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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* 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.