As I spoke with Khaled M. Abou El Fadl, I could hear his dogs barking in the background. Being a dog lover — some Muslims believe dogs are impure — is one of the least of the supposed offenses that has made the UCLA professor the subject of denunciation and threats. He is an American lawyer and an Islamic jurist, a professor of Islamic law at UCLA, and the head of its Islamic studies program. His latest book, “Reasoning with God: Reclaiming Shari’ah in the Modern Age,” explains what sharia, or Islamic law, is and isn’t, and what it means for contemporary Islam. His scholarly critique of Islamist terrorism and Wahhabi extremism make him an important guide in understanding last week’s violent events in France.
How do you think most Muslims react to news like the Paris shootings?
On the one hand, you’re fighting morally with the terrorists themselves, but you are worried about bigotry and prejudice.
There are three possible reactions: Some people say, yes, I am a Muslim, but don’t look at me, I didn’t commit the crime. When a Jew or Christian does something in the name of Judaism or Christianity, we don’t hold all Jews or Christians responsible, so don’t expect us to be apologetic about the criminality of criminal Muslims. The second response is denial: It must be some conspiracy because a good Muslim cannot possibly do that. This response is becoming less popular. Third, politically active Muslims try to explain that in Islam there is radicalism that goes back to a deep history of colonialism; they try to engage in this sophisticated worldview hoping to avoid further barbarity.
After 9/11, I was in the third camp; I traveled the world, appeared on thousands of television programs to explain what was going on. I eventually got exhausted.
And you got death threats.
I don’t expect any praise for having death threats. As an academic, as a moralist, as a human being, the Islam these people envision is disastrous. It’s not an Islam I can recognize, not the Islam I was raised with, not the Islam of my mother, my father, my neighbors, my friends.
But some say Islam itself is the problem.
They say Islam is evil, that to be moderate, you have to rid yourself of Islam. But it won’t work to define moderation as, get rid of your Koran.
What beyond the obvious makes France a target?
I wish the intelligence community would stop dealing with the ideological manifestoes of Al Qaeda, of Islamic State, as classified material; people [should be able to] read how explicit they are. There’s a complete rejection of modern civilization. They say the enemy — meaning the West, and even Muslims who don’t join their cause — is so powerful that the only way they can defeat the enemy is a prolonged war of attrition. They say, “Hit targets with high symbolic value.” They’re very explicit about it.
The attack on France fits all the categories. It’s a hard symbolic target. France engages in discourse that’s critical of Islamic sacred symbols.
In Egypt, there’s a Christian journalist saying [on television], “I invite my Muslim brethren to throw away the Koran, burn it,” stuff like that. Now, why don’t they target him? Because it’s low value. They’re not going to get much of a rise. So they target areas where they can deepen that divide.
Is there something about France and its Muslim communities that exacerbates radicalization? France that exacerbates radicalization?
In France there’s a particularly exaggerated racial and ethnic problem, even more than the rest of Europe — a general sense that the French look at Arabs and Muslim immigrants as inferior people. That plays a very radicalizing role; it plays into the recruitment by groups like Al Qaeda.
They’re often disaffected kids, from broken homes, who, in a different context could have been gang members in L.A., kids on the margins, who often have a sense of compromised identity, a deep social frustration. They are targeted with a narrative of becoming a hero, a great soldier, a martyr. These kids are pawns in a criminal enterprise.
People have been murdered. I don’t know what the imams in France are doing, but they have a theological Islamic obligation as well as a human and moral obligation to say very explicitly, “This is a crime.”
Is it hard for Muslims to publicly condemn this violence and endorse free speech without seeming to endorse what they may regard as blasphemy?
Devout Muslims would not go around calling the prophet names or making pornographic caricatures of the prophet. But there’s a world of difference between saying, “I wouldn’t do it, I think it’s religiously bigoted or insensitive,” and murder. You don’t see the [official] Muslim world cutting off relations with the West because someone insulted the prophet.
We cannot fall into their trap. We cannot allow them to manipulate our emotions. Times of crime and murder are not the time to quibble over whether freedom of speech is a Western value or a Christian value or a Muslim value. The important thing is that people were murdered who were innocently doing what they have a right to do. Terrorism is terrorism.
How does Islamic law deal with free expression, maybe even insults about Muhammad?
There is no single law position about whether someone who curses or insults the prophet deserves punishment or not. When it came to faulting the prophet, there were Muslim poets who would mock him or his refusal of wealth or his rejection of alcohol. These precedents were discussed in Islamic law, [with] enormous debates as to whether this is something that the state can take jurisdiction of, whether punishment is a number of lashes or not at all.
The view that insulting the prophet deserves death was born with “The Satanic Verses” by Salman Rushdie and the fatwa issued by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini, trying to capitalize on a political moment. Think about it: Generations of Western travelers traveled up and down the Muslim world, wrote numerous works, called the prophet every type of name, and it was a non-issue because it had no political resonance.
The Koran notes that at the time of the prophet, even some followers accused him of being insane or having epileptic fits. And nowhere in the Koran does it say “kill them.” Nowhere.
How can it be combated?
How do you fight the shock of slitting someone’s throat? I wish that there was some intelligent counter-media initiative to balance that warfare of violence and images. In military conflicts, you don’t want journalists to show the most gross pictures [of the enemy dead], which will actually make people sympathize with the enemy. But these guys intentionally take the most shocking pictures to induce a sense of repulsion and fear. They take pictures of their own dead and post them saying, “Look — this person has left this ugly world and is in heaven. Wouldn’t you want to be like that?”
What must the French do now?
The French government has an obligation to identify areas where people might be particularly vulnerable, because of what they engage in — artists, or at synagogues, or a mosque targeted by white racists. It has an obligation to secure these places. The intelligence community [should] go into [Muslim] communities and say, “Please help, because we get no pleasure out of putting innocent Muslims in jail. Help us to know who the bad guys are.” Your best antiterrorism data comes from your allies within these communities.
I wish them success.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
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