Reinharz's problem with radical Islam
by Stephen Schwartz
University President Jehuda Reinharz has a problem with Islam. Given that Brandeis is the pride of America's Jewish community, and I am a Muslim, one might expect me to condemn Reinharz for supporting Israel and criticizing radical Muslims.
But Reinharz's problem with Islam is the opposite of what one might imagine: He has shown himself to be soft on Islamists. What's more, when attacked by a Muslim opponent of radical Islamists (me), he has resorted to Muslim-baiting.
I wrote an op-ed in the New York Post last January criticizing Brandeis for hiring Natana DeLong-Bas to lecture on Islamic studies. Soon after discussion began spreading in the United States about Wahhabism and its link to the atrocities of 9/11, DeLong-Bas emerged as a leading defender of the Wahhabi sect.
In Wahhabi Islam, DeLong-Bas's polemic on behalf of the Wahhabis and their Saudi patrons, she acknowledged financial support for her research from Fahd as-Semmari, director of the King Abd al-Aziz Foundation for Research and Archives. She even told the leading Arabic daily, Al-Sharq Al-Awsat: "I know of no convincing evidence that Osama bin Laden was responsible for the attacks on the World Trade Center. All we know about him is that he praised and commended those who did it. Radicals in Saudi Arabia are not influenced by Islam, as so many people think. ... The main factors are political: the Palestinian problem, … Iraq … and U.S. support for Israel."
I criticized DeLong-Bas for her presentation of Wahhabism-the most intolerant and violent fundamentalist interpretation of Sunnism in recent history-as benevolent, peaceful, respectful of other religion, and even feminist. A number of Brandeis supporters expressed their shock and concern to President Reinharz about the hiring of DeLong-Bas.
In response to critical letters, Reinharz sent a form reply that included this statement about me: "Mr. Schwartz also identifies himself as Suleyman Ahmad, a member of Jews for Allah. He writes under both names, depending on his audience."
Reinharz's message is that as a Muslim critical of Islamist ideology, I should not be trusted. But who better than a Muslim can judge the Islamist discourse? In his view DeLong-Bas, who serves as an advocate for the most backward elements of the Saudi order-the Wahhabi clerics-is above reproach, even though Reinharz admitted in his letter that he had not read her book.
Let me clarify some points. I am not Jewish by birth (my father was Jewish but my mother was Christian), and I had no Jewish upbringing. I had no religion before becoming Muslim; further, I have never been a "member of Jews for Allah." I have a Muslim name, Suleyman Ahmad Schwartz, but use it infrequently in public, since I am established as an author and journalist under my born name.
I serve as the executive director of the Center for Islamic Pluralism. In addition, my 2002 book, The Two Faces of Islam, was the first study that exposed in detail the Wahhabi sect of Sunni Islam, its links to the Saudi monarchy and its role as the inspirer of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida.
Reinharz's intent was multi-prejudicial: to dismiss my opposition to the views of DeLong-Bas by profiling me as a Muslim while implying that I am an apostate from Judaism. This private and unethical disparagement of a public and legitimate inquiry tries to replace a serious effort to assess the issues present in the employment of a Wahhabi apologist with an attack on my religious adherence.
A Brandeis president who denigrates a Muslim opponent of extremism and defends a proponent of Wahhabism is dangerously ignorant of today's internal conflicts in the community of Muhammad and is in no position to contribute positively to the defeat of Islamist terrorism and the survival of global civilization.
The struggle against al-Qaida and its supporters will not be won by flattering the academic accomplices of Saudi extremism. It will be won, however, when Americans of all faiths learn that moderate, anti-extremist Muslims are trustworthy and critical allies.