s brand of Islam. To many muftis, ayatollahs, sheiks and their followers throughout the world, Abou El Fadl has become “America’s most dangerous corrupter of Islam,” as one foe put it. One international network of students claims credit for successfully working to blacklist him from most Islamic conferences and publications under the banner of protecting “the one and only true Islam.”
Many Muslims see an even more pervasive impact of puritanism–robbing Islam of its richness and flexibility. Howard University professor Sulayman Nyang calls it “the mummification, ossification and fossilization of Islam.”
“Most of these groups we call fundamentalists have a rigid idea that everything is sealed in concrete and there is no elasticity in reinterpretation,” says Nyang, an African-born professor of African and Islamic studies. “We need to inject life back into Islam and open it up in light of new realities.”
In that pursuit, Nyang says, Abou El Fadl “is blazing a new trail.”
While other Muslim intellectuals like Abdulaziz Sachedina at the University of Virginia and Ebrahim Moosa, an associate professor of Islamic studies at Duke University suffered fatwas against their views and writings or even violence and intimidation
it is Abou El Fadl who appears to pose the greatest threat to the puritanical view of Islam because he promotes his competing vision with an erudition and persuasive prose that even his foes grudgingly acknowledge.
Fajrul Din, a student in Saudi Arabia who belongs to the international student group that opposes Abou El Fadl, ticks off the scholar’s sins: defending infidels against Muslims in court; befriending Shiite, Jews and Bahais; embracing music; owning devilish black dogs; and sheltering wives fleeing from the “discipline” of husbands.
What makes Abou El Fadl such a master of pandering to Western liberal sensitivities, Din wrote in an e-mail, is that “with each of these heretical views, he weaves sweet words like a serpent, and misleads the naive and simple. His sin is greater than any other. He studied and saw the light, but chose to turn away from it. We will not dirty our hands by touching him, but let him perish like a dog among the heathens he loves so much.”
El Fadl is also a leading Muslim feminist, challenging puritanical positions that women must be fully veiled and obey their husbands without question or submit to beatings for disobedience. He even urges his wife, Grace, to lead him in prayer, challenging prevailing Muslim practice of all-male religious leadership.
Most troubling to his ideological enemies, Abou El Fadl cannot be written off as a Westernized Uncle Tom. His work is painstakingly grounded in classical Islamic sources, they acknowledge, giving him the ability to defend his modern interpretations with a dizzying command of ancient traditions.
El Fadl and the Jewish Community
In El Fadl’s relations with the Jewish community, he has embraced interfaith dialogue and shows sensitivity and receptivity to Jewish concerns. Gary Rosenblatt, editor of New York’s Jewish Week, explored El Fadl’s relationship with the Jewish community in In Search Of Moderate Muslims (January 17, 2003). Needless to say, depending on where you stand on the Jewish community’s political spectrum affects your views of El Fadl:
Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, Hillel director at UCLA, met El Fadl when he started coming regularly to the rabbi’s Torah study group held for faculty, and they have appeared numerous times together in public discussing Jewish-Muslim issues. The rabbi says El Fadl is “heroic” because he is willing to criticize Islam from within.
“My belief is that our community needs to hear from Muslims,” Rabbi Seidler-Feller said. “I’m not a Pollyanna, but there are not too many of these people [Muslims willing to appear with Jews and speak out] and they should be treated as gems. We have to be very careful, think strategically, and realize the precariousness of their positions among their people.
“What’s important is not so much what they are saying to us but what they are saying in their own community. We don’t need them to be Zionists.”
Daniel Pipes, the neoconservative editor of the Middle East Forum, on the other hand maintains a profound distrust of El Fadl:
[he] has succeeded in fooling influential individuals that he is a moderate American Muslim intellectual” when he is, according to Pipes, “just another Muslim extremist.”
Other Jewish leaders appreciate the courage and bravery that El Fadl has shown in reaching outside his own faith to search for common ground with the Other:
Rabbi Seidler-Feller disagrees with critics like Pipes, and says that by insisting Muslim leaders “meet all our criteria before we can speak to them, the net result is that we can’t talk to anyone.”
Another communal leader who sounds a note of caution regarding El Fadl is
Yehudit Barsky, director of the division of Middle East and international terrorism for the American Jewish Committee, said she is troubled that El Fadl wrote for a publication funded by a Muslim organization hostile to Israel. She said it is difficult to assess relations with Muslims who may say one thing to a Jewish audience and something else to a Muslim audience.
One defender of El Fadl in the Jewish community is Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic, who said it is unfair for some in the Jewish community to indulge in the equivalent of “tzitzis checking,” or “interpreting every expression of solidarity with Islam as an expression of Islamic extremism, so as to elide the difference between moderate and militant Muslims.
“We insist that Jews never break rank with Israel,” Wieseltier observed, “but we are quick to applaud members of certain other minorities when they break rank with their own groups.”
He called El Fadl “a brave man” and said it was “chutzpah for Jews to criticize him.”
To my mind, Pipes and Barsky represent a viewpoint that is unfortunately very common in our community. To their mind, Arabs are by and large the enemy. They are never to be trusted. The only trustworthy Arab is probably someone who is so sycophantic or craven towards the Jewish community and its interests that he or she would have been long dismissed by their own Muslim community as a traitor or worse, an intellectual has been. Unfortunately, with such paranoid and hypersensitive responses to serious Muslim intellectuals, the mainstream Jewish community is exhibiting the same prejudiced attitudes that we ourselves witnessed at the hands of the Christian world for many centuries.
Rosenblatt closes his article with this powerful statement which sides with those who find El Fadl a positive force for dialogue and moderation:
in a world where there are 2 billion Muslims, it may be wise for the Jewish community to cultivate those few influential Muslims who advocate tolerance and to engage them in a conversation that could help lead us back from the ruinous path of eternal demonization.