Review: San Francisco Chronicle

San Francisco Chronicle, December 4, 2005

The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam From the Extremists

By Khaled Abou El Fadl

HARPERSANFRANCISCO; 308 Pages; $21.95

Embracing the Infidel: Stories of Muslim Migrants on the Journey West

By Behzad Yaghmaian

DELACORTE/BANTAM DELL; 368 PAGES; $24
Books about Islam just keep on coming, and one can only wonder who reads them. The specialist, inevitably; the general reader, maybe. But do our policymakers? Our national debates are conducted — and policies formulated — on the basis of slogans, half truths, distortions and lies.

Still, knowledge is essential, a point “The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam From the Extremists” underscores. The author, Khaled Abou El Fadl, is a law professor at UCLA who has published 10 books on Islam. His specialty is Islamic jurisprudence, but although his book is detailed and occasionally dry, it lucidly answers important questions Westerners have about Islam. Additionally, it implores Muslim moderates to restore Islam to the traditions of inquiry and tolerance that have been stolen from them by extremists — or puritans, as Abou El Fadl prefers to call them — and urges the West to view that schism as comparable to the violent Reformation that once shook Christianity.

“The Great Theft” explains the origins of modern extremism, its roots in the 18th century reformist Wahhabi movement and its arguments with mainstream Islam. Both mysticism and rationalism, ‘Abd al-Wahhab preached, as well as intellectualism and sectarianism, had undermined Islam; only a literal return to the Prophet’s words, literally interpreted, could restore Islam to itself. Thanks in part to Saudi Arabia’s vigorous export of this radical movement, the puritans have eradicated Islam’s rich history and now dominate the way the religion is viewed. But, says Abou El Fadl, Islam finds itself in a great “transformative moment” — though the majority moderates have been overshadowed by extremism, they can, with knowledge and understanding, still take Islam back.

One manifestation of extremism, is of course, the notion of jihad. Even the non-scholar is familiar with two major interpretations: one, that it is essentially a struggle with oneself for a kind of moral self-improvement; the other, that it is a fight to the death against all infidels. Citing Quranic chapter and verse, and drawing on Islamic scholarship, Abou El Fadl demonstrates that the latter is a radical misinterpretation of the Prophet and what he stood for. Known to us from Osama bin Laden’s various proclamations, this version is especially appealing to those who wish to forge a new identity by defining themselves as heroic followers of the true path.

Similarly, the author argues that it is a puritan perversion of Islam and the Quran to treat women as, say, the Taliban did — that in fact Prophet and text plead for a humane and rational treatment of all people, with human worth and dignity transcending all other considerations. He does so with much passion and scholarly exegesis but is most persuasive when he lays bare the sadistic motives beneath the precepts of the puritans.

Still, the uncomfortable question lingers: Why, if the Quran stresses equality, cooperation, mutual support and so forth, the situation of women is what it is in so many Muslim families in so many countries.

Which leads to my one complaint about this otherwise fine, instructive book. It extols the path of moderation, portrayed as the core of Islam, but, despite many reasons given, does not quite manage to say why the theft of Islam was so thorough. Maybe fanaticism always beats out moderation, but in the case of Islam the moderates seem particularly weak. It’s fascinating to hear Abou El Fadl explain why Saudi Arabia dare not become more moderate (because as guardian of the holy places it “must define orthodoxy in the Muslim world”), but he does not account fully for the disarray, religious and cultural, of so many more moderate Muslim countries.

These are not matters that “Embracing the Infidel: Stories of Muslim Migrants on the Journey West” deals with. The book is not concerned with the nature of Islam. The author, Behzad Yaghmaian, an Iranian American professor of economics, tells the stories of Muslims who for one reason or another have left their homelands.

His book is a gripping tale of hardship, adventure and yearning, of hopes raised and dashed, and of troubled and sometimes heroic adaptations to refugee camps in Bulgaria, tent cities in Greece, slum ghettos in Turkey and, for the luckier ones, fugitive existences in Paris and London. Whether from the Islamic Republic of Iran or Saddam Hussein’s Iraq or post-Taliban Afghanistan, the migrants are bent on survival and a better life in the West.

Their obsession with visas, petitions, passports, documents and borders reminds me of European Jews before and after the outbreak of World War II. I remember the same rumors about countries that don’t send illegal border crossers back, but actually do (Switzerland, then; Greece, now); the same obstacles, both natural and human — hideous mountain ranges; treacherous people smugglers; predatory, brutal border guards.

But traumatic though the situation of these wanderers is, and though they flee horrendous conditions, their fate if they must return home is not as inevitable as it was for European Jews. Many present-day migrants are not classic “political refugees.” Is a woman escaping an oppressive Muslim father a political refugee? Does having your family in Afghanistan wiped out by American bombs earn you political asylum?

One of many strengths of this book is to show how blurry such categories are and what strangely mixed motives impel these brave, complicated people. A masterful storyteller, Yaghmaian reveals many layers to the refugees’ personalities and histories, and some to his own. He wins their trust not because he wants to write a book but because he becomes deeply enmeshed in their lives.

Difficult as things are for the migrants, they can only become worse: The West now deems Afghanistan and Iraq “safe” to return to, while the fear of terrorism has further tightened Western entry requirements. More will ultimately have to go home.

Perhaps the only silver lining a detached observer might find is that the continued presence of such strong-minded, independent people in their homelands might make more likely the realization of the dream, cherished by the likes of Abou El Fadl, for a more moderate Islamic world.

Manfred Wolf teaches literature and the history of ideas at the Fromm Institute, University of San Francisco. He has contributed to numerous publications in the United States and Europe.

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