"I fervently hope that moderate Islam will defeat radical Islam":
U Mahesh Prabhu (UMP): Center for Islamic Pluralism, of which you are a director, presents itself as "think tank that challenges the dominance of American Muslim life by militant Islamist groups". What according to [you] is "militant Islam" and "moderate Islam"?
Stephen Suleyman Schwartz (SSS): Militant or, as we prefer to define it, radical Islam is a fundamentalist Islam that pursues jihad within the ummah of Muslims to combat those with whom the radicals disagree, such as Shias, Sufis, and other heterodox groups, while also confronting and attacking non-Muslims. Radical Islam practices takfir or expulsion against Muslims of which it disapproves. Moderate Islam is an Islam satisfied to function as a normal religion, defending itself when directly attacked as a religion, but otherwise cultivating mutual respect with other faiths, and depending for its approval by Almighty Allah on its devotion to the foundations of the religion and positive intentions, rather than extravagant external piety or aggression toward Muslims with which it diverges and non-Muslims. Moderate Islam does not practice takfir.
UMP: How do you explain, in simple words, Wahhabi Islam? How dangerous is it?
SSS: Wahhabi Islam is a deviant sect emerging from the Arabian hinterland 250 years ago, which is fundamentalist, exclusionary, radical, and hostile to traditional Islamic customs. It is also extremely aggressive against other faiths. Drawing on Gulf petrodollars, Wahhabism seeks to bring all Sunni Muslims in the world under its control and to impose its views and practices upon them. Wahhabism falsely presents itself as "Salafism," a term correctly applied to 19th century Muslim reformers who were neither violent nor anti-Western, although, regrettably, they opposed Sufism and other traditional aspects of the religion. It represents a devastating threat to Sunni Islam and to the world.
UMP: You are an ardent Sufi Muslim. But there are facts to suggest that Sufism, too, though indirectly, has perpetrated hate and violence amongst "Kafirs". How then do you call Sufism as "moderate" Islam?
SSS: As a journalist I avoid wording like "facts to suggest" something. If bad actions may be attributed to some Sufis, they should be cited historically and spelled out, not presented as an insinuation. I do know and have published at length that some Sufis are jihadist. I do know and have published at length that some Sufis have been too eager to embrace political power. I don't know of Sufis who have perpetrated hate and violence "amongst" alleged "kuffar" — a term I do not use except in referring to militant atheists such as Communists, or Satanists, or Nazis. I do not even understand how Muslims could perpetrate hate and violence "amongst" non-Muslims. Two of the most famous 19th century Sufis, Abdelqadir Al-Jazairi of Algeria and Imam Shamyl of Daghestan led jihad against the French and Russians but taught and enforced protection of non-Muslims and non-aggressors. If there is evidence for such an inflammatory claim as that "Sufism, too, though indirectly, has perpetrated hate and violence amongst 'Kafirs'" I would need to be presented with it in detail. I strenuously object to your portrayal of Hz. Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti in your article "Demystifying the Sufis". The existence of alleged "facts to suggest that Sufism, too, though indirectly" is responsible for bad actions would not define or deny the definition of Sufism as moderate. That Sufism represents a moderate interpretation of Islam is universally recognized by scholars of comparative religion throughout the world. Indirect and unanticipated consequences are not considered as a source of blame against anybody by any normal standard.
UMP: What is your stand on Muslim taking to Islamic Shariah law? Are you with it or against it?
SSS: We are for shariah in two ways: as a term for general religious observance such as prayer (Sufi definition) and in the purely private realm (regulation of diet, form of prayer, male circumcision, burial, and regulation of prescribed charity [zakat]). We recognize that in some Muslim countries and others with a large Muslim community shariah governs family and property law. One of the latter countries happens to be Israel, among its 1.2 million Muslim citizens. We support the primacy of civil law rather than religious law as a public standard. We oppose attempts to import shariah as public or family law into non-Muslim countries. We support regulation of shariah in Muslim countries or those with large Muslim minorities to prevent abuses against universally recognized human rights. We have published a report on attempts to impose shariah on Western European Muslims in a free download here.
UMP: Back in India people like Dr. Zakir Naik are presenting a brand of Islam which is pretty contrary to what you profess. What is your opinion about him?
SSS: We have condemned Zakir Naik in the following statement, recently.
UMP: There have been several fatwas on Dr. Naik. Even Dar-ul-uloom of Deoband poses as if against him. But these Deobandis are no less dangerous as they have been (or are still) the ideologues behind the Taliban. Your comments.
SSS: We have condemned the Deobandi interpretation and the Taliban on many occasions, as for example here:
Anybody who looks at our website will find more such commentary.
UMP: In the current scheme of things do you foresee "moderate Muslims" coming to the fore and taking charge of the Muslim community by outdoing their Islamist brethren?
SSS: I fervently hope that moderate Islam will defeat radical Islam. It is not a matter of "outdoing" the radicals or Islamists, but of removing them from their monopoly of control in various countries.
UMP: In its 1400 long history Islam has never produced evident liberal/secular Muslim icons. (Or has it?) Why is it so?
SSS: Islam does not produce any icons. Islam in Sufism and in its encounter with Greek philosophy produced numerous rational and pluralistic thinkers. These range from the early Sufis to figures such as Ibn Rushd and Al-Ghazali. This is known to anybody who bothers to study the history of the religion. Muhammad Iqbal was a rationalist and pluralist. Muslim societies have also produced notable secular leaders such as Muhammad Ali Jinnah. I do not consider the importation of Western vocabulary such as "rationalism" and "secularism" as categories imposed on Islamic thought to be very useful. Rational and secular praxis may be derived from Islam as it is and do not need to be imported. Every Muslim country in the world except Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Sudan has a secular or mainly-secular political system.
UMP: I have firmly believed that radical Islam will meet its end as soon as there is an alternative for hydrocarbons (petrol). Your comments.
SSS: The question is not hydrocarbons but who controls them. Waiting for a real alternative to hydrocarbons would require decades. If the governments of the Muslim energy exporters are socially reformed, the problem of radical Islam will diminish and perhaps disappear.
UMP: What is your perception about Indian Muslims? Do you think they will take charge as "moderates" or will they simply join the Islamist Jihadi bandwagon by listening to hate mongers like Dr. Naik?
SSS: Jihadism would lead to a wholesale disaster for Indian Muslims. The Center for Islamic Pluralism cooperates with Indian Muslim leaders in U.P. and elsewhere to combat the influence of Naik and other shaytan figures like him.
UMP: Why do think radical hate preachers like Dr. Naik have gained momentum amongst the Indian Muslims. As you see they have been given fairly good treatment by the government and their non-Muslim brethren including Hindus, Christians, Buddhists, Parsees and even Jews?
SSS: I did not know Naik was treated well by Hindus, Christians, Buddhists, Parsees or Jews. This is difficult to believe. If this is true it is a consequence of Naik's adroit use of media. The Indian government has recently been soft in dealing with Wahhabis and others. Otherwise I have no explanation for his influence.
UMP: Geert Wilders in Netherland is fighting to ban Quran in his country. What is your opinion about his activism against Islam?
SSS: Dutch people do not believe in banning books and I do not believe Wilders will attain a position of authority that would allow such a thing. Otherwise I have no comment on Wilders except to note that some Dutch Muslims support him privately because they are for limitation on further immigration. He has his views and we have ours. As long as he does not attack us physically, there is no reason for Muslims to concern ourselves with him. Such people have always existed in every society.
UMP: How do you think all this fight over the faith will end? Will it be peaceful or will it end in a bloodbath? Who do you think, at this point in time, has an upper hand – radicals or moderate Muslims?
SSS: Radicals have the upper hand at present in many countries, in part because of the weak policies of U.S. and UK leaders. I am a Sufi and fervently pray for peaceful and mutually respectful relations between believers in all religions.
UMP: Which of these two Islamic countries is more dangerous to world peace: Saudi Arabia or Iran? Why?
SSS: Saudi Arabia, if the Wahhabi ulema are not curbed, is a danger to the future of Islam and to civil peace in many countries. Iran is more immediately dangerous in its quest for nuclear weapons.
UMP: Finally, what future do you personally foresee for Islam & Muslims, at large, in next 100 years? Will this radicalism end or will it continue to thrive?
SSS: I am not a prophet and do not have knowledge of the future. I pray, work, and hope for the defeat of radicalism and the victory of moderate, traditional Islam including its heterodox Sufi and related forms of expression.