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Scholar says this generation’s Muslims face a momentous choice

Scholar says this generation’s Muslims face a momentous choice

CSID in the News

Scholar says this generation’s Muslims face a momentous choice: Nothing less than the very soul of Islam is at risk

By Richard N. Ostling, Associated Press (Friday, November 04, 2005)

LOS ANGELES: Khaled Abou El Fadl, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, has a scholarly manner and speaks in soft tones.  But listen as he tells his story.


A Kuwaiti native, he was fascinated by militant Islam as a young man, then evolved into a moderate champion of democracy who suffered arrest and torture in Egypt for his views. Saudi intermediaries failed to buy his silence but long limited his influence by preventing publication of his works in Arabic. He received death threats over antiterrorist comments after the September 11 attacks.


Now, as Muslim immigrants to America struggle to find their voice, no one is more outspoken than Abou El Fadl‚Äö driven by what he sees as a global crisis: the fight between “moderates” and “puritans” to determine who represents authentic Islam.


“Nothing less than the very soul of Islam” is at risk, says the 42-year-old Abou El Fadl, who is calling upon moderates to reverse their declining influence and reclaim bold leadership of the faith.


This is a “transformative moment,” he says. In his view, Islam is suffering a schism as dramatic as the 16th-century Protestant Reformation that split Christian Europe.


Two main movements claim to perpetuate true Islam, he says. On one side, the professor’s fellow moderates uphold centuries of Muslim teaching and the beliefs of an often-quiescent Muslim majority.


Their opponents, as he sees it, are puritans‚Äö he dislikes the “fundamentalist” and “Islamist” labels‚Äö who have won a remarkable following as they have preached religious extremism and, often, carried out acts of reprehensible violence in recent decades.


Eventually, one of these two rivals will achieve near-total commitment from the world’s more than 1 billion Muslims and “the power to define Islam” for the indefinite future‚Äö including attitudes toward terrorism, he predicts.


Abou El Fadl depicts the contest in his new book The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam from the Extremists (HarperSanFrancisco). It’s probably the most dramatic manifesto from an American Muslim since the September 11 attacks.


Reaching this point has been a complex, dangerous and sometimes lonely struggle for the author.


Abou El Fadl spent a decade in Egypt learning the intricacies of Islamic law, then received an Ivy League education in America (Yale bachelor’s, Penn law degree, Princeton doctorate)‚Äö a potent and rare combination. His library of tens of thousands of volumes has long since spilled from his home into the garage.


Yet as a teenager, he found the intense call of Muslim radicalism emotionally satisfying, a feeling that only dissipated as he studied Islamic legal traditions in earnest. At Yale he plunged into advocacy of democracy and human rights.


Abou El Fadl says he returned to Egypt in 1985 after winning a key undergraduate honor and expected a warm reception. Instead he was subjected to torture. “By the third day in there I was praying I would die,” he recalls.


His tormenters provided no explanation but indicated hostility to his liberal political ideas. It took him a month to recover, physically and emotionally, and it was years before he returned to Egypt again. The ordeal made him opt to become a US citizen, instead of working in Egypt.


The professor reports that Saudi intermediaries made three offers to buy his silence and that Saudi pressure prevented publication of his books in Arabic, an essential step for gaining any permanent impact in the Muslim world‚Äö though some of his writings and interviews are available in Arabic on the Internet. “I felt I probably would not have much use in my lifetime,”


because of the censorship, he says.


Yet some Arabic translations have finally appeared in the Middle East in the past two years, and he expects The Great Theft will eventually follow.


He was pleased by appreciative audiences last summer during talks in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.


A Christian expert, J. Dudley Woodberry of California’s Fuller Theological Seminary, says, “Muslims of good will are longing for someone to make a case for moderation.”


That makes Abou El Fadl “a star on the rise,” Woodberry adds.


“I hope he’s right. And for the West, he pretty much is.”


Muslims who join Abou El Fadl in advocating moderation include those associated with the Washington-based Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy and authors in the forthcoming anthology Islamic Democratic Discourse (Lexington).


In that volume, editor Muqtedar Khan of the University of Delaware will criticize Abou El Fadl as too traditional, because he favors application of shari’a (Islamic law) as interpreted by religious jurists. Though Abou El Fadl has a liberal interpretation of religious law and supports democracy, Khan says, on this point “he says what Islamists are saying.”


The moderate cause also is embraced in group pronouncements like one in July from 18 scholars of the Fiqh Council of North America.


They declared that “targeting civilians’ lives and property through suicide bombings or any other method of attack is haram‚Äö or forbidden under the Koran and Muslim law.



(Published in the Manila Times)

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