The Two Faces of Islam
by Stephen Schwartz
More than a year after the tragic events of 9/11, the debate about the causes of Islamic terrorism continues unabated. On one side of this debate, the blame-America-first crowd-consisting of the usual loony-Left suspects, along with assorted moral relativists and post-- modernist progressives-sees American foreign policy and, more specifically, U.S. support for Israel as the root cause of the problem. They argue that being pro-- Israel, coupled with the alleged legacy of Western exploitation of the Muslim masses and the "new imperialism" of globalization, explains the unfortunate, but understandable, violent reaction of the downtrodden against their American oppressors. Curiously, in propounding this theory the progressives find themselves in bed with some very non-- progressive fellows, including Saudi princes and various other Arab potentates.
The other extreme is an increasingly vocal group that proclaims that terrorist violence is simply a Koran-sanctioned war against infidels, mandated by the reactionary nature of Islam itself. In this view, it is the intolerant, obscurantist, and warlike nature of Islam as a religion that is the problem. The only difference between moderate and radical Islam, opines journalist Oriana Fallaci, is the "length of their beards."
Neither of these theories can hold much water even under the most cursory of examinations. Proponents of the former, for instance, would find it hard to explain the fact that Islamic terrorist organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood and ideologues of extremism like Hassan al-Banna and Abul Ala Mawdudi plied their trade long before Israel and the Palestinian conflict existed, or the fact that the vast majority of the over 100,000 recent victims of Islamic terrorism have been fellow Muslims. Similarly, advocates of the Islam-is-evil-and-ignorant theory will have difficulty rationalizing away the documented religious tolerance of Islamic rulers in the past, as well as the achievements of Muslims in philosophy and the arts. It is a matter of historical record that in Muslim societies, both Jewish and Christian communities -- their nominal second-class status notwithstanding -- not only survived but prospered for centuries. The Ottoman Empire frequently offered sanctuary to religious groups persecuted in Christendom; its capital, Istanbul, remains the headquarters of Orthodox Christianity to this day. Most historians would agree that until the Reformation, Muslims were more tolerant than the Christian Church.
Between these extremes is the administration's position that we're at war not with Islam but with Islamic extremism. This is fine as far as it goes, but unfortunately, like the other two explanations, it throws little light on key questions: What drives the violent jihad movement ideologically? Who supports it and finances it? How was it able to organize itself into a fanatical worldwide terrorist network in just over a decade?
Into this analytical void steps author Stephen Schwartz with his timely new book, The Two Faces of Islam. It is based on the simple proposition that there have always been two Islams, which have coexisted uneasily through the centuries. One is the mainstream, traditional Islam practiced by the vast majority of Muslims and characterized, for the most part, by moderation and tolerance toward other monotheistic religions; the other an extremist and fascist-like creed that has been preaching and often practicing violence in the name of religion. The author does an excellent job of tracing the coexistence of these two tendencies up to our times, and he does so with undisguised sympathy for Islam as a religion (which sympathy occasionally, as in the discussion of Sufism, veers into adulation).
The real relevance of this book concerning the subject of terrorism resides in its analysis of Wahhabism (a term the Saudis resent and never use themselves) and its influence as the present incarnation of the ugly face of Islam, about which, as Schwartz correctly notes, no history for a general audience had been written.
The author comes to his main argument early and forcefully. "The real source of our problem," he writes in the preface, "is the perversion of Islamic teachings by the fascistic Wahhabi cult that resides at the heart of the Saudi establishment." Schwartz documents this in his narrative; much of the evidence he presents is fairly well known -- though seldom discussed in such detail-in the West. Schwartz considers Wahhabism a "death cult" that is "un-" and even anti-Islamic; he details a number of its "innovations" that stood many of Islam's tenets on their head. To name just one of the most flagrant falsifications of traditional teaching, Abd al-Wahhab, the founder of Wahhabism, ordained that Muslims who did not subscribe to his views were apostates and infidels and deserved to be put to death. This is quite an astounding innovation in a religion that preaches that one's faith should be taken at face value, and that the believer's sincerity is for God to determine on Judgment Day.
Armed with this doctrine and a nearly pathological hatred for Shias, Sufis, and other Muslims, never mind infidels, Wahhabism became early on a jihadist creed par excellence, and Saudi history is replete with violent campaigns designed to force other Muslims to submit politically and theologically. Moreover, Wahhabism remains to this day the prototype ideology of all Islamic extremists and terrorists, even those who hate the House of Saud. What they all have in common is a passionate hatred for America and Western civilization, and even for mainstream Islam. In late October a group of 56 high-ranking Wahhabi clerics accused America yet again of being the leader of a crusade against Islam, and urged Muslims to pray for the destruction of all infidels and Muslim hypocrites.
More relevant still is the wealth of material Schwartz presents on the worldwide effort by the House of Saud to spread Wahhabism in Muslim and non-Muslim countries alike. In the 1970s, Saudi Arabia-flush with petrodollars-embarked on an unprecedented multibillion-dollar campaign to infiltrate Muslim communities everywhere and impose Wahhabi extremism as the dominant idiom. As part of this campaign, Saudi governmentsponsored front organizations and "charities" began actively supporting and financing virtually all extremist and openly terrorist Islamic organizations, a process that continues unabated to this day despite official protestations to the contrary.
As a result, Islamic extremism under Wahhabi auspices has established a significant foothold in Muslim communities from the Philippines to California, creating an atmosphere in which fanaticism and ultimately terrorism thrive. In the U.S., as Schwartz convincingly demonstrates, the Wahhabis may have scored their biggest success to date:
Virtually all organizations claiming to represent American Muslims are controlled by the Saudis, as are most student associations, Islamic schools and centers, and perhaps half of all mosques. Worse still, at least two dozen Saudi-controlled charities have had to be raided or closed down by federal authorities for suspected terrorist ties. All of this conjures up the troublesome specter of a fifth column of homegrown fanatics, of a kind the U.S. has never before faced.
Like most works of its ambitious scope, this book is not without problems. Though it's well written as a whole, some chapters pack in so much diverse and, at times, disjointed information that they seem to lack focus. The author also occasionally falls into the Wahhabi-under-every-bed trap. It is a fact that many of the extremist Islamic movements-such as Gamaa Islamiyah in Egypt, the Armed Islamic Group in Algeria, and the Afghan Islamists-were supported by the Saudis, but they were not Wahhabi per se, as the author implies. There was no "Wahhabi colossus" during the Afghan resistance, and the Saudi-funded "Arab Afghans" were pretty much a joke during the war and only became a serious threat after Pakistan put the Taliban in business. The reason Pakistan and its intelligence service supported the fundamentalists in the resistance was that the fundamentalists were Islamic internationalists and not likely to raise the issue of Pushtun irredentism in the North-West Territories. This had little to do with Wahhabism, or-as Schwartz alleges-with the "colossal error" of Washington in failing to understand the conflict between Wahhabis and traditionalists. It may have been a mistake for the U.S. to put all of its eggs in the Pakistani basket, but there weren't many alternatives at the time.
Schwartz would have been on firmer ground regarding Afghanistan and Pakistan if he had spent time looking into the key role played by the Deobandi sect, the Tablighi Jamaat, and the Able Hadith. All three of these organizations are extremist and financially supported by the Saudis. Ahle Hadith is openly terrorist and Wahhabi, while the other two have contributed in a major way to the destabilization of Pakistan and are already active in America. (Tablighi "missionaries," for instance, recruited the Buffalo Six, as well as John Walker Lindh, to the terrorist cause.)
Schwartz's coverage of Wahhabi efforts in the Caucasus-a major Saudi focus in the 1990s -- is also perfunctory and a bit disappointing. His statement about a "complete lack of Wahhabi interference" in the Chechen war from 1994 to 1996 is plain wrong. Wahhabi money, missionaries, and literature were all over the North Caucasus beginning in the early 1990s, and Saudi Wahhabis were officially appointed to Chechen sharia courts in 1996. The legacy of Wahhabi subversion of both the indigenous Sufi Islam and the Chechen struggle for independence lives on. The ringleader of the Moscow theater takeover, Movsar Barayev, was the nephew and heir apparent of the late Chechen warlord-and major exponent of Wahhabism-Arbi Barayev.
Closer to home, one wishes that the author had delved into the major inroads the Wahhabis have made among black Muslims, who constitute a third of all Muslims in the U.S. He discusses persistent Saudi efforts to convert black prisoners, but says nothing about the Wahhabi ideological penetration of both Deen Muhammad's Muslim American Society and Louis Farrakhan's Nation of Islam, nor about these groups' growing financial dependence on the Wahhabis. It would also have been of interest if Schwartz had discussed the de facto alliance between the Saudi-controlled Muslim establishment and the loony Left: It is a delicious sight indeed to see the frontmen of Riyadh's corrupt billionaire gerontocracy side by side with the likes of the Revolutionary Communist Party USA and assorted Maoists and Trotskyites, all united in manning the barricades for Saddam Hussein.
These and other blemishes notwithstanding, Schwartz's new book is a major and welcome contribution on a topic that will only become more relevant. It is must reading for anybody who wants to know what exactly we are facing in the war on terror.
Related Topics: Saudi Arabia, Wahhabism receive the latest by email: subscribe to the free center for islamic pluralism mailing list
Note: The content of external articles does not necessarily reflect the views of Center for Islamic Pluralism.
home | articles | announcements | spoken | wahhabiwatch | about us | cip in the media | reports
external articles | bookstore | mailing list | contact us | @twitter | iraqi daily al-sabah al-jadid