By KHALED ABOU EL FADL
I am terrified of you and all people who look like you," the elderly woman said. "What can you do to reassure me against people like you?" I was in New York City and had just concluded my hourlong lecture on human rights and Islam at a law school conference where the subject was tolerance. She informed me that she has nightmares about Muslim and Arab-looking people like me. The pain of hearing comments like this cannot be described.
For more than 20 years now, moderate Muslim intellectuals living in the West have been fighting a thankless battle, often in the shadows, for the very soul of their religion. This battle has only intensified since Sept. 11, sometimes reaching tragic proportions. It is particularly demoralizing when criminal elements purporting to speak for all Muslims are given a platform to confirm all the worst fears about adherents of Islam, threatening to undo all the efforts of Muslim moderates since Sept. 11.
Ten days ago, Suleiman Abu Gheith, a high-ranking operative of the Qaeda terrorist organization, popped up on Al Jazeera, the cable news channel in the Persian Gulf, to reinforce all the fears of Americans about impending terrorist attacks against the United States. In a confident and comfortable tone of voice, Mr. Abu Gheith assured the world that Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawhiri and Mullah Muhammad Omar are alive and well. On behalf of Al Qaeda, he happily claimed responsibility for the Sept. 11 attacks and the attack in April on a Jewish synagogue in Djerba, Tunisia. He added that the war against the United States was in just its beginning phases and that more attacks were to come.
Of course Mr. Abu Gheith's statement is part of the psychological warfare of terrorism, and so it must be taken with a degree of cautious skepticism. Terrorists can spread fear either by actually attacking or by merely threatening to. But what struck me most about Mr. Abu Gheith was how eager he seemed to influence the ongoing debates within the United States about terrorism. Recently, American Muslim organizations have been struggling to improve the image of Islam and Muslims and to respond constructively to the rather draconian measures the Justice Department has taken against many Muslims in the United States. Mr. Abu Gheith explicitly referred to this situation, and surprisingly, clearly asserted that "the Republican Party has every reason to be worried." He even had a message to the people detained in Guantánamo: Rejoice, because further attacks would be coming.
Frankly, I do not know if Mr. Abu Gheith expects to be taken seriously by the American government. But it is important to understand that the intended audience of this message is Muslim moderates more than anyone else. In the Muslim world, there is a widespread belief that Osama bin Laden has not been killed and Al Qaeda has not been crippled. Consequently, the ideological battle between the proponents and opponents of Al Qaeda rages on. It is important to Mr. Abu Gheith and his camp to instill in moderate Muslims living in the West a sense of the futility and hopelessness of their efforts.
Since Sept. 11, moderate American Muslims have been fighting an exceedingly difficult battle on many fronts. They have been struggling to deal with the proponents of a clash of civilizations, who seem intent on transforming Islam into the enemy of the West after Communism; with the fanaticism of some supporters of Israel, who seem to deal with every manifestation of Islamic activism as a direct threat to Israel's existence; with fanatic religious leaders who have unabashedly maligned Islam, even going as far as calling the Prophet Muhammad a pedophile; with fellow Muslims who believe there is a worldwide conspiracy against Islam and even insist the Sept. 11 attacks were part of an effort to frame Muslims by the Central Intelligence Agency and the Mossad; with other Muslims who accuse moderates of being sellouts to the West and traitors to the Islamic tradition for not adhering to Islamic "authenticities."
They also contend with threats to their physical safety from Islam haters and from Muslim fanatics. Moderate Muslim intellectuals have been combating the renewed and well-funded efforts of Saudi Arabia to regain ground for its brand of puritan Islam — Wahhabism — that had been lost after Sept. 11.
In this country, moderate Muslims have had to deal with a presidential administration that is systematically undermining their civil liberties. Most of all, they have been struggling with an ineffective and self-serving American Muslim leadership, which has little interest in serving its constituency — a largely apathetic and politically inactive community that is frequently not engaged on the major issues confronting Muslims today.
Amid this mess, Mr. Abu Gheith steps in to co-opt the image of Islam by claiming that every "true and faithful" Muslim will rejoice with the spread of terror in this world. What he wants is for all the intellectual abstractions and ethical debates to become muted as the world panics at the prospect of more suffering and bloodshed.
Friends often ask me if, considering all the problems that moderate Muslims confront today, I can be hopeful that an ethical and humane Islam can prevail. I don't know how to respond. For Muslims like me, an ethical and humane Islam is the only legitimate Islam, and there is no choice other than to stubbornly insist that we, not the likes of Suleiman Abu Gheith, authentically speak for the Islamic tradition. There is no choice but to remind the world that while he rejoices in the death of innocent human beings, Muslims like me are grieving and in utter misery.