Children of Abraham, 2 vols
Early in June, Khalid Duran, a shy, sensitive 61-year-old man living in Bethesda, Md., was threatened with death by a Jordanian Muslim cleric. According to Sheikh Abd-al-Mun'im Abu Zant, Duran had offended Muslims by writing a book seeking to introduce the essentials of Islamic faith to American Jewish readers. The book, along with a companion volume written by a rabbi to introduce Judaism to Muslims, had been published by the American Jewish Committee (AJC).
Abu Zant was echoing a U.S. group called the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which had assailed Duran's book and the AJC for "stereotyping" Muslims; but the group's stated objections to the book were perfunctory and flimsy. CAIR made the egregiously unAmerican demand that the manuscript be submitted-before publication-to a group of Muslim experts of the group's own choosing, and echoed Abu Zant's assertion that Duran's blood could rightfully "be shed."
CAIR is a leading advocate for Islamic fundamentalism in America today, its claimed objective to prevent "stereotyping and inaccuracy" in the depiction of Muslims. Its real aim, however, is not to protect American Muslims from harmful prejudice but to prevent moderates like Duran from conducting an open religious dialogue with American Christians and Jews. The reason is simple: such a dialogue would reveal to the American public the important truth that the great majority of the world's more than one billion Muslims do not support fundamentalist extremism.
To most sensible Americans, this AJC-inspired project would appear at first glance to be simply another example of bienpensant, "progressive" Jewish liberalism seeking "peace through understanding." American Jews, and non-Jewish conservatives, have every reason to distrust such well-meaning but misguided undertakings. Nevertheless, the reaction Duran's book has provoked should make us pay attention to his message, since it reveals the depth of the fracture within the Islamic world. In fact the threat against Duran was just a single incident in the long-running war between Muslim extremists and Muslim moderates-a war that reaches from Chechnya to Maryland, and back in time a thousand years.
It is extremely difficult to imagine that the AJC provided funds for this project with the objective of making life difficult for Muslims anywhere. Both volumes are fairly elementary; Duran's could be described as a fast tour of the Islamic intellect, and Rabbi Reuven Firestone's introduction to Judaism is an equall basic description of Jewish observance. Neither conveys the depth or significance, each for the other, of the global contributions made by Jewish and Islamic thought. Though their idiom is straightforward and uncomplicated, these volumes seem not to have been intended for a mass audience-more for school, synagogue, and (one should fantasize) mosque libraries. Neither author can be seriously reproached for misrepresenting his faith. Both are clearly eager to lessen the fear that Jews and Muslims now feel toward each other-and each succeeds in "lightening" the image of the faith that it depicts.
Firestone makes Judaism seem, if anything, rather boring in its earnestness. In this he seems almost too perfect a representative of the American Jewish style in theology. For example, he omits any real discussion of kabbalah, the Jewish school of mysticism that has much in common with Sufism, or Islamic mysticism; such a discussion would have fascinated many non-fundamentalist Muslims. He has also left out a related and equally attractive aspect, for Muslims, of Jewish tradition: the remarkable life adventures of great rabbis such as the charismatic leaders of the Hasidic sects-a phenomenon with striking parallels in the Islamic world.
Of the two books, Firestone's Jewish volume is the more strictly a work about faith. Duran quickly leaves the field of theological abstractions, focusing instead on the recent rise of an extreme political Islamism; the book certainly indicates no desire on the author's part to avoid controversy with the fundamentalists, but he may have concentrated too much on these issues.
Duran details the striking contrast between the harsh, rigid, and violent universe of the fundamentalists and the passionate, welcoming, and even pluralistic culture of Sufi spirituality. The fundamentalist scholar, he writes, "insists on separate identities: A Muslim is not a Jew, a Jew is not a Muslim. The sufi ... seeks to merge identities: A Muslim is a Jew too; and a Jew can also be a Muslim." Such notions are anathema to fundamentalists, who thrive on the terrifying image of their movement in the West. Depriving them of this PR asset, as Duran seeks to do by describing the more enlightened outlook of mainstream Islam, would leave them without an easy way to demand the attention of Western media.
But moderate, mainstream Islam must not be ignored by Western intellectuals and policy makers. Indeed, when one gets away from the rantings of latterday Islamist demagogues, one is forced to conclude that just as Islam is the most recent of the three great monotheistic revelations, so is it the most open to the others. Numerous Muslim commentators and intellectuals have studied Judaism with considerable warmth, viewing it as the Abrahamic ur-faith; to them, a book like Firestone's would be redundant. Within Islamic tradition, the Jewish prophets are objects of honor. The legacy of this mainstream, moderate tradition includes the caliphate of Baghdad, Arab Spain, and the Ottoman Empire, in all of which Jews and Christians flourished under Muslim authority.
Though both volumes are flawed in style and structure, the underlying effort to improve mutual interfaith comprehension-especially between religious Jews and pious Muslims in the U.S.-is not in fact misguided; rather, it is urgent. Moderate Islam must be strengthened, primarily by making clear that extremists do not speak for all the Muslims in the world. Khalid Duran is not Rushdie: He did not set out to outrage Muslim opinion, nor does his antagonist have the power of an Ayatollah Khomeini. But assisting and protecting him may turn out to be a good deal more important, since it is high time Westerners began to understand that the brutality and hysteria of Islamic fundamentalism is an expression of weakness rather than strength.