Author Sees Terrorist Roots in Saudi Religious Code
by Ira Rifkin
Writer and activist Stephen Schwartz lost no time seeking to identify the religious ideology behind the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. In a barbed essay in Britain's Spectator published just days after the attacks, Schwartz asked of the al Qaeda hijackers: "What made these men into the monsters they are? What has so galvanized violent tendencies in the world's second-largest religion?"
The answer, he declared, was Wahhabism, Saudi Arabia's austere and rigid interpretation of Islam.
"It is violent, it is intolerant, and it is fanatical beyond measure," wrote Schwartz, a convert to Islam's mystical Sufi branch. "Not all Muslims are suicide bombers, but all Muslim suicide bombers are Wahhabis."
At the time, few Westerners knew anything about Wahhabism. Today, the air is thick with observers who blame Saudi Arabia's official brand of Islam for influencing much of the extremism evident in the Muslim world from North Africa to the Philippines.
Schwartz, 54 -- whose past includes time as a left-wing radical, punk band manager, newspaper labor union official and activist on behalf of Albanian Catholics and Bosnian Jews -- has expanded his harsh critique of Wahhabism in a new book, "The Two Faces of Islam: The House of Saud From Tradition to Terror" (Doubleday). The book has garnered generally favorable reviews in top publications.
Schwartz contends that Wahhabism -- a term Saudis disdain because of its negative connotation in the West -- is the "Islamofascism" influence behind Osama bin Laden and the worldwide network of Islamic terrorists. Wahhabism, he says, is the greatest threat to liberal democracy in the world today. Moreover, he argues, it is no less a threat to the Islamic mainstream.
The Islamic mainstream subscribes to a faith that is moderate, peaceful and "committed to coexistence with the earlier Abrahamic revelations, Judaism and Christianity," said Schwartz, a senior policy analyst in Washington for the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, an anti-terrorism think tank whose directors and advisers include American conservatives Steve Forbes, Jack Kemp and Jeane Kirkpatrick.
Schwartz's book is broadly sympathetic toward Islam and Islamic culture, which sets him apart from many of his fellow conservatives who have taken to bashing Saudi Arabia in the wake of that nation's reluctance to wholeheartedly support the U.S. war on terrorism. He said that this sympathy for Islamic society, coupled with his conversion to Islam after years of immersion in Sufism, Islam's mystical teachings, make him suspect among some American conservatives.
"There are issues of bigotry," Schwartz said in an interview. "Neo-cons sometimes think I'm a Trojan horse for Islam because my spiritual practice includes Sufism. But I'm no proselytizer for Islam."
In his book, Schwartz -- the child of a Jewish father and a Protestant mother who both rejected religion for communism -- recounts the alliance between the 18th century Muslim cleric Muhammad ibn abd al-Wahhab, after whom Wahhabism is named, and Muhammad ibn Saud, a tribal chieftain whose descendants would come to control Islam's holiest cities, Mecca and Medina, and the oil-saturated heartland of the Arabian peninsula.
The alliance lent the Saud family, after which Saudi Arabia is named, Islamic credentials, a crucial component for leadership in their staunchly religious desert domain. In return, al-Wahhab's followers gained unchallenged political power, elevating their rigid interpretation of Islam to template status for many Muslims worldwide.
Schwartz's provocative personal style has made him a lightning rod for criticism.
John L. Esposito, director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, faulted Schwartz for grouping all Islamic radicals together under the Wahhabi umbrella.
"Schwartz is clearly concerned with putting mainstream Islam into perspective," Esposito said, "but he misses the mark in his understanding of how Islam works internationally. He presents it as a black-and-white set of categories.
"It used to be that 'fundamentalist' was the catch-all term for Islamic radicalism. Now it's 'Wahhabism,' " said Esposito, author of "Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam." But distinctions need to be made, he said. "One is that even conforming to an ultra-conservative, anti-pluralistic faith does not necessarily make you a violent individual, and a second is that Saudi Arabian religion is not as monolithic as Schwartz makes it out to be."
Schwartz is critical of President Bush and many in the administration for past associations with Saudi Arabia. Vice President Cheney, who headed the oil field technology firm Halliburton before joining the White House team, comes in for particular criticism.
The West, Schwartz said, must insist that Saudi Arabia provide a full accounting of its citizens' involvement in the Sept. 11 attacks and end its alliance with Wahhabism both inside and outside the kingdom -- even if it threatens the government's continued existence. The alternative, he said, is endless terrorism.
"Defending Muslims and Islam means to destroy the terrorists and the Wahhabi extremists who are taking them and the religion down the road to hell," he said.
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