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A book on Islam for American Jews provokes an interfaith furor

Posted: Friday, May 04, 2001

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Relations between Jews and Muslims in the United States, already tense amid the latest Mideast eruptions, have been strained further by the release of a book whose stated purpose, paradoxically, is ''to enhance mutual understanding and reduce mutual ignorance and suspicion.''

''Children of Abraham: An Introduction to Islam for Jews'' does exactly the opposite of that, contends the Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR, a Washington-based Muslim advocacy group.

The book is being issued this week by the American Jewish Committee at its annual convention here. (Ktav is the trade book publisher.) On Tuesday, CAIR appealed to the Jewish group to suspend distribution until ''Muslim concerns'' are addressed and ''respected Muslim scholars'' are given a chance to review the contents.

Rabbi A. James Rudin, the recently retired interreligious affairs director of the Jewish committee who commissioned the book, says 14 experts on Islam already reviewed the manuscript prior to publication.

The book was written by Khalid Duran of Bethesda, Md., who has been a visiting professor at five U.S. campuses, most recently the University of Louisville. Abdelwahab Hechiche of the University of South Florida also contributed material.

Duran, 61, who has worked previously in Germany and Pakistan, is president of the IbnKhaldun Society, which he describes as an international group of 800 Muslim thinkers, and the editor of its TransIslam quarterly, which hasn't appeared since 1998 due to lack of funds.

His new book has won blurbs from such notable Christians as Cardinal William Keeler of Baltimore, former Harvard Divinity School Dean Krister Stendahl and University of Chicago church historian Martin E. Marty.

Marty believes the Jewish project ''will greatly benefit our nation.'' He praises Duran for drawing a sharp distinction between Islam as an inspiring religion and, as Marty puts it, political radicals ''whose perverted concept of Islam is widely reported in the media, causing widespread hostility toward and fear of Islam.''

Yet the Council on American-Islamic Relations portrays Duran as an eccentric friend of ''Muslim bashers'' who is utterly without standing among U.S. believers. Another critic, Omer Bin Abdullah, editor of the magazine published by the Islamic Society of North America, says having Duran write about Islam is like asking Ted Turner to do a book on Christianity, a reference to the CNN founder's notorious cracks about that religion.

For his part, Duran calls CAIR an ''extremist'' front for Palestinians. He says the Islamic Society of North America does not represent U.S. Muslims, either.

Rudin says any Muslim scholar willing to write for the Jewish committee would have been targeted by ''anti-Jewish elements within the Muslim community who are opposed to any positive relations.''

Duran's work is being issued in tandem with ''Children of Abraham: An Introduction to Judaism for Muslims,'' written by Rabbi Reuven Firestone of the Los Angeles campus of Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion. It's the sort of meet-your-Jewish-neighbor book one might expect, and that makes matters worse, from CAIR's standpoint.

''It's not fair,'' says executive director Nihad Awad, to pair a relatively bland treatment of Judaism with a book on Islam that he finds full of ''stereotyping'' and contested issues.

Duran's book is one that really can be judged by its cover, CAIR maintains. The cover illustration is an old painting of Ibrahim (Abraham) preparing to sacrifice Ishmael. (That's how the Quran records the event; the Bible says it involved the Jewish patriarch Isaac).

CAIR protests that many believers are offended by any art that depicts the scriptural prophets, so it considers the design an index of the book's insensitivity. Duran says the painting is symbolic and was drawn by a Muslim, which shows that Islam's aversion to drawings of the Prophet Muhammad doesn't necessarily extend to others.

Duran says the Jewish committee asked him to address many of the topics the book covers, and that he drew upon lectures he has delivered at the Smithsonian Institution and various U.S. campuses.

Politically, the book argues vigorously and in detail that today's Islamists (often called ''fundamentalists'') are simply totalitarians who manipulate a religion they little understand to achieve political ends in Muslim lands. Duran sees groups like CAIR and the Islamic Society as the Islamists' U.S. allies.

CAIR media spokesman Ibrahim Hooper is incredulous that Duran cites Turkey's religion policy as a model. ''It's an ideology of suppression of Islam, not support, which is used to justify any number of human- and religious-rights abuses,'' Hooper says.

Politics aside, the book makes some remarkable religious assertions.

Duran says that 85 percent of the Quran ''is open to interpretation'' and in dispute. He thinks the animal sacrifices during the Eid al-Adha ''can assume chaotic proportions'' in cities, and complains that the annual Ramadan fast ''disrupts normal economic activity'' and has other negative effects.

He asserts that ''in terms of crimes against women, the Muslim world is second to none.'' And he says much of the social order in the Quran, though progressive for 7th century Arabia, ''would have to be amended in order to meet present-day standards of human rights.''

In one aside, Duran writes that the relationship between Judaism and Islam is ''stronger than between any other two religions.'' And in the book's foreword, David A. Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, states that Judaism is more akin to Islam than to Christianity.

On that one point, at least, officials at the Council on American-Islamic Relations would agree.

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On the Net:

American Jewish Committee: http://www.ajc.org

Council on American-Islamic Relations: http://www.cair-net.org

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End Adv for Fri AMs, May 4



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