Curing Wahhabism, The "Syphilis of Islam"
The blog Islamidades begins a series of interviews with various representatives of the Muslim world and also with scholars of Islam.
Stephen Suleyman Schwartz is an American journalist, columnist and author with articles published in several newspapers: The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Toronto Globe and Mail, etc. He describes himself as "a student of Sufism since the late 1960s and an adherent of the Hanafi school of Islam since 1997."
As executive director of the Center for Islamic Pluralism, he is one of the sharpest critics of Wahhabi fundamentalism. His book The Two Faces of Islam is a renowned publication about Muslim radicalism.
Islamidades: In your book The Two Faces of Islam you expose the historical genesis of Islamic fundamentalism. More than a praxis of terror, the essence of current fundamentalism is a radical reform of the Muslim perspective. Wahhabism converts anachronism into orthodoxy and leaves as a trail the destruction of the whole legacy of Islamic civilization. Union with the House of Saud gave force to the thinking of Muhammad Ibn Al-Wahhab. Analyzing this historical scenario and its contemporary consequences, is it possible to "cure" Islam of this "syphilis," using the term you put forward?
Schwartz: Islam may be cured of the syphilis of Wahhabism. Like other forms of Muslim radicalism, Wahhabism represents a deviation from moderate, traditional, conventional, spiritual, and even conservative Islam. When viewed globally, extreme Wahhabism, such as that embodied in the so-called "Islamic State" (formerly the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria"), as well as its fanatical counterparts in South Asia, comprising the Deobandi sect and the jihadist trend of Mawdudi, among Arabs and Turks in the Muslim Brotherhood, in Africa epitomized by Boko Haram and others, and in the ranks of Shias who follow Khomeinist doctrine, are a minority.
To remove the syphilis of Wahhabism from Islam it is first necessary for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to dissolve the theological monopoly of the Wahhabi sect and to return Arabia to its pre-Saudi state of Islamic pluralism. It is further required that antiradical Muslims break their silence about extremism and take action to reaffirm the moderate, traditional, conventional, spiritual, and even conservative nature of Islam prior to the Wahhabi eruption. Finally, governments in Muslim-majority countries must act to exclude radicals from positions of authority in the clerical bodies administering the faith in each of these lands. Given that the antiradicals comprise an overwhelming majority, this is not impossible. The gruesome atrocities of ISIS and the outrages of Boko Haram may accelerate this development.
Islamidades: The so-called "Islamization" of the West, that for some analysts seems to be already underway, finds support in Wahhabi institutions. The defense of a "parallel shariah," reserved for Muslim citizens, would be just the beginning of the cultural transformation that you compare with the "long march through the institutions," advocated by Gramsci and adopted by leftists starting from the 1960s. Furthermore, the increase of the Muslim population and its consequent political power puts Islam on the political agenda, especially in Europe. Is "Islamization" a real threat to Western freedoms and an imminent "danger?" Are Muslims born in the West already more inclined to secularism than to their own religious discourse?
Schwartz: I do not believe Islamization of the West, or the Far East, is a realistic possibility or a threat. The fantasy of introduction of Islamic law into the West contradicts shariah itself in that the Islamic consensus holds that Islamic law cannot be introduced into non-Muslim-majority countries. The scheme for parallel shariah remains a scheme and has gained standing nowhere except among a fringe of South Asian immigrants and their offspring in Britain. Gramsci advocated the "march through the institutions" from a position within Italian culture, not as a person foreign to it.
I do not see a considerable demographic expansion of the Muslim population in any European country. Muslim birth-rates appear to decline in the West. Muslims born in the West cannot be categorized easily. Some have grown up with secularism and accept it; some praise it as a guarantee of Islamic religious freedom. Some find themselves torn between two cultures and are attracted to radicalism as a form of authenticity. Some are socially and economically marginalized and participate in antisocial movements. But outside Britain, the largest Muslim minorities in Western Europe – those of France and Germany – have produced extremist rhetoric and movements but little jihadist activity. Tragically, the failure of the West to help end the atrocities of the Bashar Al-Assad regime in Syria has increased the appeal of radical Islam to Muslims in the West. But I am confident that Western governments can respond adequately to the internal threat represented by this problem.
Islamidades: Historically, the Palestinian cause has been aligned with the left and with secularism. The relatively recent rise of religious discourse, embodied in Hamas, reflects the influence of movements like the Muslim Brotherhood, in a synthesis between Salafism and the praxis of liberation. Is it possible to conceive Palestinian political agents open to negotiation and free of these two ideological causes? To what extent is the "Palestinian cause" definitively hijacked by Hamas' radicalism, especially with Fatah's inability to advance real proposals?
Schwartz: I do not use the term "Salafism" to refer to contemporary radical Islam, since it denotes more accurately the reform movement of modernizing Muslims in the 19th and early 20th century, such as Muhammad Abduh, and has been usurped by Wahhabis and misused by Western commentators who do not wish to call Wahhabism by its proper name. I do not see a link between the radicalism of Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood and "liberation theology" as understood in a Christian environment. The Palestinian leadership is currently negotiating, if inconsistently, with Israel because of the superior resources of the latter and the hostility of Egypt to the Muslim Brotherhood, of which Hamas is the Palestinian branch. But I cannot predict events in Israel or Palestine, and do not attempt to do so. The situation is sui generis. My only point about it is that it is basically a matter of disagreement over land and politics, in which religion is an ideological pretext. Peace should come first, since, as both Judaism and Islam affirm, to save a life is as if one had saved all of humanity.
Islamidades: The Islamic mysticism that became a target of systematic persecution since the rise of Wahhabism was associated, throughout the history of Islamic civilization, with a great intellectual and human vigor. The aesthetic and reflective wealth arising from its ranks illuminated the Muslim world. Both Sunnism and Shiism owe much of their intellectual tradition to mystics such as Rumi, al-Ghazali, Ibn Arabi, Suhrawardi, Mulla Sadra etc. With the destruction of this legacy and the expansion of anachronism, modern Islamism seems to be a dull reflection of the golden periods of the Ummah. How it is possible to restore this tradition in a scenario not so friendly to mysticism and reflection? Could the Islamic faith be fated to be a caricature created by the radicals?
Schwartz: The legacy of Islamic mysticism has not been destroyed; it remains dynamic and forceful in numerous countries and communities, even where it is distorted. Al-Ghazali is the dominant figure in Sunni theology, Ibn Arabi is widely read and studied, and Mulla Sadra produced a revolution in Shiism that is admired as a point of reference. I do not think the radicals will prevail. On the other hand, I think that one must be clear about Islamic history. Most of the so-called "Arab golden age" was owed to Persian science, and the alleged end of the "golden age" with the Mongol conquest of Baghdad in 1258 CE did not wipe out the traditions of Islamic metaphysics. Indeed, it appears that Sufism, in the Turkic and Iranian lands, was invigorated by reaction to the destruction of the Baghdad caliphate. So one should refer to two, if not three "golden ages" – the first, which was the period of Islamic conquests; the second, which is identified with the Baghdad caliphate, and the third, which is the great age of Sufism under the Ottomans, Safavids, and Indian Muslim states. I perceive the coming of a new Islamic "golden age" based on repudiation of radicalism and adaptation to modern conditions of life – a renaissance, not a reformation. The religion of Islam does not need reform, but Muslim societies must undergo change.
Islamidades: As director of the Center for Islamic Pluralism (CIP) you advocate the integration of the American Muslim community into society, by means of a respect for religious freedom and combating radicalization and politicization of Islam. The "moderate Muslims" assume an apparent position of balance. However, to what extent is possible to conceive a "pluralistic" Islamism? Does "integration" in a secularized society not open the doors of the Islamic faith to secularism itself and the relativism of its jurisprudence?
Schwartz: I do not think Islamist ideology can be pluralist, in that it rejects the Islam of the present as an alleged return to pre-Muhammad ignorance or jahiliyya. I believe Islamist ideology must be defeated and the dominance of moderate, traditional, conventional, spiritual, and even conservative Islam restored. Muslims are commanded to integrate into non-Muslim societies to which they migrate, by accepting the law and customs of those societies. That was the guidance of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, to the muhajirs or refugees from Mecca who went to Abyssinia, and it was the standard for conduct of Muslim emigrants to the West and Far East until the rise of radicalism after the Iranian Revolution of 1979.
The Ottoman state, which was the greatest power in Islamic history, recognized non-religious law or "kanun" alongside religious law, the latter which applied only to matters of faith. Both were part of "shariah." From the viewpoint of traditional Islam, Western law, which does not prohibit the exercise of Islamic belief, is also shariah that must be followed. If Muslims cannot live with that standard, they should return to Muslim territory.
"Integration" does not imply necessarily "assimilation." In most Western countries, "integration" means acceptance of common law and institutions, not adoption of Western cultural norms. I am opposed, for example, to Muslim youth in the West taking up such fashions as "gangster rap" and its degradation of women. We see, however, that such forms of what I and my colleagues have called "perverse assimilation" are spreading among young Muslims.
Islamidades: To those who say that the persecution of Christians and Jews is an essential part of the Quranic message and a tradition of the Prophet, how do you reply? Do not some passages of the Qur'an, as well as facts of Muhammad's life, such as the extermination of Jewish tribes, even being contextualized, increase the legitimacy of the fundamentalist discourse?
Schwartz: I do not believe that persecution of Peoples of the Book is an essential part of the Quranic message, nor do I believe in alleged traditions (hadith) of the Prophet or purported incidents from his life that would justify such an attitude. I do believe in history, and if such beliefs were truly part of Islam it would be impossible to explain why the Moroccan and Ottoman sultans rescued the expelled Spanish and Portuguese Jews; or why for centuries there were Christian churches in Muslim lands while there were no mosques (except, it is said, an Ottoman merchants' mosque in Venice) in Christian lands, or how Christian communities survived in Muslim countries while Muslims appeared in Christendom only in the last two centuries, or why ancient Christian and even Jewish communities still exist in Muslim states today.
Qur'an is not a revelation making Islam a companion, much less a subordinate, to the Peoples of the Book. Christianity defined itself as much more radically different from Judaism than Islam has from both. Qur'an alludes to the differences of Islam from Judaism, Christianity, and other faiths (the Sabaeans as well as pagans). But Judaism and Islam also have a great deal in common, which should not be ignored.
The sira or biography of Muhammad that describes the purported massacre of males from the Jewish tribe of Banu Qurayzah was written more than a century after Muhammad lived, and its author, Ibn Ishaq, was repudiated by Malik Ibn Anas, his contemporary, who founded one of the four standard schools of Islamic jurisprudence, the Malikiyya, named for him. Qur'an refers briefly (surah 33, ayah 26) to such an incident but states only that "some" People of the Book were killed and "some" held captive.
The elaborated account of the fate of the Banu Qurayzah is, in my view, unsupported. The Moroccan and Ottoman rescue of the Iberian Jews is unchallenged fact. Between the competing "faces of Islam" to which I referred in my book, I have come to affirm the significance of the latter rather than the former.
Islamidades: In an article you called the Iraqi Ayatollah Ali Sistani "The Good Ayatollah," comparing his vision with Wahhabi radicalism and highlighting its importance as a more sensible voice within Shi'ism. In the current context, Sistani has spoken in defense of the unity of Iraq and his attitudes, such as proximity to the Chaldean Christian Patriarch, are eloquent. To what extent has Ayatollah Sistani emerged as the most important "moderate" authority of Shia Islam and what is his importance in the deconstruction of the political paradigm of "Vilayat-e Faqih" created by Khomeini and consolidated the Islamic Republic of Iran?
Schwartz: Ayatollah Ali Sistani has represented consistently a moderate Shia view and, most important, a repudiation of the Iranian ideology of "Vilayet-e Faqih" or governance by clerical jurisprudential authorities. He was a source of hope for many of us that Iraqi Arab Shiism would present a strong alternative to the Iranian clerical dictatorship. Sadly, it appears that while he remains the marja (religious authority) for Shias in Iraq, he has become the "marginalized marja" because of the power of Iranian supporters in Iraq. In this context it is important to recognize and defend Sistani, but I fear the project for an Iraqi Arab Shiism untainted by Iranian ideology is failing.
[Nota: Para ver o texto português desta entrevista, clique no título Islamidades no topo desta entrada.]
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