"When internal debates go public" The Toronto Star

Nov. 21, 2002. 01:00 AM

By Haroon Siddiqui

Minority communities experiencing difficult times aboriginals, Hutterites, Jews and Muslims, to name a few become uneasy when internal debates go public. They close ranks. They become wary of the media courting dissidents, some of whom may be brave truth tellers, others blatant self-promoters. Telling the genuine ones from the others is not always easy.

Post-Sept. 11, the surest way for a Muslim to be quoted by the media, especially neo-conservative outlets, is to attack fellow Muslims. Khaled Abou el-Fadl, professor of law at UCLA, has been, for doing so. The New Republic magazine has just profiled him. However, he does not fit the mould of a "moderate" taking on "militants."

His is not a secular critique. The 38-year-old is perhaps the most prominent and prolific of the Young Turks challenging Muslim orthodoxy by citing early humanistic and pluralistic Islam. His advocacy of women's rights, for example, rests on a liberal interpretation of religious texts.

He was battling conservative theologians long before it became popular. Equally, he is a strong critic of the current anti-Islamic right-wing discourse, as also American foreign and domestic policies. But that part of his thinking rarely makes the news.

I talked to him in Toronto after he addressed the Canadian Council of Muslim Women. His background is compelling, his ideas worth examining.

Born in Kuwait to Egyptian parents, Abou el-Fadl went to secular schools but spent evenings studying Islam. By age 12, he had finished memorizing the 88,000 words of the Qu'ran. He spent summers in Cairo under scholars from the famed Al-Azhar religious academy.

In his period of youthful zealotry, he beat up less observant youths and smashed his sister's Rod Stewart tape.

In 1981 and 1982, Egyptian police picked him up for his anti-government poetry. He was slapped around and made to sit in contorted positions, about 15 hours the first time, and 10 the second.

When he next visited Cairo, in 1985, for a summer break from Yale University, he was blindfolded and taken to a torture chamber for three weeks. He was hung from a ceiling for six-hour intervals, given electric shocks and had his fingernails pulled. He is still under treatment for damaged muscles and nerve ends.

In 1985, he graduated as Yale's Scholar of the House. In 1989, he earned a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania. In 1998, he completed his Ph.D. in Islamic law from Princeton. He taught at the University of Texas in Austin before being wooed by UCLA.

A prodigious reader his library has 40,000 books he has been excoriating puritanical interpretations of Islam, especially the Saudi Arabian Wahhabi version. He attacks intolerance against non-Muslims. He questions the theological basis for veiling women. Or banning music (a position Yusuf Islam/Cat Stevens has invoked to resume his musical recordings). He upbraids scholars who "value rituals over morality" and who think "that the harsher and the more perverse the law, the more Islamic it is." (http://www.scholarofthehouse.org)

He soon had trouble finding publishers for Arabic editions of his books, banned outright in Saudi Arabia. The editor of a North American Muslim magazine dropped his column, reportedly telling him: "Your career is based on self-promotion and self-aggrandizement." Some Muslims shunned him.

He considers himself a devout Muslim "I perform all the obligatory rituals, and do not consume prohibited foods or drinks." But, of his increasing arguments with Muslims, he says:

"I set the same standard for them as I do for others a Jew or a Christian or a Communist or a capitalist, whatever. If Muslim thought doesn't make sense, I say it doesn't make sense. If Muslims are being intellectually lazy, I tell them. If they're being sloganistic and dogmatic, I tell them.

"Most importantly, if they watch human indignities and human rights' violations and they keep their mouths shut, why should I be offended when the Israelis do it?"

He rhymed off a list of egregious human rights violations in the Muslim world, detailing the cases he had encountered as an expert witness on torture and as a member of the advisory board of Human Rights Watch.

"Every Muslim country has dungeons full of people being tortured. If that's not an indication that something is really wrong, I don't know what is. Muslims are among the worst human rights violators on Earth. I want Muslims to sit with me and say, `Let's figure out what went wrong. What can we do, because this is not acceptable.'"

To be continued

Haroon Siddiqui is The Star's editorial page editor emeritus. His column appears Thursday and Sunday. He can be reached at hsiddiq@thestar.ca.

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