Why apologize for my faith or support for freedom?
by Stephen Schwartz
As an author interested in controversy, I am used to criticism. Some is fair; some is not. Earlier this year, two articles about me were published in The Star-Ledger by columnist Paul Mulshine. He offered readers a combination of Bush-bashing, McCarthyite paranoia about leftist radicals and panic about Muslims.
On Aug. 20, under the headline "War of the words," Mulshine put forward his judgment of President Bush and his Middle East policy, including a reference to me as a writer on "Islamofascism." Mulshine called me "an intelligent and interesting guy - perhaps a bit too interesting." What does it mean to be called "a bit too interesting"?
Mulshine elucidated by taking up my personal life, dating back more than 20 years. He noted that my deceased parents were leftists. According to him, I too "had a long run as a left-wing radical before moving to what is commonly perceived to be the right." I was indeed a Marxist activist from 1963 (age 14) to 1983 (age 34), a "run" of 20 years. I then openly exited the revolutionary milieu and became a supporter of the Reagan administration.
People change, and the journey of former leftist radicals to a conservative or, more recently, a neoconservative position, is nothing new. I examined the process by which certain Trotskyists and social democrats became neoconservatives in my latest book, "Is It Good for the Jews? The Crisis of America's Israel Lobby."
Some people go in the opposite direction; Hillary Clinton began her political life supporting Barry Goldwater. But nor, unfortunately, is it new for people to delve into others' pasts for ammunition useful in drive-by polemics. Mulshine added to his attack by impugning my entry into the pluralistic Sufi tradition of Islam. On the basis of no evidence, he wrote that "in that great sea of trends and urges that is the Bay Area, Schwartz became a Sufi." Thus I was portrayed not only as somehow suspect but as superficial.
In reality, my interest in Sufi Islam began with a serious inquiry into the anthropology of religion, almost completely independent of, if not opposed to, the hippie excitements of the period. My involvement with religion marked the beginning of a complicated movement away from radicalism. Mulshine further derided Sufis on the basis of some experience with West Coast devotees of New Age spirituality. By contrast, my investigation of Sufism, as demonstrated by my published books and articles, has involved on-the-ground study of Islamic cultures in the Balkans - during the late wars there - as well as in Central Asia and Southeast Asia. I also collaborate with Sufi dissidents in Saudi Arabia and Iran, where such people face substantial danger.
In his second column, "The old left and the new right," published on Sept. 17, Mulshine unveiled a new plan of assault. He wrote about me as a neoconservative "named Suleyman Ahmad al-Kosovi" and as "al-Kosovi, who also goes by the name Stephen Schwartz." He had the facts exactly backward. I was born Stephen Schwartz, the name I have used in 99 percent of my published work. Suleyman Ahmad al-Kosovi is a pen name I employed once in a pamphlet exposing radical Islamist activities on U.S. college campuses. I have a Muslim name, which I use among Sufis, but I am not typically known as "al-Kosovi." To refer to me only as "al-Kosovi" is no more appropriate than insisting on knowing and using Mulshine's confirmation name in the Catholic faith.
The first 500 or so words of his second column were a meandering diatribe against the Black Panthers and "rich kids from the suburbs who saw themselves as political activists." Well, to paraphrase Bob Dylan, "It ain't me, Paul." I was invited to join a group of white radicals that supported the Black Panthers but declined to do so. I graduated from a big-city high school where there were as many working-class and middle-class students as "rich kids." My mother was a social worker and my father a small businessman. We were not rich.
Mulshine added two more statements I find objectionable. He asserted that I "dabbled in Marxism and union organizing." I do not "dabble" in anything. I have published several respectable volumes on the history of Marxism. I was a shop steward and reform activist in the Transportation Communications Union, went on to become the official historian of the Sailors' Union of the Pacific and served as the elected secretary of the Northern California Newspaper Guild - over some 14 years, both inside and outside the left.
Finally, Mulshine summarily condemned people like me who, along with President Bush, use the "rhetoric" of "liberation" in dealing with the problems of the Muslim world. Any American should perceive the difference between the "socialist liberation" acclaimed by the left decades ago and the "democratic capitalist liberation" proposed today.
In all these years, I never thought I would hear or read an American assailing the principle of liberation. America has stood for the liberation of humanity since the founding of our republic, through the campaigns for freedom led by Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan. In abandoning the radical left and its false liberation, I believe I embraced true liberation. I have no more reason to apologize or suffer obloquy for that decision than for my choice in religion. Both reflect a hallowed American and conservative belief in the inherent dignity of individual conscience.