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Jewish World Review July 10, 2001 / 19 Tamuz, 5761

Nat Hentoff

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A foreign threat to a scholar in America -- MANY Americans remember the fatwa -- an Islamic religious decree calling for the death of an apostate -- issued against writer Salman Rushdie in 1989 by Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Rushdie went into hiding. I was present at a Columbia University event during that period, when Rushdie suddenly appeared. We all froze in anticipation of misguided bullets. Rushdie is still alive.

Now, Muslim scholar Khalid Duran -- who taught at Temple University and American University -- has left his home in suburban Washington for a safe house with 24-hour private security. An edict against Duran -- not a full-blown fatwa -- has been issued by Shaykh Abdul Al-Menem Abu Zant, an Islamic cleric in Jordan and a leader in the Islamic Action Front, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood. This party celebrated the June 1 Tel Aviv suicide bombing that killed 20 Israelis, and the Palestinian bomber, as "a heroic martyrdom operation."

The edict is a prelude to a command to murder Duran -- because of a book he wrote intended to advance Muslim-Jewish understanding, newly published here by the American Jewish Committee. The edict called for all Muslims in the United States "to unify against Duran" because he has vilified Islam in his book.

The book, "Children of Abraham: An Introduction to Islam for Jews" (Kraw Publishing House, 2001), has a companion volume, "An Introduction to Judaism for Muslims" (Kraw Publishing House, 2001) by Rabbi Reuven Firestone. Fourteen Islamic scholars approved Duran's manuscript before publication, and Martin Marty, a University of Chicago historian of religions, told the Associated Press that Duran had clearly distinguished in his book between Islam as a religion that opposes murderous hatred and radicals who, as Duran points out, have a "perverted concept of Islam that is widely reported in the media, causing widespread hostility toward and fear of Islam."

However, the Washington-based Council of American Islamic Relations attacked Duran's book bitterly before publication. The Council demanded publication be stopped because, they claim, it besmears the image of Islam in the United States in its criticism of the inferior status of women, among other practices of the religion. The Council's fierce condemnation of the book has been published in Arabic newspapers in Jordan and Egypt.

I spoke with Ibrahim Hooper, communications director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, to clarify the edict against Professor Duran that had been initially published in the Jordanian Arabic weekly, Al-Shahed (The Observer), which is connected to the Islamic Action Front.

Hooper says -- and I repeated this to him to make sure I had it right -- that Shaykh Abu Zant has called on Islamic religious authorities to engage in an investigation that led to their judgment on Duran's apostasy from Islam. "As a result of that investigation," Hooper told me, "his blood could be shed."

If I were Duran, I would not take that explanation of the edict as a reason to emerge from hiding. The operative phrase is "his blood could be shed."

David A. Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, which has no intention of stopping publication of "The Children of Abraham," makes the utterly necessary point that "In a free society, no one should tolerate the threat to kill an author." Or to ignore an assassination threat when religious leaders in another country decide that a death sentence must be pronounced, and that it is the duty of Muslims to carry it out -- as Ayatollah Khomeini commanded in the judgment of Salman Rushdie.

Moreover, as Harris adds, "All Americans -- not least Muslims -- should immediately speak out against this outrage and assault on democratic society."

The threat that a fatwa could be issued is an assault on freedom of speech and freedom of conscience. It is also an assault -- by false stereotyping -- on those millions of Muslims in the United States and elsewhere whose Islamic faith does not in the least condone such a violent distortion of their religion.

As a reporter, I have interviewed Muslims who agree with Khalid Duran that this kind of edict, in the name of Islam, results, as he told the Washington Post, "in giving us a bad name because they misuse Islam and claim to be Muslims."

Muslims in America, and everywhere else, should -- whether or not they agree with Duran's writings -- speak out for his right not to be assassinated.

JWR contributor Nat Hentoff is a First Amendment authority and author of numerous books. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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