"Past year has been difficult for American Muslims," Dallas Morning News Op Ed, 9/8/02

By KHALED ABOU EL FADL

A year after the fact and as an American Muslim, I haven't found it any easier to think or deal with Sept. 11. The horrific acts of that day were the type of absolute evil that required a truly self-critical stance from all concerned and a willingness to undergo a moral and political transformation. But since Sept. 11, much hasn't changed or even has changed for the worse. As a result, we remain mired in the same morally problematic conditions that existed a year ago.

As a Muslim, I have to confess that it still is very difficult to come to terms with the fact that this extreme ugliness was perpetrated in Islam's name. Unfortunately, in my view, Islam remains unduly influenced by puritan absolutists, who care little for moral humanitarian values, or by activist propagandists, who aren't in the habit of engaging in self-critical and reflective insights and who have played a largely apologetic role since the tragedy. Although there have been several brave and introspective Muslim voices in the aftermath of Sept. 11, the challenges still are quite significant.

In Muslim countries, it is business as usual. Despotic governments are locked in a polarizing and radicalizing battle with Islamist organizations, without much improvement in civil liberties or human rights. The net result has been that any moderate or rational voice in Muslim countries is quickly drowned out by the cycle of repression and violence.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia, the motherland of puritan Wahhabi Islam, has undertaken a renewed public-relations campaign in the West. Saudi Arabia has managed to equate any criticism directed at its brand of Islam with a betrayal of the Arab, and particularly Palestinian, cause. Therefore, many of the Muslim voices that were heard criticizing Wahhabism immediately after Sept. 11 now have fallen silent.

In the West and especially in the United States, Muslims have failed to convince the public of their aversion and rejection of the bin Ladens of the world. There are many reasons for that: the newness of the Muslim immigrant community and its lack of experience in utilizing venues of public discourse; the fact that this immigrant community remains concerned with securing itself financially and preserving an insular existence, which helps it maintain its distinctive cultural identity; and the community's tendency to protect itself by refusing to put out its dirty laundry, so to speak, in fear that bigots will exploit any honest discourse for hateful purposes.

But the most difficult challenge confronting Muslims in the West, especially in the United States, continues to be their leadership. The American Muslim leadership is made up of recent immigrants with very limited familiarity with the language and culture of their adopted homes.

Most of the leaders are individuals who have been trained in the physical sciences, such as engineering or medicine, but have had a very limited education in the humanities or social sciences. Even more, the vast majority haven't had even a basic education in Islamic law or theology, and consequently, they tend to adopt a starkly politicized approach to most issues an approach that isn't anchored in Islamic ethics and morality.

Their primary focus has been on propagandizing to the non-Muslim media. There has been little interest in developing civil institutions of learning or in nurturing a critical and sophisticated Muslim public discourse. In fact, there have been a considerable number of incidents in which critical and original voices that emerged from within the Muslim community in the United States have been marginalized by means that are less than admirable.

This leadership hasn't changed or evolved in at least the past 20 years. Therefore, the individuals who spoke on behalf of the Muslim community 20 years ago are the same who do so now, and they have been repeating the same tedious rhetoric without incorporating new voices or even new thought. Significantly, this leadership has been able to play this role for the past two decades largely because of its ability to obtain overseas funding and because of the relative apathy of younger generations of Muslims.

As a practical matter, that has meant that since Sept. 11, there has been a noticeable void in the Muslim voice in the United States and Europe, and the absence of a strong and resounding Muslim voice has further aggravated the problems that the Muslim community confronts. One of those problems has been the virtual flood of hateful books, articles and TV programs.

These works have gone so far as to attack the religion of Islam itself and its whole moral legacy, as well as its prophet. Some writers even have tended to represent Islamic theology as an inherently dangerous creed and Muslims as ticking bombs ready to explode at any time. The works have reached most Muslim countries, and puritans cite them as evidence of the West's ill will toward Islam.

Not only do such books, articles and programs contribute to the further polarization and radicalization of the world, they also contribute to ignorance and hate. And after the tragic year we have gone through, shouldn't we have realized that ignorance and hate are the two ailments that ultimately were responsible for the evil of Sept. 11?

Khaled Abou El Fadl teaches law and Islamic law at the UCLA School of Law.

Online at: http://www.dallasnews.com/opinion/viewpoints/stories/090802dnediabouelfadl.93cf0.html

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