The Center for Near Eastern Studies (CNES) at the University of California, Los Angeles and the UCLA School of Law's Journal for Islamic and Near Eastern Law co-sponsored a lecture (podcast available here) last month by Khaled Abou El Fadl, chair of the Islamic Studies Interdepartmental Program, with the vague title "Shari'ah Watch: A View from the Inside."
The flyer for the lecture promised "an informed discussion about Shariah and its role and impact in the West," yet Abou El Fadl delivered neither. Instead, his audience of 35 -- comprising mostly seniors and left-wing students -- witnessed a meandering, repetitive lecture that had little or nothing to do with the stated premise. Indeed, despite acknowledging the growth of Westerners' interest in Shariah in the wake of 9/11, Abou El Fadl expressed surprise that an intelligent person would find it a remotely interesting topic: "It's exciting for me, but it's rarely exciting for people who do not relish medieval legal discourses ... to say the least it's a rather odd position to suddenly find Shariah jumping into public discourses in the West."
What is odd is why more Middle East studies professors don't relish the opportunity to condemn the medieval practices sanctioned by Shariah -- stonings, beheadings, honor killings, and execution for apostasy, for starters.
Instead, Abou El Fadl spent over fifteen minutes describing alleged acts of violence worldwide against Muslims by non-Muslims, a trend he ascribed to "the effect of the Islamophobic hate tract."
When he did get around to discussing Shariah, it was only to claim that its detractors were motivated by bigotry:
We look at the history of anti-Islamic discourse, particularly in my field, a discourse in which Shariah is flattened to be a symbol of barbarism. ... This is what Edward Said responded to in his famous book, Orientalism. I describe it as a civil anti-Muslim discourse.
Actually, most of its critics merely want to stay alive, for it turns out that barbarism does indeed come with the territory.
In what would come to constitute the bulk of his lecture, Abou El Fadl launched into a litany against what he called a "frenzy of self-appointed experts" -- individuals who have dared to criticize Shariah and who have opposed its implementation in the West:
[There is] a battle over the authority, legitimacy -- in academia, especially -- over who gets to speak for Shariah in the West. ... The various discourses that we find from the Steven Emersons, the Robert Spencers, the Daniel Pipes, countless 'watch' folks, the Jihad Watch folks -- various pseudo-experts on whatever they wish to be experts on. ... The idea is these people [Muslims] don't even respect each other's lives, so how can you expect them to respect anyone else's life? Now this fundamental message of Islam, which is argued to have been from the start to this day: one can politely ignore it, but the fact remains that it is a violent, totalitarian, dominating ideology.
In fact, it's the apologist discourse emanating from the Abou El Fadls of the world that is the "dominating ideology" in universities across the country.
Abou El Fadl then proceeded to examine quotes by writers he believes exemplifies this alarming "discourse" and to which he attributed "serious consequences" and "challenges to the post-humanist ethos." They included Bruce Bawer, Michael Savage, Mark Steyn, Glenn Beck, and, again, Islam scholar Robert Spencer, who, El Fadl claimed:
[j]ust made $4,000,000 dollars last year. ... A lecture like this with him would cost the sponsors $10,000. Islam bashing is very lucrative. Shariah bashing ... is also extremely lucrative.
To make $4,000,000 at $10,000 per speech would require four hundred speeches per year. When contacted by the authors for comment, Spencer confirmed that "I have never made $4,000,000 in a year, or anything close to it. I have never charged $10,000 for a talk, or anything close to it. Khaled Abou El Fadl is lying outright."
This statement points to Abou El Fadl's making things up -- shocking behavior for a professor of law at a leading research university. And it didn't stop there. Abou El Fadl went on to paraphrase a quote from one of Spencer's books:
Spencer summed it up: 'Sure, there are violent quotes in the Bible, but the difference is Muslims don't have an interpretative tradition.' ... But that's what being a Shariah scholar is all about: an interpretative tradition.
To which Spencer has responded:
I never said that. I said that they don't have an interpretative tradition that mitigates the literal force of the Qur'anic verses inciting to violence. Obviously they have an interpretative tradition; I discuss it at length in several books.
The smear-campaign continued. Lamenting the alleged participation of such experts in government-sponsored counterterrorism measures, intelligence-gathering, and terrorism trials, Abou El Fadl noted with dismay that Middle East Forum director Daniel Pipes -- who, not coincidentally, has been a critic of Abou El Fadl's scholarship -- was appointed to the U.S. Peace Institute in 2003 and that Investigative Project on Terrorism founder Steven Emerson is:
[a] member of the very influential Ethics and Public Policy Institute. I discovered that while I was invited to Qatar to schmooze with the royalty once, I admit, in my life, Emerson is a regular. ... He brags about [it] constantly -- he rubs elbows with the ambassadors, with the royals. The irony is ... he gets to tell these people 'you're terrorists, you're animals, you're disgusting' and he'll be invited again and welcomed again and celebrated again.
For the record, Steven Emerson, contacted by the authors, responds that he is not a member of the Ethics and Public Policy Institute, nor has he ever been to Qatar, let alone conferred with Qatari royalty. Abou El Fadl simply made up a story to suit his narrative. One wonders if El Fadl teaches his law students that lying about one's political opponents is acceptable, professional behavior.
In answer to a question about the 2010 Oklahoma "Save the State" ballot initiative banning the future implementation of Shariah or international law, Abou El Fadl called it a "xenophobic measure" and claimed that "this initiative ... was supported by Brigitte Gabriel, hardly an authority on anything Islamic." Actually, Brigitte Gabriel -- a Lebanese native, author, and counterterrorism expert whose Christian family was persecuted by Muslims -- would seem to know a thing or two about the subject.
Referring to the emergence of Shariah courts in England -- something the Oklahoma measure seeks to avoid in the U.S. -- Abou El Fadl cited one of his student's research to the ludicrous effect that "Shariah courts in England are overcompensating and that women, on average, are faring better in Shariah courts than in secular courts. ... If [the student is] correct, it's very interesting."
Becoming even more unhinged, El Fadl next compared critics of Shariah to Osama bin Laden. These critics, he claimed:
[h]ave a complete ... disinterest in the subtleties and nuance of argument and law. ... If I want to learn about Jewish law, do I find the best Rabbinic authority ... and read that person, or do I go buy a book on Jewish law by a student of bin Laden and read that as an authoritative statement on Jewish law? ... What's happening in the U.S. is that people here are preferring books on Shariah by students of the bin Ladens of the world.
When the question-and-answer period ended, Abou El Fadl had defended the concept of Shariah without ever defining it. When he did address Shariah, it was to imply that it is a benign, uncontroversial -- even boring -- legal system. But there is a difference between being boring and being harmless.
Instead, El Fadl spent much of his lecture insulting and fabricating stories about political opponents such as Spencer and Emerson. For the chair of UCLA's Islamic Studies Interdepartmental Program -- and the Omar and Azmeralda Alfi Distinguished Professor in Islamic Law at UCLA's School of Law -- this is inexcusable. Now that this information is publicly available, will Abou El Fadl's superiors take steps to prevent a repetition?
We call on law school dean Rachel F. Moran to investigate this incident and to look more generally at Abou El Fadl's record. We call on UCLA chancellor Gene Block to draw a clear line against dishonesty among his faculty.
Cinnamon Stillwell, the West Coast Representative for Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum, co-wrote this with Eric Golub, publisher of the Tygrrrr Express blog. Stillwell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.