February 27, 2003
In Search of Moderate Muslims
Khaled Abou El Fadl, a professor of Islamic law at UCLA, estimates that two years ago he received between 30 and 40 requests from around the country to participate in interfaith dialogues between Jews and Muslims.
Last year he received just one.
"They just vanished," he said during an interview. "Such invitations are a barometer of the level of dialogue, though my experience may not be representative because of my own idiosyncrasies."
The "idiosyncrasies" to which he was referring, if a bit obliquely, center on the strong reactions to his urging fellow Muslims to speak out against the radical elements of Islam that he maintains have gained controlling influence through the "puritanical" form of the religion promoted by Saudi Arabia.
El Fadl, 39, who was raised in Kuwait and Egypt, has been writing critically of fundamentalist Islam for years in scholarly articles and books, most recently "The Place of Tolerance in Islam" (Beacon Press, 2002). But he gained international attention -- and a flurry of death threats -- after publishing an Op-Ed article in the Los Angeles Times three days after the Sept. 11 attacks in which he asserted that the suicide missions were not a deviation from mainstream Islam, but rather the result of an "ethically oblivious form" of the religion that "has predominated since the 1970s."
Such opinions have garnered admiration for El Fadl in some quarters of the Jewish community, where he is praised for intellectual honesty and bravery. Others, though, are far more skeptical.
Daniel Pipes, for example, an expert on Islam and editor of the Middle East Forum, said El Fadl "has succeeded in fooling influential individuals that he is a moderate American Muslim intellectual" when he is, according to Pipes, "just another Muslim extremist."
Closer to home, Feisal Abdul Rauf, the imam (religious leader) of a local mosque only 12 blocks from the site of the World Trade Center, has been involved in interfaith dialogue for years here and an advocate of integrating Islam with modern society.
Rabbi Michael Paley, executive director of synagogue and community affairs of UJA-Federation of New York, believes Abdul Rauf is a positive force for moderation and a partner for dialogue. But officials of the American Jewish Committee (AJCommittee) are skeptical, asserting that several post-Sept.11 comments the imam made were problematic.
Understanding Them and Us
What started out as a simple question in my mind -- are there any moderate Muslim leaders in this country with whom we can dialogue? -- has turned into a more complex exploration. That's because it speaks not only to the ideology, politics and inner workings of the Muslim community, but to our own understanding and expectations of that community -- and of ourselves.
My limited research has found that there are only a few leading Muslim clerics or intellectuals who have spoken out forcefully and unequivocally against terrorism, like suicide bombings -- a baseline commitment for the Jewish community -- and who are willing to engage in serious dialogue with Jews.
Most acceptable to the Jewish community is Sheik Muhammad Hisham Kabbani of the Islamic Supreme Council of America, based in Detroit and Washington, D.C., an exemplar of tolerance who has spoken out forcefully against all forms of terrorism and in favor of a negotiated settlement in the Middle East. But he is marginalized by many Arab Muslims and has credibility problems in that community, not unlike the way Noam Chomsky, the Jewish MIT professor and advocate for the Palestinian cause, is perceived by mainstream Jews.
Large Muslim groups like the Council on American Islamic Relations and the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) are viewed as seeking to undermine American support for Israel, accusing the Jewish State of human rights abuses and atrocities.
Somewhere in between are people like El Fadl, criticized by some in the Jewish community for not speaking out more forcefully, but praised by others, particularly those who know him.
Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, director of Hillel 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 said El Fadl is "heroic" because he is willing to criticize Islam from within.
"My belief is that our community needs to hear from Muslims," 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."
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."
The rabbi said he is worried about the direction he sees Muslims students taking on college campuses and stresses the importance of dialogue, because "we need simply to establish human contact. We need to start somewhere."
El Fadl said much the same as to why he believes in dialogue. "Without it, we end up inventing each other," he said, "and each other's image. Engaging in the human interaction slows down the tendency to see each other in convenient packages. If we stop the dialogue, we just pat ourselves on the back and go on happily."
Dialogue, he said, makes each party accountable to the other.
El Fadl was criticized strongly in his community, he said, "for speaking sympathetically of a rabbi" in another Los Angeles Times opinion piece. El Fadl wrote that a rabbi friend had offered him and his family sanctuary after the death threats came.
Prior to the latest round of Mideast violence, he said he was optimistic that Muslims and Jews might "reach some equilibrium in the West." But, after Sept. 11, "the hope has vanished. We are bad examples for reconciliation," he said.
His primary focus, though, has been to criticize the kind of Islamic fundamentalism that has gained acceptance in the Muslim world.
"It is sad to note that [Osama] bin Laden has in fact won in shaping and shifting the discourse," El Fadl said.
Alliance or Deception?
Soon after Sept. 11, El Fadl wrote that "[American] Muslim leadership has failed, and it has blamed everyone but itself for this failure." He called on major Muslim organizations and intellectuals to draft and sign a statement "unequivocally condemning terrorism" in "the harshest language possible."
Such outspoken views have caused El Fadl to be persona non grata among many Muslims, and others, here and abroad. His car was trashed, his house staked and the FBI and UCLA have taken precautions to protect him. Does he feel in danger?
"I have to do what I have to do," he said, noting that "this is a defining moment in the history of Islam. Either it will be a player in the legacy of humanity or it will be a strange marginality, an oddity."
What will make the difference, El Fadl said, is "if there are more of those willing to martyr themselves for beauty and morality than there are those willing to blow themselves up in horrible, ugly, unbelievably disgusting ways, like at bar mitzvahs. Unless there are [more people to make sacrifices for truth], I fear for the fate of Islam."
Some in the Jewish community are not swayed by such seemingly heartfelt declarations. One critic, Pipes, bases his belief on the fact that for many years El Fadl published articles in The Minaret, a journal published by the MPAC, a leading organization that opposed the Oslo peace process.
Pipes said El Fadl also contributed to the Holy Land Foundation, which the United States closed down last year because it raised money for Hamas, an anti-Israel terrorist group in the Mideast.
Similarly, Yehudit Barsky, director of the division of Middle East and international terrorism for the AJCommittee, 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.
"You can't be all things to all people," Barsky said.
Further, she noted that the AJCommittee was "burned badly" a few years ago by MPAC. The group participated in public dialogue conferences with the committee, "but after Oslo it was opposed to the negotiations and referred to Israel as 'the Zionist entity,'" Barsky recalled.
El Fadl said he published in The Minaret for many years because he "wanted to reach a Muslim audience and it was the only Muslim publication willing to publish my writings [including criticism of Islamic fundamentalism]," he said. "But as my writing became more influential, they banished me."
The board of the magazine banned El Fadl in July. They claim the issue was quality, but El Fadl said that is "absurd," and noted that the decision came just after his high-profile writings against Muslim leaders and policy, particularly in response to the Sept. 11 attacks.
"Was it ideal that I published in The Minaret?" El Fadl asked. "No. But do I regret it? No. I had no other means of reaching that audience."
He said that while he does not recall contributing funds to the Holy Land Foundation, he has no apologies about giving to organizations that aid Palestinians or other refugees -- "just as Jews do for Israel, which I respect." He said he would never support groups that "use funds to kill innocent civilians," adding that critics of dialogue in the Jewish community "assume Muslims are committed to the destruction of Israel," thus giving the critics the rationale to take hard-line positions.
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 "tzitzit 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."
"The point is to talk to him, not 'out' him," Wieseltier insisted.
So the debate continues, speaking to the heart of the goals of dialogue. Must it lead to trust and a common direction, or is it sufficient to better understand the other?
Each side here is wary of being used, of losing credibility in one's own community by taking steps toward one's adversary. But 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. Â
Gary Rosenblatt is editor and publisher of The New York Jewish Week, where this article originally appeared.