Two years later, religious conflicts still stand out 10:30 PM CDT on Monday, September 1, 2003 By WILLIAM McKENZIE / The Dallas Morning News

Two years after Sept. 11, 2001, where are Jews, Christians and Muslims in talking to each other about their values? Similarly, where are Muslims with their debates between those Muslims who want to integrate with larger cultures and those who want to separate from them?

Those questions are relevant because religious conflict was at the heart of 9-11. And it remains a potent force in skirmishes in Iraq, Afghanistan, Malaysia and the Middle East.

I recently turned to Khaled Abou El Fadl for answers. The University of California at Los Angeles law professor is a well-known Islamic jurist who spoke out forcefully against Islamic radicalism after 9-11. (Enough to draw death threats, he says.) President Bush recently appointed him to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. And he talks regularly to audiences about the challenges of life after 9-11.

He seemed a natural to discuss these issues. I called him last week, and he had these views:

About the three Abrahamic faiths, he believes Muslims, Jews and Christians could have had the beginnings of an interreligion conversation. But that didn't happen after Sept. 11.

He points to the boomlet in anti-Islamic literature as the primary deterrent. Attempts to interpret Islam after 9-11 basically "demonize" the faith, he laments. They "make you believe all Muslims are likely to commit murder."

Instead of Christians, Jews, Muslims and most everyone else seeing Osama bin Laden as a common enemy, Islam's self-appointed interpreters made him out to typify Muslims. That skewed interpretation, he rightly notes, conveniently overlooks that al-Qaeda has killed Muslims as well as Jews and Christians. Maybe more.

"We are not better off since 9-11 in terms of interreligion dialogue," the 39-year-old Muslim concludes. "People want to hear about al-Qaeda and radical fundamentalism, not discuss how all religions or ideologies can turn violent."

His conclusion may be overblown, since exchanges among these faiths go on at different levels. To cite one example, scholars from different backgrounds debate religion post-9-11 in the current Journal of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.

Still, Mr. Abou El Fadl finishes with a warning we all should think about: "Every non-Muslim group that closes the door on dialogue creates a world that Osama bin Laden dreams about," he says. And Muslims are equally culpable. They can't say, "Don't bother us."

About the dialogue within his own faith, he says Muslims have yet to develop "an introspective, self-critical insight."

Yes, Muslims who want to integrate with cultures around them are dominant, he says. They are more prevalent than Muslim separatists. And they are waking up to the threat that radicals bring to their own faith.

But he worries that Muslims in the West carry too much of their past with them. Most grew up in authoritarian cultures, says Mr. Abou El Fadl, who spent his youth in Egypt and Kuwait. Involvement meant trouble back home. (Iraqi Shiites naturally drew that conclusion under Saddam Hussein.)

Muslims who believe in integration need to learn to speak out, he suggests. "Integrationists have got to send the message [to Islamic extremists] that you don't represent us, we will marginalize you, and you are not consistent with the teachings of Islam."

He hopes the experience of "living within the U.S. will change that paradigm." From my perspective, that's one reason the United States should think twice about closing the door to immigrants from Muslim nations. They could apply the lessons of freedom to their own faiths and cultures.

In doing so, modern Muslims could save their own faith. Protestant churchmen like Dietrich Bonhoeffer attempted to keep Nazism from co-opting Christianity. But they were too late by the late 1930s. Nazis were well on their way to hijacking Christianity for their own purposes. Muslims who want to live within the larger world should remember that tragic lesson. It takes more than a Khaled Abou El Fadl speaking out. It takes many voices. Doing nothing isn't an option. We already have learned that lesson.

William McKenzie is an editorial columnist for The Dallas Morning News. His e-mail address is wmckenzie@dallasnews.com.

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