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Islamic Law Professor Fears Unseen Enemy

The UCLA scholar has been targeted by gunfire at home and threats reported in Arab media.

August 27, 2006|Teresa Watanabe | Times Staff Writer

Who wants Khaled Abou el Fadl dead?

The question has haunted the UCLA Islamic law professor since April, when he says a bullet whizzed past his ear and lodged in a book as he was standing near his living room bookshelf in front of his open front door.

His fears intensified this month, after a news report in the Anaheim-based Al Watan newspaper and other Arabic-language media carried what Abou el Fadl calls a "solicitation of murder" against him. The article reported that Iranian extremists had declared it permissible to spill his blood because the scholar purportedly advised President Bush to support Israel's strike against Lebanon, resist a cease-fire with the Hezbollah militia and block the Islamist movement.

Abou el Fadl, one of the nation's most prominent critics of Saudi Arabia's puritanical practice of Islam known as Wahhabism, called the news report "a total fabrication." He said he has never met or advised Bush, although the White House appointed him to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom in 2003. He also said he opposed the Israeli strike on Lebanon and was highly critical of U.S. foreign policy in the Mideast.

"There is not one iota of truth in it," Abou el Fadl, 42, said of the news report, first published in early August in an Egyptian news outlet, Al-Misriyun, before being reprinted in the Anaheim paper and elsewhere.

But members of the FBI's joint terrorism task force, which independently picked up the news report, were so concerned that they visited Abou el Fadl recently to warn him to take security precautions, the scholar said in an interview last week. He added that he has also met with FBI agents and University of California police, who have begun implementing heightened security measures.

FBI officials declined to comment, although they did not deny Abou el Fadl's account of their visits. The Los Angeles police detective assigned to investigate the April shooting could not be reached for comment.

The editor of Al Watan, a popular Arabic-language weekly newspaper, did not return phone calls for comment. A man who answered the phone at Al Watan's listed number said only that the story was published because "it's news, and we publish news," before hanging up.

It is not clear how widely the report has circulated. Abou el Fadl said he was contacted for interviews about it by at least 20 journalists from major Mideast print and broadcast publications earlier this month. But the Washington-based Middle East Media Research Institute, which monitors and translates Arabic-language reports, found a story about it only in Al Watan. Afra Jalabi, a Montreal-based journalist and columnist for a Saudi newspaper, said she found it on several Arabic-language websites and discussion forums several days ago but that it has now largely disappeared from cyberspace.

Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Anaheim office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said Al Watan's website is highly popular for its populist criticism of undemocratic Mideast regimes and its sometimes sensational content. But he said that in his constant interactions with Muslims, he has heard no one discuss the report about Abou el Fadl.

Still, Abou el Fadl said the report and the gunshot have made him more wary this time than after past threats.

"I've received so many death threats, and I've never had an impending sense of doom," he said. "This time, we're taking it more seriously."

Abou el Fadl has long drawn controversy. A Kuwaiti native of Egyptian descent, he was imprisoned and persecuted in the Mideast during the 1980s for his pro-democracy writings. He fled to the United States in 1982 to attend Yale University and earned a law degree at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1998, he completed his doctorate in Islamic law at Princeton University and was recruited to UCLA.

In his prolific writings, lectures and expert testimony, Abou el Fadl has helped document human rights abuses in several Mideast countries, including Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt and Israel. He asserts some views about women's rights that are too edgy for many Muslims -- that women may lead men in prayer, for instance.

But he is best known for his outspoken criticism of the Wahhabi creed. The literalist interpretation of Islam was inspired by an 18th century Arabian evangelist, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, as a back-to-basics movement to cleanse the tradition of polytheistic corruptions and other heretical innovations. Abou el Fadl, however, argues that the creed denigrates women and non-Muslims, dehumanizes those who do not follow it and has laid the ideological groundwork for Osama bin Laden's terrorist crusades.

In his latest book, "The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam From the Extremists," Abou el Fadl calls for a "counter-jihad" of moderate Muslims to destroy the influence and legitimacy of puritanical Islam.

In the last year, he has promoted his message to Muslim audiences overseas in lecture tours in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore; at the American and British universities in Cairo; and in numerous interviews with Mideast and Southeast Asian media.

Abou el Fadl suspects the flurry of attention on him overseas may have drawn the latest attacks. He is unsure who may be behind them. But he said he does not intend to back down.

"If they scare me into silence, they will have succeeded," he said. "I'm not going to give them that victory."

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