Interviews March 2003

The Real Islam

In The Two Faces of Islam the journalist Stephen Schwartz argues that in order to appreciate the pluralist, tolerant side of Islam, we must confront its ugly, extremist side
The Two Faces of Islam

The Two Faces of Islam: The House of Sa'ud from Tradition to Terror
by Stephen Schwartz
312 pages, $25.00

In the mid-1700s a new strain of Muslim extremism began to flourish in a small village in the Arabian desert—a strain that would have a profound effect on Islam and the world as a whole. As Stephen Schwartz describes it in his recent book, The Two Faces of Islam: The House of Sa'ud from Tradition to Terror, little is known about the early life of the sect's founder, Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, except that as a young man he is thought to have traveled through much of the Ottoman empire. He returned from his travels with a belief that Islam had been corrupted and weakened by the Ottomans, and that it needed to be brought back to its roots. But his brand of "an original, authentic Islam," as Schwartz writes, was both harsher and more stripped down than the religion that the Prophet Muhammad had founded centuries before. Al-Wahhab forbade many practices and traditions that were an established part of Muslim culture, such as the celebration of the Prophet's birthday, the decoration of mosques, and the use of music in worship and daily life. But most striking was his attitude toward those people—both Muslims and non-Muslims—who didn't share his beliefs. As Schwartz describes it, "Shi'as, Sufis, and other Muslims he judged unorthodox were to be exterminated, and all other faiths were to be humiliated." Al-Wahhab soon established a political-religious alliance with a local bandit, Muhammad ibn Sa'ud, and they agreed that any territory they conquered could only be ruled by their descendants. The House of Sa'ud—which rules Saudi Arabia—is directly descended from that alliance, and Wahhabism (though Saudis don't use the term) is the religion of the regime.

Few people outside the Muslim world really focused on Wahhabism until September 11, when the fact that fifteen out of nineteen hijackers were Saudi Arabian, as is Osama bin Laden, brought people face to face with this extremist ideology. Schwartz, a journalist who has been studying Islam and extremism for more than a decade, set out to write a history and exposé of Wahhabism, which he believes is at the root of "two and a half centuries of Islamic fundamentalism, and ultimately terrorism, in response to global change." Schwartz describes how over the years, Wahhabis have infiltrated Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Balkans, the Philippines, Western Europe, and of course America in their efforts to attack those who don't believe as they do. Schwartz, who has spent several years in the Balkans working with the Muslim community, argues passionately that Islam must not be viewed as a monolith—that people need to understand that much of Islam is based on a rich, pluralistic, multi-ethnic, moderate tradition. But at the same time, people must recognize the dangers of Wahhabism, and of supporting the Saudi regime. Schwartz is caustic about those who he believes have encouraged our close ties to Saudi Arabia and have discouraged any real examination into Saudi involvement in terrorist attacks in the U.S. and elsewhere—his opprobrium falls on everyone from oil-company executives to journalists to lobbyists to the President and his cabinet. Ultimately, though, Schwartz finds room for optimism, both in his knowledge of the true, tolerant face of Islam, and in his belief that war in Iraq may touch off a chain of events that will eventually lead to an end of Wahhabi influence in the Middle East.

I spoke with Schwartz by phone last week.

—Katie Bacon

Stephen Schwartz
Stephen Schwartz   

What misunderstandings about Islam do you most want to correct with this book?

First, I want Westerners to get over their fears. Second, I want to correct the misunderstanding that there's just one Islam, and that it's the Saudi-extremist form. Third, I want to correct the misunderstanding that Islam is inherently intolerant of the Christians and Jews. I want to correct the view that Islam is inherently violent. I want to correct the view that Islam is incompatible with democracy, prosperity, and pluralism. And, finally, I want to correct the view that Islam as a religion is an impediment to democracy in the Middle East.

The response to my book has been very positive from the three groups of people I most want it to reach. Now, one of the paradoxes is that I always wanted to reach Muslims with this book. When I first told my editor that, he scoffed and said, "Well, they're not going to read it." But as matter of fact, a lot of Muslims are reading my book. I wanted to reach thoughtful people, people who were looking for factual presentation and who were looking for a way out of prejudice, and I think I'm reaching people like that. And I wanted to reach people who wanted the low-down on the Saudis. And I'm reaching them. Now, there must be people who buy my book because they think it's anti-Islamic, because when I look at Amazon, very often I find that people who have bought my book have also bought anti-Islamic books. But anybody who reads my book expecting dirt about the Islamic faith will be sorely disappointed.

What sort of comparisons would you draw between Wahhabi Islam and puritanical branches of Christianity and Judaism? Are there any similar motivations behind them?

Absolutely. This is an extremely complex and paradoxical issue. In Islam, there has always been the argument that Wahhabism arose directly as an imitation of Protestant Christianity. And there are Wahhabis who do make this comparison. They say, "We are creating a Protestant Islam." I used to respond to this by saying to Wahhabis, "If you're looking for models from the Christian world, the Catholics are much better models." If I went to Jerry Falwell and asked him how he thinks the poetry of William Blake relates to theology, it is very doubtful he would even know what I was talking about. If I were to go to Pat Robertson and ask him what he thought of John Milton as a representative of Protestant culture, it's very doubtful he would have an intelligent comment. But I can go to a Catholic priest anywhere in the Catholic world and talk about philosophy and poetry, literature and art, because Catholicism is a whole civilization. If you want a Protestant-style Islam, fine, I can't stop you from wanting that, but Protestantism begins with John Milton and ends with Jimmy Swaggart. A Protestant-style Islam would be stripped down, with no spirituality, no sense of Islam as a civilization or a culture, no love of poetry, of mysticism, of religious philosophy, no beautiful mosques. When you look at Protestantism versus Catholicism, or Wahhabism versus traditional Islam, these are the striking parallels. It's a big cliché in the West: "Islam needs a Reformation." No, Islam does not need a reformation. If Islam needs anything comparable to developments in Christian history, it needs a Counter-Reformation. That is, what the Catholics did. You reaffirm faith, you reaffirm tradition, but you adjust the day-to-day functioning of the Church to the realities of a modern society. The bottom line is this. I always said to the Wahhabis, You think the world is impressed when someone goes into a bus in Israel and blows up a bunch of kids. That doesn't impress people. What impresses people about Islam is a picture of the Taj Mahal. What impresses people who are not Muslims is Islam as a culture, Islam as a civilization, Islam as a set of beautiful mosques. Wahhabism wants to get rid of all that, it wants to drain all of that out of the religion.

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