Four telltale Themes: Anti-Muslim bigotry 'spreading like wildfire'

Nov. 24, 2002. 01:00 AM

By Haroon Siddiqui

"The disease of apologetics." That's what he calls it.

"For a century, Muslims have seen their primary function as defending Islam. Not to honour Islam by critically engaging it and rethinking it and making sure that it remains viable and moral and humane, but to defend it.

"They see their role primarily as marketing agents, as cheerleaders, offering the same old excuses, attributing the problems to culture or customs or colonialism or Orientalism."

The speaker is Dr. Khaled Abou el-Fadl, professor of law at UCLA. The Kuwait-born and Egyptian-trained Arab scholar and prolific author has emerged as a prominent Muslim dissident in the West.

As outlined in my column Thursday, and on the Religion page yesterday, he has questioned Islamic orthodoxy on a host of issues from the treatment of women to the ban on music and dogs. He has attacked conservative theologians for robbing Islam of its humanism and pluralism, making it puritanical and intolerant.

But Abou el-Fadl is an equal opportunity offender. He is a strong critic of American policies as well as post-Sept. 11 anti-Islamism, themes he also enunciated in an interview during a visit to Toronto.

"The demonization of Muslims is well-camouflaged," he said. "It's not like the vulgar bigotry against the Japanese in World War II or against the Chinese a century ago. This is more refined, more subtle, highly intellectualized and thus more dangerous." Look, Abou el-Fadl said, for these four telltale themes:

* "The most insidious is that Muslims have existed fundamentally and irreparably in a state of conflict with the Judeo-Christian civilization. It's a claim that gives the Islamic threat a certain historical inevitability: `Well, you know it was like that in history and will remain like that.'"

Abou el-Fadl cited Bernard Lewis, American scholar on Islam. "He was once asked in an interview, `After you told us about all these problems with Muslims, what do we do?' And he said, in effect, `Well, there's nothing we can do. They are just the way they are. They're just going to hate us and go after us.'"

* The second tactic posits Islam as "a fascist ideology, fundamentally aggressive or fundamentally totalitarian."

This ignores all the competing traditions in Islam and holds up the most marginal and fanatical Muslims as the true representatives of the faith.

* The third is the "sleeper jihad" theory that even if it is non-violent, such as the jihad of conscience, "its precepts are such that they can always have a radicalizing potential upon any and all Muslims. So that any moderate, tolerant Muslim can be sitting around and suddenly something might happen to trigger the jihad ideology in him and make him violent. Like a keg of dynamite that could explode at any time!

"This is wonderfully simplistic and conspiratorial, with a James Bond-type deviousness to it."

* The fourth technique is not to blame Islam per se but political Islam. The faith is fine so long as "it's a completely private creed, practised solely in the confines of the home.

"But the moment it wants to engage the world, it's dangerous." All politically active Muslims can, therefore, be dismissed as "zealots or fanatics."

Such bigotry was once confined to a handful of academics and government officials. But it has been "spreading like wildfire since Sept. 11." It has infected "many elements of the American intelligentsia and others influential in drawing up legislation, immigration laws and American foreign policy."

Abou el-Fadl attributes its success, first, to ignorance: "Academics and journalists won't dream of doing this with Christianity or Judaism, even Buddhism and Hinduism, because the intellectual bar for discourse there is high. But for Islam, the standard is abysmally low, abysmally low."

He also blames "scholars with political agendas who think the history of Islam begins and ends with Israel. A huge chunk of sympathizers of Israel have, for some reason, convinced themselves that the only way to keep Israel safe and happy is to constantly smack Islam on the head. The Christian right given far more space in government and in politics under President Bush has also been at the forefront of demonizing Islam. But I think all this is self-destructive, frankly. When you get into the habit of hating a people religiously, as the Islamic experience has shown, it's only a matter of time before you turn it inward and against each other. It will catch up."

As for the Bush administration's security agenda, Abou el-Fadl called it "a disaster for civil rights." Besides the mass arrests and racial profiling of Muslims and Arabs, refugees from selected countries are being denied asylum. And, most disturbing to him as an activist for Human Rights Watch, the business of torturing detainees is being farmed out to client states Syria, Saudi Arabia and his native Egypt.

All this, he said, is "fundamentally altering the humanitarian character of the United States."

Haroon Siddiqui is The Star's editorial page editor emeritus. E-mail: hsiddiq @

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