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.