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.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.
"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.
"I'm hard pressed to think of a Muslim country where puritanical groups have not assassinated an Islamic moderate scholar," El Fadl said.
Threats have also been leveled against moderate Muslims in the United States. Last year, for example, the organizers of a woman-led prayer had to change its location when the original host, a New York art gallery, balked after receiving bomb threats.
Islamic clerics cite Qur’anic verses and other teachings they say prohibit Muslims from taking other Muslim lives, but extremists have just as easily reasoned that the importance of their mission overrides the imperative of not harming fellow Muslims. Indeed, some extremists drawing from the puritanical Wahhabi school of thought in Saudi Arabia argue killing moderate Muslims is called for.
"Extremists feel the moderates are the problem," said Qamar-ul Huda, who works on religion and peacemaking issues at the United States Institute for Peace in Washington. "The moderates get in the way of creating a pure Islamic society. So they become not just moderate Muslims, but the infidel. They are the ones who are seen as corrupt, as cooperating with the West, as instigating the decay in society."
Consider Iraqi police, Huda said. They are dubbed agents of America at a time when America is seen as the new Crusaders. "Any Iraqis who are seen as aligning with Crusaders are legitimate targets because they are working with the enemy. They're just as guilty as the invaders."
Sohail Hashmi, an Islamic law professor at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, said many extremists believe most of the Muslim world lives in a state of "jalallija," an Arabic term that means ignorance, and used to describe Arabia before Islam. Today's extremists believe the Muslim world is again in jalallija.
"If the Muslim world is in a state of jalallija, then we must be the only true Muslims, all others are not true Muslims, and thus God can excuse us for killing them," Hashmi said, explaining extremist reasoning.
"They are more willing to be far more violent against those that are seen as standing in the way of an Islamic order," Hashmi said. "If ordinary Muslims get in the way of the mission and give aid to the secularist elite who are not true Muslims, then it's OK to kill them."
Moderates have tried to counter this reasoning by attacking the theological credibility of the extremists. Last June, Jordan's King Abdullah rallied leading Muslim clerics to issue a fatwa, or religious edict, "forbidding the declaration of any Muslim an apostate." Some Islamic scholars are crafting treatises rooted in Islamic teachings that attack extremist arguments.Ultimately, moderates believe it will be the willingness of extremists to kill other Muslims that will be their undoing. "Muslims are the victims of these attacks more than anybody else," Hashmi said. "The attacks are desperate attempts to keep themselves relevant, to show that they're still powerful enough to wreak havoc."