Reformer Khaled Abou El-Fadl, equally a product of traditional Islamic learning and the Ivy League, on the quest for knowledge in Islam, Islamophobia and whether oil is a weapon worth using
By Noha El-Hennawy
From halakat al ‘ilm (study circles) in Egyptian and Kuwaiti mosques to America’s top law schools, Khaled Abou El-Fadl undertook a long journey to establish himself as one of the Western world’s leading authorities in the field of Islamic legal and theological thought.
Counted among the Western world’s leading Muslim reformers, the jurist is a staunch advocate of a version of “humanistic Islam” whose underpinnings are tolerance and the achievement of the welfare of humanity.
Abou El-Fadl is currently a tenured professor at UCLA’s law school, where he teaches immigration, human rights, international and national security law. He previously taught Islamic law at a number of top US universities, including the University of Texas at Austin Law School, Yale Law School and Princeton University. In March, Abou El-Fadl was invited by the Department of Arabic Studies at the American University in Cairo to deliver public lectures on Islamophobia and on the premises of Shariah.
Born in Kuwait in 1963, where his father was working as a lawyer, Abou El-Fadl received his education though high school in the Gulf. At the same time, he began his training in Islamic jurisprudence under the supervision of Al-Azhar sheikhs whom he met during his visits to Egypt as well as a number who lived in the Gulf in the 1970s and 1980s. Through halakat al ‘ilm, the traditional format of mosque education, Abou El-Fadl explains that he was introduced to classic books on Islamic jurisprudence. No critical analysis of texts, however, was allowed.
“In the halakat, there is an emphasis on understanding a particular text, which is wonderful. And the emphasis is on the ability to regurgitate what is in the text, often memorize the text,” remembers Abou El-Fadl. “But we stop there in the sense that there is not really an emphasis on analytical or critical methodologies. We simply do not interrogate the text.”
In 1982, Abou El-Fadl moved to the United States to pursue his undergraduate studies, studying exclusively at the most respected Ivy League schools. He received his BA in political science from Yale in 1986, a JD from the University of Pennsylvania in 1989 and a PhD in Islamic Studies and Law from Princeton in 1999.
In America, Abou El-Fadl says he was introduced to a different learning methodology based on critical thinking rather that simple memorization, a challenge he found insurmountable back then. “It was a remarkable challenge to the point that — I remember — during my first year I seriously thought of dropping out and returning to Egypt,” he recalls.
The scholar maintains that to refine religious thought, there is a need to depart from the conventional religious discourse that “canonizes” the Islamic intellectual heritage and engage in a critical analysis of that heritage in light of contemporary circumstances.
The author of nine books, Abou El-Fadl writes on Islam as it relates to topics including extremism, tolerance, democracy and women’s rights, among others. Among his works are Conference of the Books: The Search for Beauty in Islam; The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam From the Extremists; And God Knows the Soldiers: The Authoritative and Authoritarian in Islamic Discourses; The Place of Tolerance in Islam; Speaking in God’s Name: Islamic law, Authority and Women; and Islam and the Challenge of Democracy.
Abu El-Fadl does not define Shariah as a set of legal rulings, but as “a process for the search for the establishment of divine attributes such as mercy, justice, kindness, et cetera, in human society.” As he sees it, if a Qur‘anic legal commandment ceases to achieve justice and the welfare of humanity, it can be suspended.
The jurist dismisses the belief common among Muslims that Islam revolves around the strict observation of rituals and the rigid implementation of certain legal rulings, calling that approach a form of reductionism.
“[Religion] is no longer in the heart of justice or the struggle [for] human dignity. Religion becomes detached from humanism. Those who make religion anything other than humanism, those who make religion about rituals, in effect, they secularize religion because they marginalize it and make it unimportant to what actually matters for human beings,” he asserts.
It’s a philosophy he tries to apply in his own life, saying, “For me, I pray, I fast, I do not drink alcohol [but] I do not believe I am a good Muslim simply because I pray I believe I am a good Muslim because I help other human beings.”
A former member of the board of directors of Human Rights Watch, Abou El-Fadl is known for his advocacy of human and women’s rights. He is also a staunch opponent of puritanical Islamist movements and Saudi Wahhabism. Unlike many Muslim reformers, however, Abou El-Fadl does not vehemently object to peaceful Islamist movements that seek to establish “Islamic governments” in the Muslim world.
“I think it all depends on how [Islamists] understand their relationship to speaking in God’s name,” he explains. “If they believe as a government that they represent Allah, you will have all kinds of problems. If they understand that they do not represent Allah, but are charged with the obligation of creating conditions of justice and liberty so people are free to pursue Allah if they wish, then we can have an Islamic government.”
In 2003, Abou El-Fadl became the only Muslim on the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, a body charged with monitoring the status of “freedom of thought, conscience and religion or belief” outside the United States and to provide the president, secretary of state and Congress with independent policy recommendations.
Although appointed by President George W. Bush to a two-year term that ended in May 2005, Abou El-Fadl believes he was “deadwood” on the commission. “This commission that is supposed to be an example of religious freedom became an example of exactly what is wrong with our world today [in terms of] the degree of religious bigotry and prejudice,” Abou El-Fadl claims.
“Most of those who are appointed to the commission — not all, but most — are fanatic extremist Christians or Jews. I attempted to have a discourse with them, but it was impossible. They are convinced that the Copts are oppressed in Egypt. At the same time, you come to say, ‘Are Muslim Israeli citizens oppressed in Israel? How about Muslims in the Philippines? How about Chechnya?’ and they refuse to discuss it,” he says.
Abou El-Fadl contends that the United States is witnessing a resurrection of religiously fanatic notions that date back to the time of the Crusades.
“We go back to very much the thought of the Crusades, that there is a world of Christendom and then the rest. The good guys hailed from Christendom, while the bad guys were from the rest,” he says. “We have returned to this construct that the good guys can do no wrong, so they can have secret detention centers, they can have Guantanamo [Bay prison], do extrajudicial killings and it cannot be wrong, while the bad guys, who include everyone that opposes the good guys, they are by nature bad.”
Abou El-Fadl, who holds US citizenship, frequently provides expert testimony on issues related to US national security and counterterrorism efforts. He maintains that he fulfills this advisory role with “complete dedication” as he believes that terror is the “biggest enemy [of Muslims].”
As he sees it, the 9/11 attacks were “a gift on a silver platter” to Islamophobes in the United States. “Islamophobia with all its attachments had always existed. But the US in particular developed a culture of political correctness, meaning that in your public discourse you should not display prejudice against a religion, race, sex, or gender. This sense of political correctness kept the Islamophobes quiet, they piped down,” he says.
“9/11 came and changed this whole equation,” Abou El-Fadl continues. “First, the American people were willing to forget about political correctness, especially when it came to Islam and Muslims, and second, the door became open now for the public appointment and embracing of the neo-cons in positions of power, something that the American people would have resisted very much before 9/11.”
How can Muslims counter Islamophobia if it’s that prevalent in the West? As Abou El-Fadl sees it, there are two possible answers. “There is one way, and that is to convince the religious fanatic to accept the possibility that he is wrong and the other is right. But how do you get the religious fanatic to accept that possibility? You either persuade them through reason or you persuade him through a shift in the balance of power.”
Abou El-Fadl believes a shift in the balance of power can be achieved if the Gulf countries use oil as weapon to pressure Americans to change their perception of the Muslim world.
“Imagine if Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf countries, instead of basically telling the US administration, ‘You just tell us how we can please you,’ actually exerted some pressure through the use of oil. A shift in the balance of power makes the religious fanatic willing to take you seriously, listen to you and accept the possibility that the world is not as he sees it. This is the honest talk, away from rhetoric.”
Although pressure is the most effective means of countering religious fanaticism, dialogue is still an option, says Abou El-Fadl. “Can we do it through rational argument? That is harder and takes longer, but it is possible,” he suggests. “If there were a greater number of Muslims who have a more sophisticated understanding of the US, the West, the US history, if there were more Muslims in positions that are critical in influencing policy and ideology and formation in the West, we [could] start changing this [trend].”
Despite the prejudice against Muslims that he finds predominant in the US, Abou El-Fadl still says it is the best place for people like him to produce novel Islamic knowledge and to challenge dogma freely.
“The reason people like me live in the West is because there is more Islam in the West than in our countries,” the jurist contends. “I have a greater amount of space, safety and security to do that in the West. If the atmosphere was available here to do this, I would come and contribute to the intellectual life of Muslim countries.”
In Egypt, intellectuals who come up with unconventional ideas about faith are usually dismissed as apostates, and in some cases, the courts have ordered those intellectuals to divorce their Muslim spouses in so-called hesbah suits.
“I am afraid that if I start saying certain ideas [in my own society], I’ll find myself accused of heresy or atheism,” Abou El-Fadl says. Unfortunately, he adds, “the chances that my dignity would be preserved are higher in the West.” et