By Vincent J. Schodolski
Tribune national correspondent
November 25, 2002
LOS ANGELES -- The death threats have stopped and the white van no longer lingers ominously outside his San Fernando Valley home, but the uproar Khaled Abou El Fadl unleashed a year ago has not abated.
El Fadl, a professor of Islamic law at UCLA, has long been a moderate voice urging Muslims in the United States and elsewhere to speak out against radical elements of Islam.
So when he wrote an op-ed article that appeared in the Los Angeles Times soon after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, he was expressing views that he had aired for years--usually to Muslim audiences.
At the time the article was published, many Muslims were speaking out against radical Islam, the kind personified by Osama bin Laden. So what was it about El Fadl's views that provoked such a furious reaction?
"I am the biggest danger to their [version of] Islam, not to Islam, and they don't make the distinction," El Fadl said.
"They" refers to people who, for various reasons, support a version of Islam that has roots in Saudi Arabia, El Fadl said. It has gained wide sway because of the willingness of the Saudi Arabian government to spend money to export its views, he added.
More than a year later, the scholar still receives numerous e-mails and letters on his views. He has people screen all his calls, and UCLA has taken steps to ensure his safety on campus.
The FBI and police are investigating the threats and the vandalism of El Fadl's car while it was parked outside a San Fernando Valley movie theater earlier this year. Although the windows were shattered, nothing was taken from the car, which was the only vehicle vandalized.
Police tapped the professor's telephone but never were able to trace the source of the threatening calls.
At first, El Fadl thought the threats were coming from non-Muslims angered by the terrorist attacks. But soon, he and authorities concluded that they were from Muslims angered by his criticism of those who failed to speak out against what he calls a "puritanical" form of Islam espoused by the Saudis.
Influence of Wahhabism
That form of Islam, known as Wahhabism, is in some ways similar to fundamentalist views in Christianity and Judaism. Wahhabism, however, calls for a return to the Koranic interpretations that flourished in the decades that followed the death of Muhammad, the 7th Century prophet of Islam.
Those who espouse such interpretations disdain centuries of modernization and trends within Islam toward more pluralistic views.
El Fadl insists that the willingness of the Saudi government to underwrite fundamentalist Islamic teaching as well as cultural and community centers around the world has stifled debate about the role of Islam in modern society.
"The Koran says that if you are harsh and unkind, people will not come to you, so the Koran recognizes that decency has to be there," he said. "If Wahhabism had dominated Islam, [it] would be a very small religion."
According to El Fadl, funding by the Saudis is used not to stop Muslim leaders from speaking out against fanatics or terrorists, but rather to prevent people like him from speaking out against Wahhabism and its strict interpretation of Islam.
"And it [the money] is really so that the people don't speak out against them," he said of the Saudi ruling dynasty.
He said that any attempt to speak out against this fundamentalist view of Islam was seen by devotees as arrogance against God.
El Fadl was born in Kuwait in 1963 and spent much of his youth in Egypt, where he was imprisoned briefly after he returned for a visit after his junior year at Yale University. He said Egyptian officials tortured him because they were suspicious of his Western influences.
He earned a bachelor's degree in 1986, then a law degree at the University of Pennsylvania and a doctorate in Islamic studies at Princeton University. He has been on the UCLA Law School faculty since 1998.
El Fadl says the Saudis have offered him repeated opportunities for economic advancement. Even before earning his doctorate, the Saudi-funded Muslim World League offered him $100,000 to write a book on Islam.
When the organization insisted on final control over content, he turned the offer down.
Years later, the Saudi government offered to nominate him for the $200,000 King Faisal award, but El Fadl withdrew from consideration after what he said were leading questions by officials about who he might consider to be "enemies of Islam."
Just last year, the Saudi government offered him and a group of associates an all-expenses-paid trip to the desert kingdom for the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. Again, he refused.
Taking shots at moderates
El Fadl is critical not only of conservative Muslims, but also of moderates who fail to speak out. He said the failure of moderates to openly oppose the dominance of fundamentalist clerics had contributed greatly to the misconceptions many Americans have about Islam.
He pointed to the current protests by Iranian students against religious leaders in that country as a sign that the tide may be turning.
While most of his attention is focused on Muslims, El Fadl also is critical of past and present leaders in the United States. He says the failure of those leaders to understand the depth of the influence of radical Muslims greatly contributed to the Sept. 11 hijacking attacks.
"All through the '90s, people like us were marginalized," El Fadl said of moderate voices who tried to convince U.S. officials of the serious threat posed by radical Islam.
"In the wake of bin Laden, people are paying more attention to moderate voices, but they stop short of any blame for the Saudis," he said.
While he continues to write and speak out, El Fadl has just signed a contract to write a book on his views about the gap between the conservative and pluralistic views of Islam.
He also plans trips to the Middle East and Europe to promote his view that there has to be a place for tolerance in Islam.
Copyright © 2002, Chicago Tribune