A UCLA professor of Islamic law, one of the nation's most prominent Muslim critics of Saudi Arabia's puritanical brand of Islam known as Wahhabism, has been appointed to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, the White House announced Wednesday.
Khaled Abou el Fadl, 39, a blunt-spoken scholar and longtime champion of human rights, pledged to bring "meticulous fairness" to his work on the national panel.
"I focus on Saudi Arabia purely and exclusively as a human rights issue," he said of his past scrutiny of that desert kingdom. "It should not be part of a grudge against Islam."
Abou el Fadl, the commission's only Muslim member, is expected to bring particular expertise to its other current key areas of concern, including Iraq and Afghanistan. The commission is an independent federal agency created in 1998 to monitor and advise the U.S. government on religious freedom around the world. The nine voting members are appointed by the president or Congress.
The appointment of Abou el Fadl comes at a time of growing attention in Washington on whether Saudi Arabia's puritanical creed has helped incite intolerance, religious hatred and even terrorism.
The religious freedom commission in May called on Congress to fund a study on whether Saudi Arabia was exporting a religious ideology that "explicitly promotes hate, intolerance and other human rights violations and, in some cases, violence" toward other religious groups. In June, a U.S. Senate subcommittee held the first in a series of hearings about the Wahhabi movement's possible links with terrorism.
The Wahhabi creed, which followers prefer to call orthodox Islam, was inspired by an 18th century Arabian evangelist, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, as a back-to-basics movement to cleanse Islam of polytheistic corruptions and other heretical innovations.
Critics, however, argue that the creed denigrates women, dehumanizes those who do not follow it and laid the ideological groundwork for Osama bin Laden's terrorist crusades.
"The supremacist creed of the puritan groups is distinctive and uniquely dangerous," Abou el Fadl has written. "They do not merely seek self-empowerment, but aggressively seek to disempower, dominate or destroy others."
But the scholar also said some of the recent hearings on Wahhabism have troubled him for including what he called exaggerations and unsubstantiated charges about the scope of Saudi Arabia's reach into terrorist financing networks and American Muslim mosques.
Abou el Fadl has also taught immigration and investment law at UCLA
On Wednesday, the White House also announced the appointment of Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Colorado to the commission and reappointed Richard Land of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.