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Winter 2001
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An Islamic scholar gives his perspective on the volatile combination of U.S. arrogance and Muslim fundamentalism that has bred an extreme and violent form of puritan Islam

By Khaled Abou El Fadl
Photography by Nikki Keddie

Extreme acts of violence like the September 11 terrorist attacks on theWorld Trade Center and Pentagon test the mettle and moral depth of societies — the society that is targeted by the violence and the society that generated it.

As Americans, we ought to reflect upon the ways that our own Middle East policies and the arrogance with which we deal with dark-skinned people we refer to collectively as "the Arabs" contribute to the radicalization and polarization of Muslims. On the other hand, Muslims, both within America and without, should reflect upon the ways that their own discourses and symbolisms contribute to a belligerent and morally irresponsible attitude toward Western countries.

There is no doubt that the vast majority of Muslims are not terrorists and will never take part in acts of violence or hate. And there is also little doubt that Muslim and Arab organizations have every reason to be genuinely concerned in the wake of these horrendous acts by Islamophobics and the kind of frenzied atmosphere of hate that they are capable of generating. Nevertheless, as a Muslim scholar, I feel that the horror of the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, and the subsequent anthrax attacks through the mail, though not definitively linked to the perpetrators of the September 11 atrocities, demand a serious, conscientious pause — a reflective stand upon the prevailing moral and ethical structure of contemporary Islam.There is little doubt that terrorism and hate crimes — make no mistake about it, terrorism is, first and foremost, a hate crime — are most often an aberration. Terrorism, however, is often an extreme manifestation of underlying mainstream social and ideological currents prevalent in a particular culture. Terrorism is not a virus that suddenly infects the brain of a person; rather, it takes long-standing and cumulative cultural and rhetorical dynamics to produce a terrorist.

The classical culture of Islamic law is uncompromisingly hostile to all acts of terrorism. Terrorism, known as hirabah in Islamic law, is considered cowardly, predatory and a grand sin punishable by death. In fact, the Muslim juristic tradition equated terrorism with the Quranic concept of fitnah (betrayal and oppression), which the Quran describes as a crime against humanity. Consequently, classical Muslim jurists considered crimes of terror to be "acts of corruption on the earth" — the most heinous and reprehensible type of crime committed


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