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Muslim Law Conference: Khaled Abou El Fadl on Muslim discrimination and sharia law’s place in modern society

March 20, 2012

By Linda Wang C’12

On Saturday, March 17, Prof. Khaled Abou El Fadl of UCLA School of Law delivered a keynote lecture as part of Penn Law’s sixth annual Muslim Law Conference in Silverman Hall. Abou El Fadl, one of the world’s leading authorities on Islamic legal tradition, Islamic law, and human rights, spoke about discrimination facing Muslim lawyers and the issues impeding true understanding of sharia law in today’s political economy.
The conference’s theme this year was “The Changing Political Face of the Middle East and the Future Role for Islamic Law,” and was organized by Penn Law’s Muslim Law Students Association. Abou El Fadl opened his lecture by contrasting his experiences as a Muslim law student with the experiences of modern-day Muslim law students. “When I attended law school, I was the only Muslim in my class…[People] would ask, ‘Is it forbidden for you to practice American law? Isn’t American law completely different from Islamic law?’ That question is rather odd and awkward now…The idea of Muslims in law schools is no longer odd or awkward.”
He also commented on how employers have changed their view of Muslim lawyers in recent years.
“Back then, law schools looked at a Muslim immigrant with a certain level of curiosity that, at times, worked to your favor. You were sort of exotic,” Abou El Fadl explained. “I had every law firm that hoped to expand their Middle Eastern business. They made the rather silly assumption that if they had me in their ranks of lawyers, they would improve their chances. Today, I would say that being a Muslim in the legal market is not an advantageous thing. It has become disadvantageous. Many Muslims who are on the job market have numerous stories of discrimination and prejudice.”
As an example of how attitudes towards Muslims in general have changed since he was in law school, Abou El Fadl discussed the tension today that comes with public prayer.
“In the 70s and 80s, you could pray in public without the fear of acts of hatred or acts of retaliation. Muslim prayer was seen with a lot of curiosity, but not necessarily judgment,” he said. “I used to pray in airports. That never prevented me from getting on a flight. Today, it would.”
He went on to assert that prayer has become “a very politicized performance” that has associations of “symbols and power dynamics that you might not at all be wanting to engage in.” Abou El Fadl noted the fact that sharia has also become an issue that ignites civil rights issues to the point that, at a conference like this one, it has become “quite natural” to invite the ACLU of Pennsylvania to teach students about profiling and dealing with law enforcement.

“The data [regarding Muslim profiling and discrimination] is overwhelming and indisputable at this point,” he noted.
To further emphasize discrimination that Muslim lawyers face, Abou El Fadl referenced the time that he was interrogated in his home by agents from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security about whether or not he thought jihad was a good thing. He also mentioned that he has been visited by law enforcement asking him about Muslim students who have taken his Islamic law classes. “I refuse to answer these questions, knowing that in doing so, you take a certain amount of risk. Publicly speaking about these things, you take on a certain amount of risk too…This is the reality lived by so many Muslims.”
Abou El Fadl encouraged students in the audience to learn more about sharia law in the context of the contemporary political environment. He posed the following question to them: “In all the anti-sharia bills adopted by all the states, do you really think that any of these states truly believe that they are seeing a clear and present danger of an implementation of sharia that they must protect the United States against?”
In his opinion, “the real issue [with the anti-sharia bills] is religious bigotry and ethnic or racial bias,” and this bias is being inflamed from both ends by “Islamophobes” and Muslim dogmatists. He accused both ends of the spectrum of being “devoid of scholarly research” and ignoring “analytical methodologies that use contemporary tools of knowledge to interrogate history, texts, and beliefs about human beings and the way they imagine their relationship with the divine.”
Abou El Fadl prodded the audience to think about the meaning of sharia. He said that sharia, in its jurisprudential sense, is defined simply as “achieving the welfare of people,” but then he observed how even that simple definition could be open to interpretation when Muslim jurists try to use the Qu’ran to dole out punishments.
Concluding his address, Abou El Fadl explained three different groups that sharia – and by extension, God – could be represented by: the state, the community, and the individual. He said that he opposes representation of sharia and God by the state because, he asserted, it “always leads to corruption and is philosophically incoherent.” He then went on to say that sharia and the individual could not represent God either because divine law cannot be exclusively defined in that way.
“It seems to me that the space [of sharia and God] must be shared between the community and the individual, and it has to be shared in a meticulously negotiated way, according to certain conditions that must be analytically rigorous.”
Abou El Fadl acknowledged that this interpretation of how sharia should be represented could be “mystifying” for many people, but he maintained, “It is the only truly human way we can engage sharia.”