Beliefnet
Khaled Abou El Fadl, a professor of Islamic law at UCLA, estimates that two years ago he received between 30 and 40 requests from around the country to participate in interfaith dialogues between Jews and Muslims.

Last year he received one.

"They just vanished," he said during an interview last week. "Such invitations are a barometer of the level of dialogue, though my experience may not be representative because of my own idiosyncrasies."

The "idiosyncrasies" to which he was referring, if a bit obliquely, center on the strong reactions to his urging fellow Muslims to speak out against the radical elements of Islam that he maintains have gained controlling influence through the "puritanical" form of the religion promoted by Saudi Arabia.

El Fadl, 39, who was raised in Kuwait and Egypt, has been writing critically of fundamentalist Islam for years in scholarly articles and books, most recently "The Place of Tolerance in Islam." But he gained international attention--and a flurry of death threats--after publishing an op-ed article in the Los Angeles Times three days after the Sept. 11 attacks in which he asserted that the suicide missions were not a deviation from mainstream Islam but rather the result of an "ethically oblivious form" of the religion that "has predominated since the 1970s."

Such opinions have garnered admiration for El Fadl in some quarters of the Jewish community, where he is praised for intellectual honesty and bravery. Others, though, are far more skeptical.

Daniel Pipes, for example, an expert on Islam and editor of the Middle East Forum, said El Fadl "has succeeded in fooling influential individuals that he is a moderate American Muslim intellectual" when he is, according to Pipes, "just another Muslim extremist."

Closer to home, Feisal Abdul Rauf, the imam (religious leader) of a local mosque only 12 blocks from the site of the World Trade Center, has been involved in interfaith dialogue for years here and an advocate of integrating Islam with modern society.

Rabbi Michael Paley, executive director of synagogue and community affairs of UJA-Federation of New York, believes Abdul Rauf is a positive force for moderation and a partner for dialogue. But officials of the American Jewish Committee are skeptical, asserting that several post-Sept.11 comments the imam made were problematic.

Understanding Them, and Us

What started out as a simple question in my mind--are there any moderate Muslim leaders in this country with whom we can dialogue?--has turned into a more complex exploration. That's because it speaks not only to the ideology, politics and inner workings of the Muslim community but to our own understanding and expectations of that community--and of ourselves.

My limited research has found that there are only a few leading Muslim clerics or intellectuals who have spoken out forcefully and unequivocally against terrorism, like suicide bombings--a baseline commitment for the Jewish community--and who are willing to engage in serious dialogue with Jews.

Most acceptable to the Jewish community is Sheik Muhammad Hisham Kabbani of the Islamic Supreme Council of America, based in Detroit and Washington, D.C., an exemplar of tolerance who has spoken out forcefully against all forms of terrorism and in favor of a negotiated settlement in the Middle East. But he is marginalized by many Arab Muslims and has credibility problems in that community, not unlike the way Noam Chomsky, the Jewish MIT professor and advocate for the Palestinian cause, is perceived by mainstream Jews.

Large Muslim groups like the Council on American Islamic Relations and the Muslim Public Affairs Council are viewed as seeking to undermine American support for Israel, accusing the Jewish state of human rights abuses and atrocities.

Somewhere in between are people like El Fadl, criticized by some in the Jewish community for not speaking out more forcefully, but praised by others, particularly those who know him.

Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, Hillel director at UCLA, met El Fadl when he started coming regularly to the rabbi's Torah study group held for faculty, and they have appeared numerous times together in public discussing Jewish-Muslim issues. The rabbi says El Fadl is "heroic" because he is willing to criticize Islam from within.

"My belief is that our community needs to hear from Muslims," Rabbi Seidler-Feller said. "I'm not a Pollyanna, but there are not too many of these people [Muslims willing to appear with Jews and speak out] and they should be treated as gems. We have to be very careful, think strategically, and realize the precariousness of their positions among their people.

"What's important is not so much what they are saying to us but what they are saying in their own community. We don't need them to be Zionists."

Rabbi Seidler-Feller disagrees with critics like Pipes, and says that by insisting Muslim leaders "meet all our criteria before we can speak to them, the net result is that we can't talk to anyone."

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