The Great Theft
A moderate Muslim's struggle
to wrestle Islam from the extremists.
October 18, 2005
In his new book, The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam from the Extremists, Dr. Khaled Abou El Fadl explores the poorly-understood divide between what he calls the moderate and puritan strains of Islam in the world today. The former, he says, is a religion of mercy; the latter an unbending ideology with dire consequences for nations struggling with post-colonial identities and living under oppressive regimes. Abou El Fadl calls on Muslims to join in a counter-jihad against sects such as Wahhabism, a radical branch of Islam that has influenced the Taliban and al-Qaeda. He seeks, for instance, to liberate the word jihad—which has classically meant a spiritual struggle to serve God—from its narrow use by terrorists and politicians to connote a holy war against non-Muslims.
Abou El Fadl’s efforts to reclaim the tolerant foundations of Islam that have been erased by Wahhabi evangelicalism are of concern not only to Muslims seeking to reclaim the roots of their religion but also to non-Muslims. Though he seeks to cultivate moderate Islam among Muslims, who, he says, are "woefully ignorant about their own faith," non-Muslims are also meant to benefit from his jihad against Islamic extremism. Too many misconceptions about Islam continue to plague Western policy—from Europe's apprehensions about letting Turkey, a majority-Muslim country, join the EU to President Bush's various pronouncements on radical Islam.
Dr. Abou El Fadl, a professor of law at the University of California-Los Angeles, recently spoke with Mother Jones about the battle over the future of Islam and its role in the world.
Mother Jones: In your book, you write about a growing divide between moderate and puritan Muslims as a profoundly important event in Islam, as important as the Reformation was for Christianity. When did this historic transformation begin, and what are its causes?
Khaled Abou El Fadl: First, the Islamic nation—like all religions—has confronted extremist movements in the past. The mainstream institutions of Islam have usually been powerful enough that, although the extremists were able to inflict considerable mayhem at the time, eventually they were marginalized and became a historical memory.
But the current crisis that you're talking about has its genesis in a profoundly chaotic and traumatic era when the traditional institutions of Islam were crumbling in the wake of colonialism, and during which many of the traditional institutions of Islam were being challenged by the new reality of nation-states. At that time an intelligentsia emerged that was secular and educated in the West, but who did not have democratic ideals. So you have a new ruling class in the Islamic world that brings the worst the West has to offer, while putting off the best the West has to offer—humanitarian and democratic values—as inappropriate for Islamic societies.
Now after World War I, Britain and France signed the Sykes-Picot Agreement to ensure that a Muslim empire did not arise again in the Middle East by dividing up Muslim countries in such a way as to create numerous tensions and ensure that there will be enormous ethic and social conflicts. And as Muslims were trying to figure out their own destiny, to decide whether secularism was good or bad, they were often struggling with really vicious military regimes—like Syria and Egypt—that were not just secular, but anti-religious.
But the really important factor [contributing to the rise of the current crisis] was the Al-Saud family. With British help, the family seized control of Arabia and transformed it, from a territory of holy sites shared by Muslims around the world, into a militia state, where they have an exclusive and hegemonic domain. Seeing that there was a vacuum in religious authority in the former institutions of Islam, the Al Sauds created a marriage of convenience with the Wahhabis. They decided "We don’t want other people challenging our monopoly over the area of Najd, the area of the holy sites, so we are going to aggressively attempt to Wahhabize the rest of the Muslims." In the 1970s, when it was most pronounced, the Al Sauds began a very aggressive evangelist orientation to redefine Islam according to Wahhabi parameters; in other words, according to the new puritanical, literalist orientation and to de-legitimate every other orientation.
MJ: Is puritanical Islam on the rise for other reasons since the 1970s?
AEF: Sure. People in the United States don't like to hear it, but puritanical Islam has been on the rise because of our unequivocal policy of absolute support for Israel, regardless of what Israel does—even if they invade Lebanon and bombard a major city like Beirut, full of civilians. Israel has, by conservative estimates, 40 atomic bombs, but we go nuts if any Arab country or Iran develops even nuclear capabilities. In addition, the American obliviousness towards the suffering of Palestinians refugees plays a major part in radicalizing people. And we are fanning the flames of puritanism.
And also, a very prominent part, is the highly authoritarian, despotic governments, often secular—for example Syria, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria. In all these governments, we have a policy of "if you're friends with Israel, then you're our friends." But these highly authoritarian governments add to the element of sheer frustration among Muslims, and living with that sort of fear day in and day out makes people insane. And torture is literally, in a very real sense, a factory for extremism.
Finally, there's the amazing disparity of wealth. Egypt is second in the world in terms of Mercedes Benz ownership—this is a country where 1 percent of the population enjoys 90 percent of the wealth of the country. There is an amazing, shocking disparity of wealth in the case of Saudi Arabia because of the monopolization of resources in the country; in the case of Egypt because the elite opens the doors for American businesses. Or, there is sheer corruption, as in the case of Syria.
MJ: You yourself were a victim of torture in Egypt. Would you talk a little bit about what happened?
AEF: In my case, I had become well-known for my advocacy in the United States for democracy, and had become active for a few human rights organizations. I published some articles that were very critical of the military being involved with politics in the Middle East, called "When the Military Rules." The basic idea was that when the military governs, civil society is destroyed. And I also wrote another article called "the Myth of the Just Despots" saying that there is no such thing. If you're despotic, by definition you're unjust.
[The Egyptian regime] didn't want any specific information from me. It was just simply to destroy me as a human being. The reason we talk about 'survivors' of torture is that it really destroys a human being. If you manage to survive, it's a miracle. And it has the effect of producing extremism. Everyone who cared about the individual is destroyed because the family and friends see what used to be a lively, vibrant human being, but now is just a shell. And that has a remarkably powerful effect of producing extremists. In some rare situations, one survives the experience and develops an empathy with any human being who suffers.
The net result of this experience is that I am thoroughly convinced that no human being deserves to be treated in this fashion—I don't care where they're from or what their truth is. If you tell me, this human being cursed God or urinated on the Koran—the most offensive act you can imagine for a Muslim—and ask, can we torture them? My answer is: it is fundamentally inconsistent with all Muslims of religiosity and divinity to take away the dignity of a human being through infliction of intentional pain. And that is why when I hear about what our forces are doing in Iraq or Guantanamo, I can't believe the level of dismay and depression that I feel, partly because I know we are constructing our own enemies.
MJ: Can Islam be "wrestled from the extremists"?
AEF: Absolutely. It's mentioned in the Koran and also in other holy books that God does not change what is in people until they change themselves. The extremists are an extreme minority in numbers, but are able to create acts which get a lot of attention.
In the book, I call for a counter-jihad. "Jihad" doesn't only mean a holy war against non-Muslims. Extremists are willing to sacrifice life and everything to achieve what, I believe, are very evil causes that destroy everything that the Islamic religion stands for. The side that's willing to sacrifice more is ultimately the side that wins. If the moderates had an attitude of "You think what you do is jihad? Well, I know that jihad is not a jihad unless it is linked to a moral cause; and the moral cause is to prevent you from corrupting my religion." If you allow that to fire you up, in the sense of religious power and zeal, then sure, extremism can be defeated.
MJ: In your book, you write about "harkening back to tradition" as a way to move forward toward liberal values in Islam. How can average Muslims differentiate between two Islamic traditions that each claim authenticity, when they are not themselves intimately familiar with the expansive body of texts that compose Islamic law—which you yourself say provide the guidance needed to fully understand Islam?
AEF: That's a very good question. Basically, not everyone can be an expert in Islamic law. But the mining of the tradition to support humanitarian values is the type of tedious theological work that needs to be there as the reference source providing legitimacy across the decades and centuries. But you know, how many Christians have read the Summa of Thomas Aquinas? How many Jews have actually read the work of Martin Buber or even Maimonidies? But it is the existence of these purely thought-out theological theories that provide material for those individuals who go out and engage the laity.
Now, someone like me cannot go out and engage the laity; I can't give a straight and simple answer to anything—as you've noticed—that's the way my mind works. But there are people who can study the theology and can reduce it to fundamental core values that appeal to Muslims. Now, I believe that if the effort is made to constantly engage the mainstream and, importantly, if moderates are willing to put their money where their mouth is—providing aid for those who do a lot of this counter-jihad work—then extremism can be discredited, de-legitimated, and exposed for the corruption that it is. That has happened in Islamic history several times. And eventually it will be marginalized.
MJ: What are some of the obstacles to this happening?
Unfortunately, a lot of people just think, "What's the big deal? They're Muslims too, rather strict but what's the harm?" That attitude has to change. That sort of wimpy, soft, justifying attitude must end. Also a problem is the attitude that what Muslims need the most today is unity. It's an idiotic idea: unity over what—unity over evil? Unity over what: treating a woman like garbage? No, I'm sorry, please first define what we are unifying over and then we can talk.
Just before you got here I got a call from a woman—and this is so typical: She married a guy who is remarkably abusive. They're both Muslim, so she has gone around to imams seeking their help. But imam after imam doesn't want to be involved. She contacted me because she knows that I will stand by her despite the slander I hear about "he goes to the courts of non-Muslims", "he empowers women against their husbands," "he disunites Muslims." I don't care about all this crap. Why? I read the Koran, and the Koran says very clearly one should stand by justice even if is against your family, your friends, your tribe, or even if it is against yourself. And the meaning of justice is compassion and mercy. The woman I am talking about is suffering; this dictates that I stand by her and leave politics to the politicians. What has often corrupted us is when we put politics ahead of morals and principles.
MJ: Are moderate Muslims getting enough support from the West?
Let me tell you another story—it simplifies so much. Saudi Arabia recently signed a deal with England for $43 billion worth of arms. The arms deal had two conditions: first, that England stops an ongoing investigation of some members of the [Saudi] royal family on corruption charges; second, that England desists from offering asylum to two well-known Saudi moderate dissidents. Now, England is supposed to expel these two very well-known Saudi moderate dissidents. If they can't find another country that is willing to offer them asylum, they must be turned over to Saudi Arabia, where you and I know what's going to happen to them. They're going to be tortured and then killed.
Now, if you reflect just on this one incident, it speaks volumes about what is wrong. These are two Muslims who put their lives, the lives of their families, and very courageously stood up to the evil. When Bush talks about the axis of evil he never mentions Saudi Arabia. If he was being honest, he would. Muslim individuals who espouse democratic and human rights ideals find themselves, for money, betrayed by a country that is supposed to stand for the old ideals of democracy, etc. Now, the whole Muslim world has heard about this deal two weeks ago. Saudi Arabia tried to keep it secret, but it was leaked to al-Jazeera and they did whole documentary investigation on it.
It puts moderates in a position to ask "Who are out friends? Who are our supporters in this world?" The United States practices torture and brought in people like Alan Dershowitz to try to theoretically justify torture as acceptable. England is throwing principles and ideals out in order to receive money. All this rhetoric that you hear about the West supporting human values: is any of it true or does it all just fall into serving political ends?
MJ: Earlier this month, President Bush discussed radical Islam, noting that "some call this evil Islamic radicalism; others, militant Jihadism; still others, Islamo-fascism." How accurate do you find the Bush Administration's understating of Islam?
AEF: It's all very loose talk. Often I feel the influence of the paradigm from Samuel Huntington's Clash of Civilizations at work in the Bush administration. For those who are familiar with extremists, talking as he did about an empire that goes from Spain to Indonesia is a hallucination. The center of extremism is Saudi Arabia—which Bush leaves out of all equations. I can understand that we are after these individuals who commit acts of terrorism, fine. But, when we start saying we're at war with "Islamic fascism," we're using such loose categories that it is easy to slip into a war with Islam itself. Basically, we need to define what is and is not acceptable. What's really scary is that the type of talk that I heard in the last speech is the same talk I've read in the works of these Islamophobes, career Islam haters, anti-Arab Semites, who use expressions like Bush used.
Extremists keep selling the idea that Muslims are dealing with a modern-day crusade—that Bush and his administration are basically Christian fanatics who hate Islam. You put all the pieces together: Guantanamo torture, betrayal of moderates, the creation of a very vague enemy that could be anyone and anything and anybody, sending [former al-Jazeera television correspondent, Taysir] Alouni to prison in Spain. The extremists start weaving all these little bits together and create a recruiting manual that attracts an overflow of volunteers. This is a time when we need rational heads, and very wise, balanced policies, not adolescent-type behavior that adds fuel to the fire.
MJ: The recent draft of the Iraqi constitution was based, in part, on Islamic law. Does basing a country’s constitution on religion come into conflict with its role in preserving human rights and civil liberties?
AEF: No. It largely depends on how you interpret religion. For instance, the Christian Democratic Party in Germany clearly says that all democracy is based on Christian values; and in Israel, there are parties that clearly base themselves the culture and heritage of not just the Torah, but also Talmud traditions. The critical question is how a religious tradition is interpreted. Is it interpreted in ways that are pro-human rights or in ways that are a throwback to the Dark Ages?
MJ: Can Islam and democracy co-exist?
AEF: In my view, yes. But if people are going to say "God is the sovereign and I rule in the name of God," then that’s another thing. If human beings pretend to be God, then forget about democracy. If they understand that no human being can represent God, then sure. I’ve written a book entitled Islam: the Challenges of Democracy, because it is a challenge. It requires careful interpretation of the Islamic tradition and Islamic theology, and there’s a lot in there that would support democratic ideals.
MJ: What about Islam and feminism?
AEF: Islamic tradition is full of examples of that support the autonomy of women and the empowerment of women. Very few people know that in Islamic history there have been well over two thousand women jurists. Think about that: at a time when it was inconceivable to have a woman rabbi or a woman scholar of Christian theology or canon law, the Islamic civilization boasted hundreds of women who were authorities in Islamic law and Islamic theology and that taught some of the most famous male jurists and left behind a remarkable corpus of writings. Wahhabism goes and takes elements from that Islamic tradition that are most oppressive of women, and highlights and enlarges them and makes them the whole of Islam. In my view, that’s a clear corruption of the Islamic tradition.
MJ: Do you think the invasion and war in Iraq are radicalizing Iraqis?
AEF: Definitely, yes. Sadly, Iraq has become a hotbed of extremism. And for those who know Iraq, it is remarkably sad because Iraq had a very strong tradition of moderate dissidents against Saddam Hussein, and the voices of these moderates are becoming increasingly silenced in the process of radicalization.
MJ: Do you see Austria’s recent effort to limit Turkey’s status to that of a privileged partner of the EU, and deny full-membership, as a sign of underlying misconceptions about Islam?
AEF: That was a remarkable disappointment. It’s very interesting because Europe—particularly England—was the one that so thoroughly dismantled the idea of an Islamic nation as fundamentally illegitimate in itself. Does the idea of Europe creating a Christian union and seeing an Islamic country as a problem feed into the cause of extremists? You bet. Does it dishearten and demoralize moderates? You bet.
Melanie Colburn is an editorial intern at Mother Jones.