Khaled Abou El Fadl had argued that nothing in democracy violates Shariah or Islamic law, but the conservative commentator whom he was debating on an Egyptian talk show in March equated that view with support for America's invasion of Iraq.
To some Muslims, that position is a betrayal of faith
and punishable by death. And sure enough, the phone at El Fadl's father's home in Cairo, where the Islamic law scholar from UCLA was staying, started ringing with death threats.
"In the '60s, an accusation like that could be made on TV, but you wouldn't get death threats," El Fadl said. But following the invasion of Iraq, the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and other events deemed crimes against Muslims, "we've reached a point where emotions are so charged and things are so volatile that people hear these accusations, and they immediately start making threats."
Muslim-on-Muslim violence has existed since Islam
's Prophet Muhammad died in 632. Violence in modern times has involved national clashes like those between Pakistan and Bangladesh or Iraq and Iran, as well as religious attacks, such as those against Shiite and Sufi Muslims or other groups viewed by extremists as heretical sects.
Now, some observers say, Islamic extremists are expanding their campaign of violence to include moderate Muslims whom they view as obstacles to the establishment of Islamic rule. At the same time, extremists are also expanding the criteria by which one can be considered an apostate, blasphemer or heretic, and thus fair game for punishment or death. The violence has sparked debate across the Muslim
world over who has the authority to judge someone an apostate, and pushed extremist groups to come up with new justifications to spill the blood of fellow Muslims.
In early April, for example, a group calling itself Supporters of God's Messenger issued a hit list of 32 Muslim academics, writers and other figures, including eight from the United States and Canada. The group accused those on the list of denying "prophetic tradition," supporting Israel against the Palestinians, working with Christians "and demanding for them the right of ruling over our Muslim lands."
The letter sparked long debates on Arabic news Web sites.
"These illiterate fanatics take Qur`anic verses out of context. The way to combat these noisy few is by allowing freedom of expression, and political parties," wrote one reader at Alarabiya.net, site of the Arabic satellite news network. A second reader wrote the letter-writers should be in prison, while another said those named on the list all belong in hell.
Many observers suspect extremist Muslims were responsible for an April 11 suicide attack in Pakistan that killed 57 people at a prayer
festival celebrating the birthday of Prophet Muhammad. The festival was organized by moderate Sunni Muslim groups, and influential leaders were among the dead.
Motives for the attack, observers said, included a simple desire to cause terror among moderate Muslims, but also to protest the celebration of the prophet's birthday, something extremists would consider tantamount to idol worship.
Continued on page 2: Moderates are being dubbed the »