This opinion piece was first published in UCLA Today. It is based on Abou El Fadl’s book “The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam From the Extremists,” 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 we intuitively know to be the mainstream of Islam and another form of Islam that shocks and disturbs a lot of people.
If what we call radical/extremist/fundamentalist Islam were the Islam that more than a billion people believe in and adhere to, its actions would not create controversy because that would be the normal, day-to-day experience of Muslims.
Part of the reason why we notice Osama Bin Laden or the Taliban or many of the decrees and actions that take place in Saudi Arabia is that, although they often pose examples of cruelty and inhumanity, they are neither typical representations of the Islamic mainstream nor the average lived experiences of Muslims.
Upon the occurrence of a particularly shocking event like 9/11, a lot of mainstream Muslims, especially imams of mosques and the directors of Islamic centers in the West, understandably tend to say that terrorists or extremists are not real Muslims, and therefore do not represent Islam at all. These proclamations are, at best, defensive and apologetic. At worst, they repeat the very act we condemn — declaring some “other” as outside the 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 substructure supports the radicals, what is the theology of the other side — the theology of moderate Islam?
Sometimes the most peculiar activists or writers are presented as the voice of moderate Islam. Some commentators, acting out of political prejudice, have attempted to describe people who identify themselves as atheists or 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 by 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 politically charged and ideologically motivated, but utterly chaotic — a discourse that claims that the Islamic faith is a radicalizing ideology. According to this view, there is no way one can be a faithful and proud Muslim as well as a moderate.
In fact, some have even proposed a “sleeping cell theory” — that Muslims could be radical without realizing it: Anyone who is religiously committed to Islam is a sort of ticking radical bomb bound to go off sooner or later, instantly transforming an average Muslim who appears harmless into a bloodthirsty terrorist.
If we wish to stop adding to this mess by alienating Muslims, by appearing bigoted and hateful, by pushing many young Muslims into the arms of extremists and terrorists, by appearing remarkably ignorant and arrogant and uninterested in knowing anything real about Muslims, we need to learn to make meaningful distinctions between the Islam that over a billion people believe in and practice, and the puritanical Islam that captures the attention of the media and the American public.