The Magazine

The Muddle of the Moderate Muslim

Khaled Abou El Fadl's mysterious Egyptian interview.

Dec 22, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 15 • By KATHERINE MANGU-WARD
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DR. KHALED ABOU EL FADL'S reputation as a moderate Muslim thinker earned him a seat on the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom last May. He is an accomplished legal scholar and an expert on Islamic jurisprudence. Born in Kuwait and bred in Egypt, Abou El Fadl is a professor at UCLA Law School with degrees from Yale, Princeton, and the University of Pennsylvania. Nevertheless, remarks made in an unguarded moment--and subsequently distorted by the Egyptian press--have just landed him in trouble.

On a trip to Cairo on behalf of the commission last month, Abou El Fadl met with the editor in chief of the government-controlled Egyptian weekly October. By his account, he was not well received. After a tense conversation with the editor, a photographer snapped his picture, and another man questioned him for a few minutes. "I should have asked him if this was an interview," Abou El Fadl concedes.

Shortly thereafter, what was presented as the transcript of an interview appeared in the magazine's pages. It was duly translated by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) in Washington, which posted excerpts on its website. A small scandal erupted, as Abou El Fadl and the commission issued denunciations of October, claiming that the published text--highly critical of the Bush administration's Middle East policy and anxious about the dangers of a second Bush term--was composed of "distortions and fabrications."

Abou El Fadl wrote a refutation of the interview. Sure enough, some of the contents of October's version defy credulity--the statement that U.S. soldiers in Iraq "were panic-stricken in their sleep and wet themselves," for example, or that Abou El Fadl threatened to "quit and go back to [his] academic post" if the White House ignored his advice. The interview has Abou El Fadl absurdly boasting of great influence on U.S. policy ("I even got to the point of determining the deployment plan of withdrawing from Iraq, [but the administration] hold[s] the same beliefs that accompanied colonialism's entrance to the Muslim countries in the 19th century") and has him stating he lives in Texas, which he does not. Given the low journalistic standards of the Egyptian press, it seems obvious that he has been wronged.

Nevertheless, other aspects of the controversy raise questions. Some passages of the interview, while inconsistent with Abou El Fadl's public persona as a pro-Western moderate, actually echo earlier statements of his. These deserve closer examination:

* Asked about the role of Islamic organizations in America, Abou El Fadl is quoted as saying: "Because of shortsightedness and ignorance, the Islamic organizations helped Bush reach the White House. . . . I met with many leaders of these organizations and I told them that I have known Bush well since he was governor of Texas, where I live, and I am familiar with his bad policy." Abou El Fadl writes in his rebuttal: "I never met with leaders of Arab organizations before or after President Bush's election. I do not have a relationship with the leaders of these organizations."

There is evidence, however, that Abou El Fadl has fairly cordial relations with Islamic organizations. They have published him--the monthly Minaret, for example, published by the Islamic Center of Southern California, carried his column for over 20 years (though they recently severed relations with him), and his work has been posted on the website of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). In a long letter to CAIR dated July 20, 2002 (brought to the attention of THE WEEKLY STANDARD by Middle East scholar Daniel Pipes, a persistent critic of Abou El Fadl), Abou El Fadl writes, "CAIR is one of our very few shining examples [of Muslim leadership]." He signs the letter--which was part of a post-9/11 exchange triggered by an op-ed of his in the Los Angeles Times--"yours sincerely in brotherhood."

* October quotes Abou El Fadl condemning the president: "Bush permitted missionaries into Iraq before medicines." Abou El Fadl replies: "This is a complete fabrication. . . . To my knowledge, President Bush did not send Christian missionaries to Iraq."

But he contradicts this assertion in an article he authored on April 27, 2003, in the Boston Phoenix, where he says that it was an "unfortunate decision by the Bush administration to allow Christian missionaries to enter Iraq in the company of American forces. This smacks of the conduct of colonial powers."

This is not an isolated comment. In the letter to CAIR--which is posted on Abou El Fadl's fan site--he writes: "I have been following the near evangelical fanaticism of our current administration, which is clearly reflected in its foreign policies and domestic legislation."

While these statements are technically not in conflict (Bush could have "allowed" missionaries, without having "sent" them), the denial is somewhat disingenuous.

* In his response dated December1, Abou El Fadl writes, "I support President Bush and his efforts to build positive relations and democratic systems in the Middle East, and will continue to give my best efforts to ensure his success."

But an April profile in the Los Angeles Times offered this characterization of Abou El Fadl's reaction to the Iraq war: "Initially, Abou El Fadl thought a strike against Iraq could be moral. . . . He now believes that most Iraqis see the coalition effort as an invasion and an attempt to repeat the British colonial domination of their land. He opposes the war as immoral and mistrusts the intentions of his government."

How does Abou El Fadl account for what was published in October? "The prevailing reaction I am getting from a lot of Egyptian friends is laughing. Everyone knows that anyone who is anyone in Egypt gets trashed by the Egyptian press." Egyptian writers and editors "try to speculate as to what would make the government happy." The decision to publish a distorted version of the interview may actually have little to do with him, he says. "There is this private conversation between the editor and someone else [who is powerful], and I am marginal to it." He calls the experience "humbling."

In conversation, Abou El Fadl projects calm conviction about the importance of individual rights, his disappointment at their absence from the new Afghan constitution, and his personal evolution from "hadith hurler" to near-secularist, and back to centrist. But he realizes that his views may be susceptible to misinterpretation. He frets that his "thought about religion in public life has become sufficiently nuanced and layered that it may be hard to impart."

Hillel Fradkin, president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a scholar of Islam, says he is "prepared to believe" the interview was distorted. "The formulas used in the interview, they're rather familiar." They are the standard fare of radical Egyptian journalism.

Nina Shea, Abou El Fadl's colleague on the Commission on International Religious Freedom, of which she is vice chair, also deplores Egyptian journalistic malpractice. She says the October interview "is not consistent with what I know of him. It's totally consistent with what I know of the Egyptian press," which she declares "the slimiest of the fever swamps." She speculates that October's purpose may have been to discredit Abou El Fadl with U.S. diplomats in Cairo, who would have been sure to see the interview. Egyptian press strategies to discredit "influential moderate Muslims," she says, have become astonishingly complex and subtle.

Pipes, for his part, is unpersuaded. Calling Abou El Fadl a moderate, he says, is like making a distinction "between a moderate Nazi and a radical Nazi." Pipes concedes that Abou El Fadl "promotes a more sophisticated version of the Islamist project" and that he "distances himself from the more extremist [militant] versions, but that doesn't make him an anti-Islamist."

Shea says Abou El Fadl is "a very complex figure, he's a work in progress." She emphasizes that "what's at issue is Abou El Fadl's message, which is that Islam is a very complex and long-lived tradition. Those who say it is compatible with democracy are facile and probably ignorant."

So where does he really stand? One thing is clear: Those who hear "moderate" and think "secular" will be sorely disappointed by Abou El Fadl. "Fadl is a religious person," says Shea. "He is not a secular Muslim." His awkward engagement in the public policy debate over Islam and democracy is further evidence of just how difficult it will be for the Middle East to reinvent itself.

"I tend to see things in shades of gray," says Abou El Fadl. "Someone has to be as evil as bin Laden for me to say that he is bad." Assertions like this could soon cost Abou El Fadl his reputation as a moderate--and that is a depressing thought. He is dead right when he says: "If I am a Muslim militant, then all hope is lost."

Katherine Mangu-Ward is a reporter at The Weekly Standard.