Abou El Fadl is professor of law, an authority on Islamic jurisprudence and the author of “The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam From the Extremists.”
This opinion piece was first published in UCLA Today. It is based on Abou El Fadl's book and a lecture he delivered on campus Nov. 17, 2005.
By Khaled Abou El Fadl
Part of the challenge that both Muslims and non-Muslims confront is to
develop a coherent way of speaking about the differences between what
intuitively know to be the mainstream of Islam and another form of
that shocks and disturbs a lot of people.
If what we call radical/extremist/fundamentalist Islam were the Islam
more than a billion people believe in and adhere to, its actions would
create controversy because that would be the normal, day-to-day
Part of the reason why we notice Osama Bin Laden or the Taliban or many
the decrees and actions that take place in Saudi Arabia is that,
they often pose examples of cruelty and inhumanity, they are neither
representations of the Islamic mainstream nor the average lived
Upon the occurrence of a particularly shocking event like 9/11, a lot
mainstream Muslims, especially imams of mosques and the directors of
centers in the West, understandably tend to say that terrorists or
extremists are not real Muslims, and therefore do not represent Islam
all. These proclamations are, at best, defensive and apologetic. At
they repeat the very act we condemn — declaring some “other” as outside
faith, an infidel of sorts.
There is no question that a theology does lie behind that “other” — the
Islam that captures the media’s attention. Yet if a theological
supports the radicals, what is the theology of the other side — the
of moderate Islam?
Sometimes the most peculiar activists or writers are presented as the
of moderate Islam. Some commentators, acting out of political
have attempted to describe people who identify themselves as atheists
people who see nothing remotely beautiful or moral about the Islamic
experience as genuine and moderate Muslims.
If these are the moderates, are those Muslims who practice their faith
praying and fasting and giving alms — those who think they belong to a
wonderful religion — extremists?
In short, we are plagued by a line of discourse that is not just
charged and ideologically motivated, but utterly chaotic — a discourse
claims that the Islamic faith is a radicalizing ideology. According to
view, there is no way one can be a faithful and proud Muslim as well as
In fact, some have even proposed a “sleeping cell theory” — that
could be radical without realizing it: Anyone who is religiously
to Islam is a sort of ticking radical bomb bound to go off sooner or
instantly transforming an average Muslim who appears harmless into a
If we wish to stop adding to this mess by alienating Muslims, by
bigoted and hateful, by pushing many young Muslims into the arms of
extremists and terrorists, by appearing remarkably ignorant and
uninterested in knowing anything real about Muslims, we need to learn
make meaningful distinctions between the Islam that over a billion
believe in and practice, and the puritanical Islam that captures the
attention of the media and the American public.
UCLA International Institute
Date Posted: 12/15/2005