Dr Khaled Abou El Fadl, a professor of Islamic law at UCLA and Bush appointee to the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, is the academic voice of the world's majority moderate Muslims. In an exclusive interview with The Straits Times, he discusses his new book, The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam From The Extremists, which the Associated Press has called 'the most dramatic manifesto from an American Muslim since the September 11 attacks'.
By John R. Bradley
· Q. You write in The Great Theft: 'The essential lesson taught by Islamic history is that extremist groups are ejected from the mainstream of Islam; they are marginalised, and they eventually come to be treated as a heretical aberration to the Islamic message.' Is there really much cause for hope that the 21st century will follow this pattern?
A. If I think as a scientist and a calculating man and evaluate the data objectively, the tone of my book would not be justified. But if I evaluate it as a Muslim who believes that - as the Quran says - Islam is a message sent as a mercy to humanity, that the ideas that are the main justification of Islam are mercy to humanity and 'peace be upon you', as we consistently repeat, then, as a matter of faith, I believe that if the moderate Muslims pay their dues, God will aid them and we will be victorious.
They just have to get off their lazy posterior, realise the danger and spring into action. This, I believe, is what God expects of them. At least, I believe it is what God expects of me, and this is why I do what I do.
· Q. But why is it so difficult for moderate Muslims such as yourself, who you say represent the silent majority, to speak out against a minority that encourages intolerant acts of violence?
A. In theory, it should not be difficult for moderate Muslims to speak out. Indeed, there are many moderate Muslim writers who write and publish books. But there are two levels of restrictions they face.
The first level is the bar that exists to speaking out. The second, once moderates have managed to speak out, is getting heard. There are a lot of moderate professors who speak about the Islam that is lived by most Muslims in the world, not only an Islam that contributed to the arts and society and humanities, but also an Islam that allows all sorts of societies to exist in which there are - at the micro level and the daily level - human acts of generosity and kindness.
However, once a writer attempts to write about this 'lived' Islam, he must find an outlet. Unfortunately, in the Arabic-speaking world these outlets for moderate, non-Salafi/Wahhabi Muslims have diminished greatly. It used to be the case, for instance, in the 1950s and 1960s that there were publishing outlets in Kuwait, in Lebanon and in Egypt (that gave them a platform).
But what started taking place in the 1970s is that Saudi Arabia commenced on a very concerted and, I would say, a very well thought-out effort to dominate the public discourse on Islam. They did this simply through largesse.
Take, for instance, Dar Al-Risala, a press in Lebanon that published some of the most popular books until the 1980s, a very big and well-known publisher. But in the 1970s it started entering into contracts with the Saudi government, which would buy one thousand copies of each book - and pay in hard currency. In this way, Saudi Arabia attained amazing power over Dar Al-Risala.
When Dar Al-Risala contemplated publishing a book Saudi Arabia disapproved of, the Saudi government would inform the publisher that he would become persona non grata, or the contracts would either diminish or be cancelled altogether. This is just one example of what was repeated again and again.
· Q. Do you not think that there is a danger of simplifying the issue by singling out the Al-Saud ruling family, and by extension the Wahhabism it sponsors, as the root cause of Islamic extremism?
A. It is not the only factor, by far, and my writings emphasise that this is not the only source of fanaticism. But it is the most important. With the help of the British, the Al-Saud dismantled the Caliphate (in the 1920s) and altered in fundamental and material ways the nature of the major holy sites of Islam.
For instance, it used to be the case that in Mecca there were religious structures, usually directed towards the qibla (the direction that should be faced when a Muslim prays), that symbolised the different schools of Islamic thought. They existed for the Shafi'is, for the Hanafis, for the Hanbalis and the Malikis. Just as there used to be for the Shi'ite Jaafaris. There used to be several for the Sufis in the vicinity of the ka'abah as well.
Having these symbolic structures was a declaration of legitimacy, basically saying that all these expressions of Islam were legitimate. When the Saudis took control of Mecca, they destroyed all of them. They had existed for about 1,200 years. The Al-Saud declared that the reason was that we need not have all these expressions of Islam because Islam is clear and is one.
Furthermore, they destroyed 90 per cent of the historical sites that existed in Mecca and Medina. These provided Islam's history that could be explored, studied and investigated - ideologically and anthropologically. This way the story of the Islamic experience would most likely become a very sophisticated one.
It was all wiped out, so that Islam became a religion without a history, (apart from) the highly idealised time of the Prophet and his companions. But even (their) historical sites were destroyed - denying Muslims and scientists the chance to pose even basic questions about the pluralistic faith.
· Q. Is there something in Arab cultures, say tribalism, that is somehow related to extremist interpretations of Islam?
A. There is a tribal element, but a slightly different (and more important issue) is the Bedouin element. Tribalism has existed in most of the world. You look at a country like England. Until the Romans left, it was a fairly tribal society, as was France, as was even Venice. But that was not necessarily an obstruction to the development of humanistic ideas and human values.
But Bedouinism, as opposed to tribalism, is the existence of a system of allegiance to a family or tribe in an environment that is arid and rather uncomplicated, compared to the urban centres, and in which either someone was your friend or your enemy. You existed in a state of all-out war, and there was a presumption that someone was out to get you until proven otherwise. You needed a military-type structure that needed a leader who could not be questioned. The environment was often a mentality of black and white or yes and no, not the cultured mentality of the arts and sciences and humanities and of philosophy and contemplation. The Quran itself is quite critical of Bedouin society, and speaks about the immoderate nature of those who remain with a Bedouin mentality.
(In contrast) take countries like Egypt or Syria or Iraq. These were highly developed, cosmopolitan places. You had layers of civilisational experiences that created an appreciation for the product of the intellect and sophisticated thought, and an inability to see things as black and white anymore.
· Q. So how does this manifest itself among today's extremists?
A. It is interesting that in the past few decades, if you look at all the sources of violence, they have all been touched by, or emerged from, Bedouin Islam. What I mean is that they have been touched by the Puritanism of Mohammed bin Abdul Wahhab, (the 18th-century founder of Wahhabism). This does not mean that he was the only Puritan. But his ideas were married to Saudi resources, and therefore become an enormous problem.
Such Puritanism is a phenomenon that tends to have no appreciation for history, which tends to see the world in terms of how everyone is out to get you unless they prove otherwise, that devalues women and expects obedience from the flock, which should always obey. If the flock participates, it is through the 'grace' of the leader, who allows it the 'privilege' of expressing an opinion.
This Bedouin mentality also contributes to the radical anti-rationalism (of the extremists). In all the violent movements today, we witness the idea that rationalism is the instrument of the Devil, and is fundamentally evil. You find that all (the leading terrorist ideologues) have been influenced by a black-and-white concept: that all people fall either into the category of good or the category of bad.
· Q. So were there other influences in South-east Asia, both cultural and environmental, which allowed a more tolerant and diverse Islam to emerge and flourish?
A. Of course. I'll give you a simple example. Islam in South-east Asia is full of music. When I visited Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia, there were events held in my honour, and singers were invited. Now, it is inconceivable in the Arab world that a Muslim scholar would be celebrated by music. The denial of music is a new thing, and is influenced by Wahhabism, which condemns music because it excites the imagination.
In Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, Islam is full of music and beauty and expressions of intoxication for the Divine. In fact, if it hadn't been for the Sufis and their ecstasies and the _expression of it through various means, especially in music and poetry, I doubt very much whether Islam would have spread in that part of the world.
· Q. But there is a growing fear that the harsh 'Bedouin Islam' of Arabia is making inroads in this region, into the more tolerant and relaxed 'Islam of the Tropics'.
A. (When I was in the region last year,) every scholar that I spoke to, every official I spoke to, said their main concern was that they have these groups or organisations that are funded by Saudi Arabia, whose officials come in and say lots of the local practices vis-a-vis women are haram (forbidden), vis-a-vis music, poetry and art are haram.
I'll give two minor examples. In Wahhabi Islam, women may not visit graves. And clapping in appreciation is (considered) haram, or religiously forbidden. All this is unique to Wahhabi Islam. When I was growing up in the Islamic world, people used to laugh at the idea that women must not visit graves, because it is based on an absurd idea that only makes sense in a Bedouin context - that women are emotionally vulnerable. (It was thought by Bedouins that) people of evil character would hang out by the graves and attempt to seduce and entice the women.
To my great dismay, I found that this idea, and the idea that people ought not to clap, was now far more widespread and accepted. Little things like that are micro barometers of what is going on.
· Q. What is going on?
A. Before I came to the region, there was a virtual battle as to whether I should come or not. The Wahhabis got the party that initially invited me to Malaysia to cancel. It was only through the efforts of the fellows in Singapore that someone else was found to invite me, because in Singapore they were outraged.
In Singapore itself, although I did several lectures and met several government officials and found the Minister for Islamic Affairs a very, very decent fellow, at one of the lectures I gave in Arabic - well, the Wahhabi party came to the lecture and they were so remarkably rude and disruptive. They kept slamming books, rolling their eyes, and would not engage me. I repeatedly said: 'If there are some people here who are unhappy I invite them to express what they think is so wrong with what I said.' But not a single one of them spoke. It was a challenge to keep my temper.
The Great Theft: How To Wrestle Islam From The Extremists is available in local bookshops.