LOS ANGELES - UCLA law professor Khaled Abou El Fadl has a scholarly manner and speaks in soft tones. But listen as he tells his story.
A Kuwaiti native, he was fascinated by militant Islam as a young man, then evolved into a moderate champion of democracy who suffered arrest and torture in Egypt for his views. Saudi go-betweens failed to buy his silence but long limited his influence by preventing publication of his works in Arabic. He received death threats over anti-terrorist comments following the Sept. 11 attacks.
Now, as Muslim immigrants to America struggle to find their voice, no one is more outspoken than Abou El Fadl - driven by what he sees as a global crisis: the fight between "moderates" and "puritans" to determine who represents authentic Islam.
"Nothing less than the very soul of Islam" is at risk, says the 42-year-old Abou El Fadl, who is calling upon moderates to reverse their declining influence and reclaim bold leadership of the faith.
This is a "transformative moment," he says. In his view, Islam is suffering a schism as dramatic as the 16th century Protestant Reformation that split Christian Europe.
Two main movements claim to perpetuate true Islam, he says. On one side, the professor's fellow moderates uphold centuries of Muslim teaching and the beliefs of an often quiescent Muslim majority.
Their opponents, as he sees it, are puritans - he dislikes the "fundamentalist" and "Islamist" labels - who've won a remarkable following as they've preached religious extremism and, often, carried out acts of reprehensible violence in recent decades.
Eventually, one of these two rivals will achieve near-total commitment from the world's more than 1 billion Muslims and "the power to define Islam" for the indefinite future - including attitudes toward terrorism, he predicts.
Abou El Fadl depicts the contest in his new book "The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam from the Extremists" (HarperSanFrancisco). It's probably the most dramatic manifesto from an American Muslim since the Sept. 11 attacks.
Reaching this point has been a complex, dangerous and sometimes lonely struggle for the author.
Even in the moderate Muslim-American community, Abou El Fadl is something of an outsider, and his ideas have been greeted with outright hostility in the Mideast. Yet he's someone who, increasingly, can't be ignored because he's so well credentialed for intellectual combat over Islam's heritage.
Abou El Fadl spent a decade in Egypt learning the intricacies of Islamic law, then received an Ivy League education in America (Yale bachelor's, Penn law degree, Princeton doctorate) - a potent and rare combination. His library of tens of thousands of volumes has long since spilled from his home into the garage.
Yet as a teenager, he found the intense call of Muslim radicalism emotionally satisfying, a feeling that only dissipated as he studied Islamic legal traditions in earnest. At Yale he plunged into advocacy of democracy and human rights.
Abou El Fadl says he returned to Egypt in 1985 after winning a key undergraduate honor and expected a warm reception. Instead he was subjected to torture.
"By the third day in there I was praying I would die," he recalls.
His tormenters provided no explanation but indicated hostility to his liberal political ideas. It took him a month to recover, physically and emotionally, and it was years before he returned to Egypt again. The ordeal made him opt to become a U.S. citizen, instead of working in Egypt.
The professor reports that Saudi go-betweens made three offers to buy his silence and that Saudi pressure prevented publication of his books in Arabic, an essential step for gaining any permanent impact in the Muslim world - though some of his writings and interviews are available in Arabic on the Internet.
"I felt I probably would not have much use in my lifetime" because of the censorship, he says.
Yet some Arabic translations have finally appeared in the Mideast the past two years, and he expects "The Great Theft" will eventually follow. He was pleased by appreciative audiences last summer during talks in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.
A Christian expert, J. Dudley Woodberry of California's Fuller Theological Seminary, says "Muslims of good will are longing for someone to make a case for moderation."
That makes Abou El Fadl "a star on the rise," Woodberry adds. "I hope he's right. And for the West, he pretty much is."
Muslims who join Abou El Fadl in advocating moderation include those associated with the Washington-based Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy and authors in the forthcoming anthology "Islamic Democratic Discourse" (Lexington).
In that volume, editor Muqtedar Khan of the University of Delaware will criticize Abou El Fadl as too traditional, because he favors application of Sharia (Islamic law) as interpreted by religious jurists. Though Abou El Fadl has a liberal interpretation of religious law and supports democracy, Khan says, on this point "he says what Islamists are saying."
The moderate cause also is embraced in group pronouncements like one in July from 18 scholars of the Fiqh Council of North America. They declared that "targeting civilians' lives and property through suicide bombings or any other method of attack is haram - or forbidden" under the Quran and Muslim law.
A parallel event occurred the same month in the Muslim heartland. Jordan's King Abdullah assembled 180 teachers from 40 nations representing Islam's eight major schools of legal thought. They declared that only fully qualified authorities have any right to issue fatwas (religious decrees) and carefully restricted the right of Muslims to declare fellow Muslims to be heretics.
If honored, that decree would end any regard for religious edicts from self-appointed amateurs such as al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and any claims that it's legitimate for Muslims to murder other Muslims for political reasons, as in Iraq.
The problem, says Abou El Fadl, is modern Islam faces a "crisis of authority" about who speaks for the faith that has deteriorated into "full-fledged chaos."
Islam once recognized the Quran and Hadith - authoritative traditions about the Prophet Muhammad and early followers - interpreted by the consensus among the ulama (religious jurists). Seminaries trained recognized authorities who agreed on major points but allowed flexibility on details.
Abou El Fadl describes modern developments as follows:
European colonialism eroded the old system, as Western-influenced laws and lawyers rivaled traditional Islamic institutions.
After the colonial era, autocrats in Muslim countries who cared little for the faith seized remaining Sharia schools, formerly run by religious endowments independent of the state. Jurists and mosque leaders became state functionaries and lost religious legitimacy.
This impoverished intellectual climate created a dangerous "vacuum in religious authority" that has been filled by popular movements, radical schools and religious edicts from ill-trained propagandists.
The key to the current split is Saudi Arabia's Wahhabi movement. It originated by treating non-Wahhabi Sunnis and Shiites as virtual apostates, which justified repression, torture and killing of fellow Muslims - along with unwavering hostility toward non-Muslims.
This movement disrupted Muslim unity and replaced tolerance with a "very narrow and idiosyncratic view of Islamic law," Abou El Fadl says. Out went music, chess and pets (he defiantly keeps three dogs) and in came required beards, dress codes and severe restrictions on women.
Especially since the 1970s, the oil-rich Saudis have funded an aggressive campaign to spread Wahhabi and related "Salafi" ideas worldwide, and to repress other forms of Islam as illegitimate. But claims of restoring "the only legitimate form of Islam" are "fraudulent," he asserts.
He is equally severe in his denunciations of American Muslim leaders for ineptitude, which Khan says has made him a rather isolated figure.
Abou El Fadl says that after Sept. 11, U.S. Muslim leaders should have led a "massive" response and "expressed pure, unmitigated outrage." He also says they run undemocratic organizations and lack courage to denounce the Saudis for promoting "this radical ideology of hate."
Of America's Muslims, a community of somewhere between 2 million and 6 million, he says: "We have the numbers, we have the wealth, but not the power or influence or voice."
Because of his controversial views, Abou El Fadl no longer feels welcome at his local mosque, the Islamic Center of Southern California, and worships elsewhere. The center also stopped running his longtime column in its Minaret magazine.
He blames the tyranny in Muslim nations on Europeans, who liked democracy but gave little of it to peoples they colonized. Because "civil society was practically absent," homegrown despots took over with independence.
Though the frustrations of terrorists are understandable, he says, their tactics are "illogical and strategically stupid." Worse, they ignore Islam's ethical teachings and traditions. And they cause masses of people to associate Islam with violence and terrorism.
"Is that what we want for our religion?" he asks. "What will become of what Islam stands for a century from now?"
ON THE NET
Site on Abou El Fadl: http://www.scholarofthehouse.org