What Became of Tolerance in Islam?

Khaled Abou El Fadl

What Became of Tolerance in Islam?

By Khaled Abou El Fadl*

Extreme acts of violence and evil such as the recent terrorist attacks test the mettle and moral depth of societies-the society that is targeted by the violence and the society that generated it.

The Japanese stealth attack on Pearl Harbor tested both the aggressor and the victim. Pearl Harbor challenged the moral integrity of Japanese normative values, but it also tested us. We responded to an extreme act of aggression with another extreme act:

We interned our Japanese citizens in concentration camps, resulting in deep fissures in our constitutional and civil rights fabric.

We do not have a good record when responding to aggression. As a society, we tend to vent our anger and hurt at our own citizens and then spend decades expressing regret and talking about lessons learned. Considering the scale of what has been called the second Pearl Harbor, I fear that there will be an explosion of hate crimes against Muslim and Arab Americans, both by police and by ordinary citizens.

Anticipating the backlash, Muslim and Arab organizations have rushed to issue condemnations of terrorism and hate-motivated violence and have gone to pains to explain that terrorists who happen to be Muslim do not represent Muslims at large, Islam or anyone else.

Nevertheless, the recent terrorist attacks mandate a serious introspective pause. As Americans, we should reflect on our own Middle East policies and the arrogance by which we deal with the dark-skinned people we collectively refer to as Arabs. Muslims, American and otherwise, should reflect on the state of their culture and the state of the Islamic civilization.

As a Muslim, I feel that the horror of recent terrorist attacks demands a serious, conscientious pause. Terrorism is an aberration, but most often it is of a particular type, an extreme manifestation of underlying social and ideological currents prevalent in a particular culture. Terrorism is not a virus that suddenly infects the brain of a person; rather, it is the result of long-standing and cumulative cultural and rhetorical dynamics.

In Islamic law, terrorism (hirabah) is considered cowardly, predatory and a grand sin punishable by death. Classical Islamic law explicitly prohibits the taking or slaying of hostages or diplomats even in retaliation against unlawful acts by the enemy. Furthermore, it prohibits stealth or indiscriminate attacks against enemies, Muslim or non-Muslim. One can even say that classical jurists considered such acts to be contrary to the ethics of Arab chivalry and therefore fundamentally cowardly.

It would be disingenuous, however, to propose that this classical attitude is predominant or even that familiar in modern Arab-Muslim culture. I like many other Muslims grew up with an unhealthy dose of highly opportunistic and belligerent rhetoric, not only in the official media but also at popular cultural venues such as local mosques.

Even in the U.S., it is not unusual to hear irresponsible and unethical rhetoric repeated in local Islamic centers or Muslim student organizations at universities. It is disheartening to hear contemporary Arab news agencies, for example, refer to acts of terrorism in neutral terms such as guerrilla attacks (amal fida'i) and to suicide bombers as martyrs (shuhada).

All of this begs the question: What happened to the civilization that produced such tolerance, knowledge and beauty throughout its history? A lot has happened. The Islamic civilization has been wiped out by an aggressive and racist European civilization. Colonialism and the expulsion of Palestinians happened. Numerous massacres against and by Muslims happened. Despotic and exploitative regimes have taken power in nearly every Muslim country.

Most important, however, a dogmatic, puritanical and ethically oblivious form of Islam has predominated since the 1970s. This brand of Islamic theology is largely dismissive of the classical juristic tradition and of any notion of universal and innate moral values. This orientation insists that only the mechanics and technicalities of Islamic law define morality. Paradoxically, it also rejects the classical juristic tradition and insists on a literal reinterpretation of all Islamic texts.

Fundamentally, this puritanical theology responds to feelings of powerlessness and defeat with uncompromising symbolic displays of power, not only against non-Muslims but also against Muslim women. It is not accidental that this puritanical orientation is the most virulent in flexing its muscles against women and that it is plagued by erotic fantasies of virgins in heaven submissively catering to the whim and desire of men.

This contemporary orientation is anchored in profound feelings of defeatism, alienation, frustration and arrogance. It is a theology that is alienated not only from the institutions of power in the modern world but also from its own heritage and tradition.

The extreme form of this puritanical Islam does not represent most Muslims today. But there are two ways in which contemporary Muslim culture, Arab or non-Arab, inadvertently feeds these extreme trends. First, since the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the onslaught of colonialism, Islamic intellectuals have busied themselves with the task of "defending Islam" by rampant apologetics.

This produced a culture that eschews self-critical and introspective insight and embraces projection of blame and a fantasy-like level of confidence and arrogance. Second, Muslims got into the habit of paying homage to the presumed superiority of the Islamic tradition but marginalize this idealistic image in everyday life.

Muslim intellectuals justified hijacking airplanes and taking hostages. Terrorist attacks such as the 1976 Entebbe operation or the 1972 killing of Israeli Olympic athletes were justified on purely pragmatic grounds: How else are we to fight Israeli arrogance and belligerence?

The reality of contemporary Muslims is unfortunate. Easy oil money, easy apologetics, easy puritanism, easy appeals to the logic of necessity have all but obliterated the incentive for introspection and critical insight. Arab and Muslim organizations in the U.S. are right to worry about hate crimes and stereotypical projections of Muslims and the Islamic religion.

The problem, however, is that Muslims themselves responded to the challenge of modernity by stereotyping and then completely ignoring their own tradition. It is not surprising that some extremists have taken this tendency to its logical and heinous extreme.

* Khaled Abou El Fadl is an acting professor at UCLA Law School and author of Rebellion and Political Violence in Islamic Law (Cambridge University Press, 2001).