Should an academic lecture on Sharia (Islamic law) become a platform for promoting fear of “Islamophobia”? This is exactly what occurred on April 14, 2011, when the University of California, Los Angeles, held the third and final lecture from Khaled Abou El Fadl—Omar and Azmeralda Alfi Distinguished Professor in Islamic Law and chair of the Islamic Studies Interdepartmental Program at UCLA—in the series, “Sharia Watch: AView from the Inside.” The lecture was cosponsored by UCLA’s School of Law, Center for Near Eastern Studies, Journal for Islamic and Near Eastern Law, and Islamic Studies Interdepartmental Program.
The receptive audience of approximately 30 people consisted mostly of members of the local Muslim community and graduate students from UCLA’s Near Eastern Languages and Cultures Department.
In her introductory remarks, UCLA law professor Asli Bali explained that the aim of the series was, “to better understand Sharia, as there is a lot of misinformation on what it is in the West.” But, as in previous lectures, only 15 minutes of the hour-long lecture were actually devoted to Sharia; the bulk of the lecture focused on Islamophobia in America and the West.
Abou El Fadl claimed that the phenomenon of Islamophobia is due to racism and that it originated in medieval Europe where, as he put it, “Jews and Muslims were repeatedly constructed in European literature as ‘folkloric monsters.’” This is incorrect, for both race and ethnicity were alien ideas in medieval Europe. In fact, the terms “race” and “racism” appeared for the first time in European belle-letters in the eighteenth century.
Continuing the anti-Western diatribe, Abou El Fadl later added that, “the construction of the racial and ethnic alien stems from the West’s ethnocentrism.” Of Islamic supremacy, he had nothing to say.
He even blamed the West for the very concept he was espousing:
The term ‘Islamophobia’ is inadequate as it is limited. Discourse on Islam has a long history but the word itself, Islam, is problematic for it is constructed and reconstructed by the West.
Without citing a single piece of evidence—and in contradiction to FBI statistics on anti-religious hate crimes—Abou El Fadl alleged that in the U.S., “every single week there are new victims of Islamophobia.”
Employing a false correlation popular among those advocating the view of Muslims as victims, Abou El Fadl insisted that Islamophobia is similar to anti-Semitism:
Those crazy right wing nuts who keep on telling the public that Muslims want to impose Sharia on Americans have in common[sic] with anti-Semites who to this day propel the ideas of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
Betraying the disingenuousness of this comparison, Abou El Fadl and Basli later circulated a December 2010 Huffington Post article by leftist journalist Max Blumenthal alleging an “Islamophobic crusade” on the part of, among others, “right wing ultra-Zionists” and the “pro-Israel lobby.” Such rhetoric, paradoxically, hearkens back to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. It was, they asserted, “great literature.”
In bemoaning the discomfort among Americans with the building of mosques such as Park51 (the ground zero mosque), Abou El Fadl failed to mention that non-Muslim houses of worship are forbidden and bibles routinely destroyed in Saudi Arabia, Buddhist shrines were blown up by the Taliban in Afghanistan, and Israelis, or travelers with an Israeli customs official stamp on their passports, are barred from entering countries such as Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Kuwait, Libya, Syria, or, in the case of Iran, from flying to Israel.
Later, Abou El Fadl—without naming names as is his usual practice—made the following accusation:
Those who spread the idea that Muslims want to dominate the West and America are lunatics. . . . In America, the Muslim population is about six million, which is close to two percent. It is as if this two percent of Muslims can actually take over America. I mean, you have to be seriously paranoid to think this.
But the facts belie his accusations of paranoia: members of that small percentage of the American population killed approximately 2,992 people on September 11, 2001; bombed the World Trade Center in 1993; opened fire at Fort Hood, killing 13 and wounding 29 on November 5, 2005; shot two soldiers outside a military recruiting center on June 1, 2009; left a car bomb in Times Square, in New York City, on May 1, 2010; and the list goes on.
In addition, the Muslim population in the U.S. is under two million, not the inflated figure of six million—which conveniently matches that of Holocaust victims and outnumbers American Jews—cited by Abou El Fadl, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), and others with an interest in manipulating public opinion.
In reality, this tiny sliver of the population poses a very real threat to the security and safety of American citizens. Nonetheless, Abou El Fadl chose to shift the focus and insist that it is Muslims who have something to fear.
During the final 20 minutes of his lecture, Abou El Fadl at last addressed Sharia, discussing the wealth of literature that, as he put it, “like rabbinic literature on the Torah,” exists in the Islamic tradition. After explaining the various definitions of Sharia, he concluded that, “the challenge for the modern Muslim is how he or she relates to his religious obligations (taklifs).” He then added:
The challenge for every Muslim thinker must be how they can enter the modern world and contribute something to this modern world from their rich religious tradition. That is the real challenge.
Ironically, Abou El Fadl ended up calling for the same thing as members of what he dubbed the “lunatic right”: the need for reform in the Islamic world. Based on Abou El Fadl’s Islamist proclivities, however, his version of reform is unlikely to be as far reaching as that emanating from the West or from true moderate Muslims.
Moreover, by focusing our attention on “Islamophobia,” the Abou El Fadls of the academic world have successfully hijacked the narrative and made it that much more difficult to achieve reform. Such efforts to redirect, redefine, and rewrite today’s debate over the challenges the West has had to confront post 9/11 have become part of the problem, not the solution.