On April 4, 2001, a self-described advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. by the name of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), issued a press release1 attacking my forthcoming book, Children of Abraham: An Introduction to Islam for Jews.2 CAIR's attack snowballed into a campaign of personal vilification, which eventuated in a Jordanian political leader calling me an apostate (murtadd).3 Neither CAIR nor Sheikh 'Abd al-Mun'im Abu Zant of Jordan's Islamic Action Front had ever read or even seen my book, but the CAIR attack prompted the latter to issue an appeal to Muslims, asking them to unite to kill me. According to most interpretations of the Shari'a (Islamic law), an apostate from Islam must be executed.
At the time, it was not clear whether Abu Zant's outburst constituted a formal fatwa–a religious edict. But the sheikh was unequivocal in calling for my "blood to be shed." For its part, CAIR denied that Abu Zant called for my death and claimed that my American publisher concocted the death threat in order to increase sales,4 even though the threat first had been reported in a Jordanian newspaper, Ash-Shahid. Abu Zant lay low for a time, but on July 22, he again called me an apostate, and declared it lawful (halal) to shed my blood. This time Ash-Shahid expressly called his statement a fatwa and bragged about the worldwide media coverage given to Abu Zant and Ash-Shahid.5
The inflammatory language used by Nihad Awad, CAIR's executive director, to vilify my book, was bound to incite reactions like that of Abu Zant. Put differently, the accusations and the language used by CAIR in its statements, especially those in Arabic, could not but result in calls for violence against me. And so I find myself, the author of a book written to promote a wider understanding of Islam, under a death threat and in need of protection. CAIR has put my life in peril. Its actions are the culmination of a campaign meant to intimidate and silence not only me, but any Muslim in America who would speak out in favor of freedom, tolerance, and dialogue.
What is CAIR? And why me?
An Islamist Front
CAIR is the principle front organization of a coalition of Islamist (or fundamentalist Muslim) groups that have taken root in America over the past two decades. Most are spin-offs of the Islamic Association of Palestine (IAP), such as the American Muslims for Jerusalem, the Holy Land Foundation, and the Islamic Institute. These are extreme groups, and some have even come under federal investigation for alleged support of Middle Eastern terrorism. But CAIR's mission has differed from the others: its special assignment is the insinuation of the Islamist agenda into mainstream American politics. Like the many front organizations established by the Soviet Union in its heyday, CAIR works to give a "white bread" image to advocates of illiberal and even radical ideas.
CAIR is run by a duo. The executive director, Nihad Awad, is a Palestinian; his associate, Ibrahim ("Dougie") Hooper, is an American convert. Awad actively propagates the cause in Arabic, while Hooper handles most of the English-language work. To create the perception that CAIR speaks for Islam in America, the two indefatigably issue position statements on anything remotely touching on Muslim or Arab affairs, reacting on everything from U.S. foreign policy to letters in college newspapers.
In fact, no one organization speaks for Islam in America, and no Islamist group ever will. Scarcely 10 percent of American Muslims can be classified as Islamists—the extremist fringe of contemporary Islam. An additional 5 percent are sympathizers, and another 5 percent agree with Islamists on certain issues. Assuming a Muslim population of up to five million,6 CAIR's total potential constituency cannot exceed one million, and its actual supporters are probably only small a fraction of that number. The overwhelming majority of American Muslims have no Islamist sympathies, and most have never even heard of CAIR.
Indeed, a very large proportion of Muslims in the United States are refugees from Islamist regimes, of the kind for which CAIR serves as an apologist. This applies to the majority of the perhaps million Iranians in the United States, as well as the majority of Sudanese in the country. Many Pakistanis came to the United States as refugees from the Islamist dictatorship of General Zia. Recently they have been joined by Afghans fleeing the tyranny of the Taliban. The agenda put forward by CAIR is anathema to this large majority.
Unfortunately, it has not always been easy for non-Muslim Americans to determine who speaks for whom in the Muslim community. CAIR and its fellow extremist organizations have had surprising success in being accepted at the highest levels of the U.S. government. The picture of Awad and Hooper in the company of then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright at a festive Ramadan dinner in the State Department's elegant diplomatic rooms (at which, to top things off, she urged them to find recruits to apply for government jobs)7 gave rise to consternation among many American Muslims. It also aroused suspicions, with some suggesting that CAIR is valued at Foggy Bottom as a back channel to Islamists in the Middle East and others concluding that the State Department is simply ignorant. In either case, there is legitimate cause for alarm.
Fortunately, some major American institutions are waking up to the real nature of CAIR. Partly as a result of the fallout from my book, the American Jewish Committee has refused to participate in any activities of which CAIR is part, followed by the American Jewish Congress and the Anti-Defamation League. These organizations are both appalled by CAIR's extremism and aware of its small constituency. There are other signs that CAIR's extremism is becoming an issue. For example, Salon.com8 and The Hill,9 two publications hitherto completely uninterested in CAIR, published powerful and widely-noted exposיs. Other media (such as The Boston Globe10 and The Weekly Standard11) noted the organization's extremism.
CAIR has attempted to build a wider following by "defending" Islam and Muslims against perceived acts of misrepresentation, defamation, and discrimination. American Muslims are rightly sensitive to manifestations of prejudice, and have every right to protest them. But CAIR goes further: it denounces offenses against Islam where there are none, and it demonizes moderate Muslims who criticize Islamist distortions.
My Open Account with CAIR
Perhaps it was only a matter of time before I became a target of such an organization. I had been involved in Muslim community affairs since high school, and have always articulated Muslim opposition to Islamist intimidation. When I settled in America in 1986, I had a long history of advocating religious alternatives to the distortions preached by extremist groups like CAIR. But it was a gradual process that brought me to the top of CAIR's blacklist.
I first came to the attention of American Islamists when I assumed the university chair of one of their leaders, Isma'il al-Faruqi. I then provoked their ire by cooperating with journalist Steven Emerson in producing his 1994 PBS documentary, Jihad in America. That film, it will be recalled, was the first to explore the semi-clandestine network established by extreme Islamists on America's shores. Islamists were upset with me for having collected incriminating materials and for having translated them from Arabic.
Frankly, when I first saw the film—upon its release—I was somewhat disappointed. I expected a more hard-hitting exposי; I felt that the documentary barely scratched the surface of a dangerous phenomenon. I heard many complaints from Muslims that the film failed to expose economic crimes committed by Islamists in the United States, as well as Islamist infiltration of the armed forces and academe. Having produced films myself, I realized the difficulties in bringing such topics to the screen. It makes more dramatic television to show extreme preachers (like Tamim al-'Adnani, a leader of the "Afghan Arabs," whom Emerson's documentary shows preaching jihad in a New York mosque). An American university professor on the Islamist payroll is not nearly as photogenic.
Nevertheless, American Muslims owe Emerson a debt. There is a pressing need to teach Americans about the difference between law-abiding, moderate Muslims and Islamist extremists, between the victims and their torturers. The distinction between the vast majority of peace-loving Muslims and the small minority of extremists who think jihad is the answer, is a point we ourselves have been unable to get across. Jihad in America did so in a crystal-clear manner.
I next became an object of Islamist wrath at the time of the terrorist bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, when several newspapers asked me to speculate about the identity of the culprits. I emphatically pointed to the Waco anniversary and said that I was sure the bombing would be traced to those circles. The San Francisco Chronicle reported my remarks with some accuracy.12 Alas, The Washington Times omitted what I said about Waco, creating the impression that I blamed the Oklahoma bombing on terrorists from the Middle East. CAIR then twisted this into an accusation that I had blamed "Muslims."
Islamist watchdogs went on high alert about me in 1999, when they learned that I was working with Daniel Pipes to prepare a book on Islam in America. They had already branded Pipes a "Muslim-basher," for his criticism of extremism in general, and CAIR in particular.
I first became aware of Daniel Pipes in 1979, when he sent me an article he wrote on Islamism that dovetailed with a piece I had written. It was exhilarating to see that we arrived at similar conclusions despite the enormous differences in our origins, cultural background, education, experiences, and political orientation. Pipes is a conservative, I am a liberal; his vision of Islam derives from the study of the Middle East, while my understanding is grounded in South Asia; and yet we largely share the same opinions. I am fascinated by this convergence, and our cooperation has been an intellectual exercise in the meeting of two different but like minds.
Of course, I do often hear negative comments about Daniel Pipes' alleged bias against Muslims. My sense is that these derive from the fact that he is not a Muslim and favors strong U.S.-Israel ties. But if you take what Pipes is saying and writing about contemporary Islam, and give it a blind reading, you cannot distinguish it from what hundreds of critical Muslims are saying and writing. I have always been especially taken by the similarity of his views to those of Sayyid Qudratullah Fatimi, a historian and theologian of international renown and my mentor in Pakistan. I have shared Pipes' writings with friends from Afghanistan, Algeria, Bangladesh, Bosnia, Iran, Morocco, and Sudan. Even though they reject his opinions on Israeli policy, they find his writings on Islam stimulating and worthy of serious deliberation. In short, the man is no more a "Muslim-basher" than any of us critical Muslims.
Children of Abraham
All of which brings me back to the Children of Abraham. The book was commissioned by the American Jewish Committee as part of a two-volume set along with Reuven Firestone's introduction to Judaism for Muslims. There are, of course, many competent introductions to Islam, explaining faith and practice. My intent was not to duplicate these works but to complement them with a discussion of Islam as religion and history along with an assessment of contemporary Islam, all written with a Jewish audience in mind.
Jews, let there be no doubt, view Islam through a different lens than Christians. The religious tenets of Islam are closer to those of Judaism, and Jews have never shown any burning theological hostility to Islam, of the sort that inflamed Christian Europe in the Middle Ages. Indeed, Jews were among the first scholars to present the West with dispassionate and even sympathetic assessments of Islam. But over the last half-century, the Arab-Israeli conflict and the departure of Jews from Muslim lands have clouded Islam's image in the eyes of many Jews. The purpose of my book was to lift that cloud and demonstrate Islam's sublime spirituality. Above all, I sought to persuade Jews that Islam should not be blamed for its malpractice by certain contemporary Muslims.
A fair segment of the Muslim community is very sensitive to anti-Muslim or supposedly anti-Muslim statements, especially in books and films. In the past, CAIR has skillfully exploited these susceptibilities in order to create self-serving incidents. They may not have exactly waited for Children of Abraham to appear, but they certainly welcomed the opportunity to demonize both the book and its author. In this sense, there does exist a parallel between my case and the Salman Rushdie affair. In the 1980s, pro-Iranian activists explained to me that if Rushdie had not existed, they would have had to invent him: the "affair" was too useful as a means of polarization and mobilization. Some even told me (laughingly) that they had not read Rushdie's Satanic Verses, and had no intention of doing so.
But the similarity ends there. My book is the very opposite of the Satanic Verses. Rushdie's novel was an imaginative expression of his own personality. Children of Abraham is a kind of textbook, and I refrained from expressing personal opinions. I did not even mention CAIR. But CAIR needed an author and a book to demonize, and having marked me as an adversary, they pounced on the opportunity, again without reading the book. Their charge: in my discussion of contemporary extremism (in chapters on "Islamism" and "Jihadism") I had strayed from a straightforward presentation of the religion and history of Islam.13
Religion and history do constitute the major part of the book. But I could no more avoid writing about Islamist extremism, than an author of a book on Russia could avoid writing about the Soviet Union and Stalin. And I have yet to see a book about the sweep of German history and culture that omits mention of the Nazi nightmare. In any case, what would be the point of writing a book strictly on religion and pre-modern history for Jews? My audience, for obvious reasons, has a pressing interest in how Islam is presently interpreted and practiced. They are painfully aware of their own dehumanization by Islamist extremists. I had an author's duty to analyze this extremism and place it in a context.
CAIR, in order to add credibility to its campaign against me, praised Reuven Firestone's companion volume, An Introduction to Judaism for Muslims. As one of my Islamist critics put it:
While Khalid Duran concentrates on criticizing Islam and Muslims, the Jewish man of religion, David [sic] Firestone, who wrote the special book to explain Judaism to Muslims, concentrates on the normal issues of Jewish religion without any critical method, as is customary with introductory books to religion.14
This quote suggests that the people who retailed this claim did not read Firestone's book either. Except for the two chapters in my book on Islamist extremism, the two volumes are quite similar to one another. The person who first pointed this out to me was 'Abd al-Ghani bin Ibrahim, who translated both volumes into Arabic. A Sudanese scholar who read the drafts before the books' publication went so far as to tell me that "there is no Firestone, you wrote them both. I can clearly see that they were written by one and the same person."15 He obviously did not intend me to take him literally, but this was his way of expressing amazement at the undeniable similarity of the texts.
I was very astonished when the mainstream American press, including some religion writers, picked up CAIR's claim and repeated it uncritically. One journalist went so far as to ask me point blank why I wrote a book so very different in approach, diction, and style from that of Firestone. How does one answer a journalist assigned to cover two books who has not bothered to read either of them? Not only had CAIR maligned me by presenting my book as some sort of defamation of Islam. It had also maligned Firestone by presenting his book as the bland work of a scholar devoid of critical faculties.
I invite readers to read, compare, and reach their own conclusions. For myself, the writing of this book provided me with an opportunity to express my rootedness in Islam to a wide audience. Many Jews and Christians have showered the book with praise, for which I am grateful. But the most enthusiastic and meaningful reactions for me to the Children of Abraham have been those from Muslims. The director of Pakistan's Institute of Islamic Culture, Rashid Ahmad Jullundhry, commented on the Children of Abraham in the institute's journal Al-Ma'arif:
Such an understanding of Islam as an attempt to resuscitate the original Abrahamic platform of all monotheism may appear new to some of our people who have come to conceive of Islam as a socio-political reality with a history of 1,400 years. But the author has the Qur'an on his side, and his book is richly documented with the relevant passages from Islam's holy book. It is good to know that there are still people such as Khalid Durבn around who are able to bring the revelation across as a direct message and moving experience rather than rely on the dry-as-dust tomes of medieval scholars. The author is to be congratulated for his great sense of responsibility and the extraordinary care taken in preparing this balanced account of Islam and the way most Muslims understand it, past and present.16
Although the book was written for Jews, parts of it grew out of a Muslim-Muslim dialogue between traditionalists and reformists, also between orthodox and liberals. I confess that this dialogue has not included jihadists: my experience of almost half a century has taught me that dialogue with Islamists is an exercise in futility. In Children of Abraham, I tried to explain why that is so, and why groups like CAIR cannot possibly be considered representative of Islam, or even part of the mainstream Muslim community. I have no doubt that in relaying this message, I have rendered some small service to the image of Islam in America.
The Alternative to Extremism
Perhaps I am at a disadvantage: I would never do to Abu Zant what he has done to me. As I understand our common religion, it does not permit us to denounce someone as an apostate as long as that person says he is a Muslim.
The Congress of Muslim Americans (CMA), in which I am active, is one of several initiatives seeking to organize non-Islamist Muslims. Its purpose is to give the silent majority a voice. We protest against attempts by political bodies such as the American Muslim Council (AMC), CAIR, the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA), the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) and a whole network of extremists to usurp Muslim leadership in the United States. None of these inter-related groups has a mandate from the community. The fair-minded, moderate and tolerant majority of Muslims face enormous difficulties in competing with these Islamists—not because the Islamists are more numerous, but because they float on subsidies provided by Islamist millionaires and billionaires. In the United States, the difference between Islamists and common Muslims is largely one between haves and have-nots. Muslims have the numbers; Islamists have the dollars.
In the Congress of Muslim Americans we believe that leadership of the community has to grow organically, which is to say gradually and democratically. We do not claim a mandate to speak on behalf of millions, though our efforts are directed towards the emergence of such a leadership. We respect leaders such as Imam W. Deen Mohammed of the Muslim American Society and Sheikh Hisham Kabbani of the Islamic Supreme Council, as well as a number of individual preachers and teachers. They truly represent large segments of the Muslim community in North America. By contrast, CAIR is one of several groups of parasitic imposters who have built upon the insecurities of a Muslim community only now coming into its own. That community can only take its rightful place if it builds upon hope and dialogue, not the fear and defamation retailed by CAIR.
Khalid Durבn, a former chairman of the Solidarity Committee for the Afghan People, is currently president of the IbnKhaldun Society, a cultural association and intellectual forum of independent Muslims. He began his career at Pakistan's Islamic Research Institute and the University of Islamabad, and later taught at half a dozen universities in Europe and the United States.
1 "CAIR: Muslims Question Choice of Author for Book on Islam; Writer for Jewish Group Has Mysterious Identity, Was Convicted of Defaming Islamic Center," Apr. 4, 2001, at http://www.cair-net.org/nr.asp?date=2001/04/04b.
2 Khalid Durבn, with Abdelwahab Hechiche, Children of Abraham: An Introduction to Islam for Jews (New York: American Jewish Committee, 2001).
3 "The Author Khalid Durבn Is an Apostate and American Muslims Call Him an Infidel," Ash-Shahid, June 6, 2001.
4 "Jewish Group's 'Phony Fatwa' Slammed as Publicity Stunt," July 2, 2001, at http://www.cair-net.org/main/nr.asp?date=2001/07/02.
5 Ash-Shahid, July 22, 2001.
6 Alexander Rose, "How Did Muslims Vote in 2000?", Middle East Quarterly, Summer 2001, pp. 13-14.
7 "I ask your help in urging young people in your communities to think seriously about becoming part of America's foreign policy team." See "Remarks by Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, Iftar Dinner with Leaders of the American Muslim Community," Dec. 21, 1999, at http://usinfo.state.gov/regional/nea/mena/albr1222.htm.
8 Jake Tapper, "Islam's Flawed Spokesmen," Salon.com, Sept. 26, 2001, at http://www.salon.com/news/feature/2001/09/26/muslims/. See also the exchange about this article at http://www.salon.com/news/letters/2001/10/01/cair/index.html.
9 Alexander Bolton, "Rep. Mckinney to Headline Muslim Fundraiser," Oct. 3, 2001.
10 "Speaking Out against Terror," Sept. 23, 2001.
11 "Message, I CAIR," Oct. 1, 2001.
12 The San Francisco Chronicle, Apr. 20, 1995.
13 Az-Zaytuna, May 11, 2001.
15 Mustafa al-Husayn in a conversation with the author, Oct. 17, 2000.
16 Rashid Ahmad Jullundhry, "In America a New Book on Islam," Al-Ma'arif (Lahore), Jan.-Mar. 2001.