- Professor of law
- Wahhabi apologist
- Deems Islamist terrorism “part of the historical legacy of colonialism and not the legacy of Islamic law”
- Cultivated relationships with such Islamic extremist organizations as the Holy Land Foundation and the Council on American-Islamic Relations
- Board of Directors member of Human Rights Watch
Born in 1963, Khaled Medhat Abou El Fadl is a law professor at UCLA, a visiting professor at Yale Law School, a Board of Directors member of Human Rights Watch, a consultant to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, and an advisor to a number of major law firms. He also was appointed by President George W. Bush to the Commission on International Religious Freedom.
El Fadl has cultivated a reputation as a "Muslim moderate." The Boston Globe, for instance, has called him "a moderate voice ... against radical elements of Islam." The Jerusalem Post identifies him as one of the few Muslims who "take a stand despite the [personal] risks," in favor of a "pluralistic, tolerant and non-violent Islam." The Los Angeles Daily News describes him as "a leading critic of Islamic radicalism." And the Los Angeles Times lauds him as a "longtime champion of human rights."
El Fadl fits into an Egyptian tradition, currently called the tradition of the "New Islamists," that is outspokenly critical of Wahhabism, the extreme brand of fundamentalist Islam that is practiced in Saudi Arabia. Sheikh Muhammad al-Ghazali (1917-96), a leading New Islamist, remains one of El Fadl's chief intellectual influences. Ghazali criticized the dominant interpretation of Islam in the Saudi kingdom, especially as concerns women. He also wrote a book in 1989 that accused the Wahhabis of a fanaticism harmful to the reputation of Islam. The Muslim Public Affairs Council of Los Angeles, with which El Fadl was once closely affiliated, has a generally New Islamist outlook; it explicitly "rejects many of the ideas espoused by the doctrine of Wahhabism."
Despite El Fadl's general antipathy toward Saudis and Wahhabis, he nonetheless has offered excuses for their transgressions. The Wahhabis, he says, "do not seek to dominate -- to attain supremacy in the world … They are more than happy living within the boundaries of Saudi Arabia." Yet this statement ignores the Saudi regime's policy, in place since the 1960s, of spending billions of dollars to spread the Wahhabi ideology abroad, precisely in an effort to dominate.
El Fadl declares that there has been "no examination" of the extent to which objectionable materials are found in Saudi-funded religious schools and mosques outside the kingdom. But the U.S. government has already closed down several Saudi-funded institutions in the United States, such as the Institute of Islamic and Arabic Sciences in America. As Stephen Schwartz, author of The Two Faces of Islam, notes, "There is no doubt about official Saudi funding of Wahhabism, and there is little or no need for further expenditure of federal funds holding hearings on it."
In addition, El Fadl has been known to speak out in defense of Saudi-funded terrorists. In November 1995, for example, he provided sworn testimony in an "Affidavit in Support of Application for Bail" for Mousa Muhammed Abu Marzook, a top Hamas official, assuring the court that Abu Marzook could be trusted to abide by any bail agreement he might reach with the U.S. government because he was required to do so, "pursuant to Islamic law."
Like other Islamists, El Fadl wants Muslims to live by Islamic law (Sharia), the law that endorses, among other things, slavery, execution for apostasy, the repression of women, and the maltreatment of non-Muslims. "Sharia and Islam are inseparable," he has written, "and one cannot be without the other." In a revealing passage, he confesses that his "primary loyalty, after God, is to the Sharia."
To make Islamic law more appealing, El Fadl blurs or conceals some of its unpleasant realities. Consider the sensitive issues of adultery, jihad, and relations with non-Muslims:
Adultery: El Fadl appeared on Oprah Winfrey’s television show shortly after a Nigerian woman, Amina Lawal, had been convicted of adultery and sentenced to death by stoning in March 2002. When Winfrey asked him about this case, El Fadl replied that Nigerian authorities had made a mistake because "The punishment for adultery is really a symbolic punishment. It's a punishment that is designed to make a point about how bad this crime is." Yet this assertion was untrue. The death penalty has been applied repeatedly in adultery cases, most notably in Iran and in Afghanistan under the Taliban. Islamic law's hudud punishments (prescribed in the Qur'an) are not merely symbolic.
Jihad: El Fadl hides the historic meaning of this term (i.e., the expansion of Muslim-ruled territories primarily through the use of force) and instead variously defines it as "the struggle waged to cleanse oneself from the vices of the heart" or "to strive hard or struggle in pursuit of a just cause." He disingenuinely substitutes his own Qur'anic reading of this word, blithely discarding a millennium of interpretation by Muslim scholars and rulers. Using his definition, he concludes that jihad is "a good thing." He denounces those who "carelessly dump on jihad," accusing them of "prejudicial, dangerous talk" reminiscent (so he writes) of Nazi preparations for the Holocaust.
Jizya: El Fadl similarly whitewashes the jizya tax, a discriminatory and humiliating poll tax imposed exclusively on non-Muslims by their Islamic rulers. He renders it into something historically quite unrecognizable -- "money collected by the Islamic polity from non-Muslims in return for the protection from the Islamic state."
El Fadl's efforts on behalf of Sharia go still further. As the academic reviewer for the "Origins of Islamic Law" unit of the Constitutional Rights Foundation, he is at least associated with, if not the author of, an analysis pushing for a new amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would enable Sharia-like blasphemy laws to encroach on traditional American notions of freedom of religion. The proposed amendment reads: "The First Amendment shall not be interpreted to protect blasphemous speech. States shall be free to enact anti-blasphemy laws as long as they prohibit offensive speech against all religions."
El Fadl blames the West for whatever ails Islam and Muslims. Islamic terrorism, for example, he deems "part of the historical legacy of colonialism and not the legacy of Islamic law." By holding that "Islamic civilization has been wiped out by an aggressive and racist European civilization," he exculpates Muslims for every wrong they commit.
Nor is the problem restricted to the colonial past. In the United States, El Fadl finds, the "demonization of Muslims is well-camouflaged"; he cites unnamed and unspecified "plots and conspiracies" against Muslims. After 9/11, El Fadl falsely issued alarmist predictions about "an explosion of hate crimes against Muslim and Arab Americans, both by police and by ordinary citizens."
El Fadl impugns analyses of Islam that use the term "militant Islam" as nothing more than "ideological ravings." He relentlessly disparages Muslim liberals and free thinkers such as Salman Rushdie and Taslima Nasrin for promoting what he calls "secular fundamentalism." He describes the work of Ibn Warraq -- the pseudonym of an ex-Muslim who has written scholarly works critical of the Qur'an and the Islamic religion -- as hackneyed propaganda. "If you already know what Islamophobes and Orientalists believe, this author has nothing original to add," says El Fadl.
Along these same lines, El Fadl harbors the characteristic Islamist bias against non-Muslims. In early 2003, shortly after President Bush had appointed New York University law professor Noah Feldman to serve as legal advisor to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, El Fadl expressed outrage that a Jew had been selected for this task.
El Fadl promotes the standard Islamist line exonerating Muslims from responsibility for terrorism. He testified to the 9/11 Commission in December 2003 that: "Statistically, after the attacks of 9/11, Muslim and Arab terrorism was responsible for 2 percent of the sum total of terrorist incidents taking place in the United States." Yet this statement runs contrary to every reputable post-9/11 analysis of this subject. Most notably, scholar Robert Leiken surveyed 212 suspected and convicted terrorists implicated in North America and Western Europe between the World Trade Center bombing in 1993 and December 2003. He found that "86 percent [of the culprits] were Muslim immigrants, the remainder being mainly [Muslim] converts (8 percent) and African American Muslims."
Further to exonerate the American Muslim population, El Fadl told the 9/11 Commission that terrorists, in most instances, are "outsiders … on the margins of American-Muslim society." But in fact, the record shows that in most cases of jihadi violence on U.S. soil, the terrorists come from within the bosom of the American Muslim community.
Having dissociated Muslims from terrorism, El Fadl then railed against U.S. counterterrorism measures, characterizing the steps taken post-9/11 (such as the use of secret evidence and heightened surveillance) as evidence of the government having "turned against" American Muslims.
Over the years, El Fadl has maintained cordial relations with two of the most extreme Islamist institutions in the United States. First, he contributed funds to the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development (HLF), an Islamic pseudo-charity that was closed down in December 2001 on grounds that it was collecting money to support the Hamas terror organization. He portrayed HLF's shuttering as evidence of "the systematic undermining of Muslim civil liberties" in the United States.
Second, El Fadl consistently lavishes praise on the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) for its "civility and grace." He cites the "important role" played by this "shining example" of Muslim leadership, and he thanks the organization "for setting an example" for all Muslims through its "admirable work." Expressing his hope that CAIR's influence will spread on university campuses nationwide, El Fadl assists CAIR in its fundraising campaigns. "May God aid you in your efforts and amply reward you for standing in justice and truth," he has told the leaders at CAIR.
But El Fadl does not approve of everything American Islamist organizations do. His "biggest problem" with them, he says, has to do with their lack of "intellectual grounding" in Islamic tradition. His criticism concerns their lack of sophistication and cultural depth, not their goals. He laments that among American Muslim organizations, the intellectual and moral grounding -- not just in the Islamic texts but in the pluralities of the Islamic tradition -- is woefully absent.
Ultimately, El Fadl is engaged in trying to develop a more sophisticated way of presenting militant Islam. He is working toward the same goals as are more brazenly Islamist groups like CAIR, but he takes care to present his views in a publicly palatable fashion. With rare exceptions, El Fadl's differences with the overt Islamists are those of style, not substance.
This profile is adapted from the article "Stealth Islamist: Khaled Abou El Fadl," written by Daniel Pipes and published by The Middle East Quarterly in Spring 2004.