The Two Faces of Islam
by Stephen Schwartz
Within days of the September 2001 terrorist attacks, Stephen Schwartz -- then a little-known American writer, activist and historian -- published a barbed essay in Britain's The Spectator in which he asked about the al-Qaeda perpetrators: "What made these men into the monsters they are? What has so galvanized violent tendencies in the world's second-largest religion?" His answer, delivered with trademark self-assuredness, was Wahhabism, Saudi Arabia's steadfastly austere, fundamentalist interpretation of Islam, which few non-Muslims had then heard of, but which today is blamed in the West for much of what is perceived damnable in the land of the Prophet and the religious culture he spawned.
"It is violent, it is intolerant, and it is fanatical beyond measure," Schwartz wrote of Wahhabism. "Not all Muslims are suicide bombers, but all Muslim suicide bombers are Wahhabis." By this he meant that the Wahhabi theology celebrating heavenly reward for jihad martyrs has, at the least, influenced other Muslims, such as Shi'ites and even secular leftists. The Chechen national movement too, Schwartz believes, has also been cruelly usurped by Wahhabis.
Since the article's appearance, Schwartz, 54, has moved from obscurity to neo-conservative media stardom. His suffer-no-fools essays -- packed with historical, literary and theological references, urging tough action against Islamic terrorism and Saddam Hussein, and written in what he himself calls "a spirit of hatred, not love or forgiveness" -- pop up with prolific regularity in leading conservative journals on both sides of the Atlantic. His new book, "The Two Faces of Islam: The House of Sa'ud From Tradition to Terror," is also selling well -- more than 24,000 hardcover copies since its October publication.
What has not changed is Schwartz's conviction that Wahhabism is the evil theology behind Osama Bin Laden and a worldwide network of Islamic terrorists. Wahhabism, says Schwartz -- a convert to Islam -- is "Islamofascism," and the greatest threat to liberal democracy in the world today. Moreover, he says, Wahhabism is no less a threat to mainstream Islam, which, he argues, is moderate, peaceful and "committed to coexistence with the earlier Abrahamic revelations, Judaism and Christianity."
It is this generally sympathetic tone toward Islam and Islamic culture, despite his admitted hatred of Wahhabi extremism, that sets Schwartz apart from many of his fellow neo-cons, who have also taken en masse to bashing Saudi Arabia, in the wake of what is perceived here as Riyadh's ambivalent support for rooting out terrorists, and its refusal to take responsibility for the fact that 15 of the front-line 9/11 terrorists were Saudis.
Schwartz's conversion to Islam in the late 1990s grew out of his long study of Sufism, Islam's populist expression of its mystical core. (Despite his conversion, Schwartz, born in Columbus, Ohio, to a Jewish father and Protestant "Judeophile" mother, prefers to call himself an "Abrahamist," to express his continued connection to both Judaism and Christianity.) His Muslim sympathies, Schwartz says, have made him suspect among some conservatives who might otherwise applaud his stand. His response is to call them "Islamophobes," because, he says, they trace Islamic terrorism to an essential Muslim belief rather than attributing it to historical and cultural developments.
"There are issues of bigotry," Schwartz says during a conversation here at the offices of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a high-powered anti-terrorism think tank with which he is associated. "Neo-cons sometimes think I'm a Trojan horse for Islam because my spiritual practice includes Sufism. But I'm no proselytizer for Islam."
Sufism is but one difference between Schwartz and most of those on the right, however. There's also his eclectic personal history, much of it spent on the fringe left in California, Latin America and Europe. Schwartz was a Red Diaper baby, both his parents having been communists. He's a self-described ex-Trotskyite "revolutionary" who hints at having committed illegal acts and regrets "having written and said things I am now ashamed of" -- such as support for Spain's violent Basque separatists. He switched allegiances from far-left to right, he says, when in his early 30s he was "profoundly shocked" by the extent of Holocaust denial, he found in the European leftist circles in which he then moved. "My [paternal] grandfather's family was wiped out in the Holocaust," Schwartz explains. "I couldn't stomach revisionism." Schwartz was also, in the late 1970s, the manager of the punk-rock group the Dils; is a poet who writes movingly of life in the Balkans (where he lived during the 1990s), and a former regional union leader; and he has compiled an astonishingly varied activist résumé, having worked on behalf of Bosnian Jews and Albanian Catholics, among others. His previous dozen books include tomes on the Spanish Civil War, contemporary Nicaraguan politics, the breakup of Yugoslavia, and merchant seamen union movements. His firing from Voice of America, the quasi-governmental global radio network, because, he says, of his refusal to go along with VOA's critical stance toward the U.S. war in Afghanistan, made him a neo-con Washington cause célèbre.
Schwartz is, in short, a highly complex character, as his 16-page "incomplete literary and journalistic biography," as he calls it, attests. He is also a physically large man with an ego, voice and personality to match. New York Times columnist William Safire, writing in defense of Schwartz during the VOA episode, bluntly labeled him abrasive. Given his passionate and aggressive nature, it's no wonder Schwartz has become such a lightning rod.
"Two Faces of Islam" is equally passionate and aggressive. Although the book was in the works prior to 9/11, the attacks gave it "a new urgency," says Schwartz, just as allegations of continued connections between high-placed Saudis and Bin Laden continue to fuel Western concerns about Saudi Arabia's intentions, and, notes the author happily, help create interest in his book.
Schwartz's volume begins with a critical recounting of Islam's birth, ideological development and rapid growth as a religious culture. Its special emphasis is the religious-political alliance between the 18th-century cleric Muhammad ibn abd al-Wahhab, after whom Wahhabism is named, and Muhammad ibn Sa'ud, a local tribal chieftain whose descendants would control the twin Muslim sacred cities of Mecca and Medina, and, perhaps more importantly, the oil-saturated heartland of the Arabian peninsula. "The essence of Ibn abd al-Wahhab's preaching came down to three points," writes Schwartz. "First, ritual is superior to intentions. Second, no reverence of the dead is permitted. Third, there can be no intercessory prayer, addressed to God by means of the Prophet or saints. Prayers to God by means of a pious person or even honors to any individual other than God were condemned as idolatry, despite their acceptance by all previous generations of Muslims and the Prophet himself." The net effect was intolerance of important local traditions and an insistence on an imposed Muslim purity that was difficult to meet and meted out severe censure for failure.
Gaining temporal power with the creation of the modern Saudi state, Schwartz writes in a typically damning paragraph, "the Wahhabis came up with a premonitory form of fascism on their own, independent of other models or examples. Building on a paramilitary political structure comparable to the Bolsheviks and Nazis, the Wahhabis established a system of governance based on a monopoly of wealth by the elite, backed by extreme repression and a taste for bloodshed. Their subsidiary methods included a brutal secret police, censorship, rigid control of education, and incitement to genocide against minorities."The true value of "Two Faces" is, however, its explanation of largely successful Saudi attempts to export the Wahhabi death cult by lavishing petro-dollars on the construction of mosques, schools, Islamic scholarship, Muslim political institutions, and legitimate charities in Afghanistan, Indonesia, the Palestinian territories, Western Europe, the U.S., the Philippines, Chechnya and anywhere else they could gain a toehold. Naïvely aiding the spread of Wahhabism have been willing Western diplomats, oil industry executives, politicians and favored journalists equally taken in by oil wealth. On this score, Schwartz is critical of President George W. Bush and many in his administration. Vice President Dick Cheney, who headed the oil-field technology firm Halliburton prior to joining the Bush team, comes in for particular criticism.
"When bombs go off in Israel," writes Schwartz, "Cheney goes on national TV to blame Hezbollah, which does not even have a base in Israel, but which is Iranian-backed, and therefore can be used to divert attention from the Saudis."
But Schwartz reserves his greatest criticism for Israeli and American Jews, who, he maintains, allowed their fixation on a perceived Iranian threat to blind them to the greater Saudi-Wahhabi threat. "They did not believe the internal contradictions in Saudi Arabia were of much consequence to them," he writes of Israeli and Jewish leaders. Now, he warns, the West must insist that Saudi Arabia provide a full accounting of its citizens' involvement in 9/11, and an end to its support and alliance with Wahhabism both inside and outside the kingdom, even if it threatens the government's existence. The alternative is endless terrorism, Schwartz asserts.
"Two Faces" is a powerful indictment of Saudi-Wahhabi duplicity. It is marred, however, by a dearth of endnotes, something that will leave all but leading scholars of Islam and Saudi history wondering about the background of some of his more esoteric assertions. In his zeal to present Islam as a peaceful religion, Schwartz also may be criticized for painting too positive a picture of Islam's historical treatment of its Jewish and Christian minorities. The Koran may state there should be no coercion in matters of faith, but that does not mean flesh-and-blood Muslims have acted accordingly. Additionally, Schwartz's credibility would increase if he had been clearer about his involvement in Sufism, to which Wahhabis have historically exhibited strong and violent hostility. Leaving this connection vague makes me wonder how much his fierce hatred of Wahhabi fascism is personal payback. In an interview, Schwartz denies this, but the average reader won't get to ask.
These are relatively minor flaws. The greater flaw may be that in his desire to expose Wahhabi extremism Schwartz glosses over the violent intolerance perpetrated by non-Wahhabi Muslims today. Shi'ite Hezbollah would be one obvious example, notwithstanding Schwartz's insistence that the Wahhabi theological emphasis on martyrdom as a route to heaven has influenced all other Muslim terrorists.
Schwartz has said his goal in writing "Two Faces" was to influence Western opinion about Saudi Arabia to the same degree that "Uncle Tom's Cabin" galvanized opposition to slavery in pre-Civil War America. The statement reflects Schwartz's larger-than-life self-image, but it's doubtful his book will be that successful. He has, however, produced a valuable study of a religious culture that could well end up in open conflict with the West (if it's not already), as well as with those moderate Muslims with whom Schwartz so identifies.
Note: The content of external articles does not necessarily reflect the views of Center for Islamic Pluralism.