Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Blog Interview: Stephen Schwartz 

For those who have been keenly following the war against the terrorists as well as those who finance and rouse them, Stephen Schwartz needs no introduction. Journalist and an author (most recently of "The Two Faces of Islam: The House of Sa'ud from Tradition to Terror"), he has been a vocal opponent of Wahhabism and an unmasker of many tentacles of the Terror International. He contributes frequently to Frontpage Magazine, the "Weekly Standard" and Tech Central Station.

Today, I wanted to ask him about his take on the progress of the war on terror, what to do about Saudi Arabia, the hidden aspects of the Balkan wars, the future of Islam, as well as, more personally, about his own religious and political journeys.

We are now more than three years into the serious phase of the war on terror. How do you think we’re going and what are some of the things that can go wrong in the future?

Contrary to common wisdom, I believe we are winning the war on terror.

First, as horrible as they have been, the quantity and frequency of serious al-Qaida attacks outside Iraq has been much lower than might have been the case.

Second, I believe the elections in Afghanistan and Iraq represent a solid repudiation by the peoples of those countries of the radical Islamist nightmare.

Third, recruitment to radical Islamist movements in certain key Muslim countries has been much lower than many predicted, by which I refer to Morocco, Turkey, Uzbekistan, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Radical Islam is quiescent in Algeria and Egypt. The Iranian people increasingly demonstrate their opposition to Khomeini's scheme for clerical rule, which had no precedent in Islam and was even, in Islamic terms, heretical. Although the Ba’ath dictatorship remains a troublesome element in the Middle East, Syrian Islam itself has not become radicalized. I also believe that the assassination of Rafik Hariri - which I believe was carried out by al-Qaida or other Wahhabi elements in an attempt to shift the "jihad" from Iraq, where they suffered a body blow from the successful election, to Lebanon - will not bring about a civil war.

Four things can go wrong, and they are quite simply defined:

First, we may fail to compel Saudi Arabia to stop financing international Wahhabi expansionism. We absolutely must, in dealing with the Saudi kingdom, do as we did with the former Soviet Union: make them shut off the money tap.

Second, we may fail to halt Saudi-Wahhabi infiltration and bloodshed in Pakistan, the country that – even more than Iraq - is the crucial frontline state in the battle against radical Islam. We must compel Musharraf or his successor to pursue a consequential and effective struggle against extremism in that country.

Third, we may fail to free American Islam from the influence of the Wahhabi lobby. We must examine why a foreign state, Saudi Arabia, is permitted to operate extremist religious and educational institutions in our country. This intrusion into our internal affairs should be dealt with by severe legal measures. In addition, the main organizations of the Wahhabi lobby - the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the Muslim Students Association of the U.S. and Canada (MSA), the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA), the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), and the Arab American Institute (AAI) - should be fully investigated and, if possible, shut down. They camouflage themselves as legitimate civil liberties and advocacy groups, but in reality exist to prevent the free exercise of opinion among American Muslims and by non-Muslims commenting or reporting on Muslim issues. Those among them receiving Saudi funding should, to begin with, be compelled to register as foreign agents.

Fourth, or as part of the third proposition, we may fail to enable and support moderate American Muslims in liberating themselves from Wahhabi influence. The shocking truth is that Saudi Arabia and the U.S. are the only countries in the world where Wahhabism dominates Islam.

Saudi Arabia creates a major headache for policymakers and politicians. Ostensibly it has been America's close ally over the years, but on the other hand it's largely responsible for the international spread of Wahhabism (a topic you documented in your book "The Two Faces of Islam: The House of Sa'ud from Tradition to Terror"). What’s the solution to the Saudi problem?

Aside from the comments above, the solution to the Saudi problem requires: First, that the U.S. demand full cooperation from the Saudis in the war on terror, meaning the arrest of al-Qaida financiers (who presently flaunt their presence in the kingdom with impunity) and production of a full and transparent report on Saudi involvement in al-Qaida, especially in the events of September 11, 2001.

Second, and to reinforce the point above, that the U.S. demand Saudi Arabia cut off financing of the international expansion of Wahhabism.

Third, that the U.S. support Saudi liberal and religious reformers in reestablishing Islamic pluralism, which was abolished when the Wahhabis and the House of Sa'ud seized control in the 1920s. The immediate effect of this must be the separation of the Saudi state from the Wahhabi clerical structure, presently subsidized by the state. Wahhabism must be no more than one among many competing Islamic traditions, as Communism in Russia is now no more than one among many political parties.

In addition, a liberal and religious reform program in Saudi Arabia would include a written constitution, elected parliament, independent judiciary, modernized education and general religious freedom. (Issues of Islamic law are too complicated to take up here, but a pluralistic shariah can be harmonized with global legal canons.) Up to one third of the Saudi population today is composed of foreign workers, many of them Christians, as well as Hindus and Buddhists. No other Muslim country in the world bars non-Muslims from practicing their faiths.

Such a program would reflect the wishes of the majority of the Saudi populace, who, contrary to common wisdom, are not Islamist fanatics. Saudi Arabia has the largest middle class in the Arab world, but a middle class lifestyle is impossible in a country where women are barred from driving.

Liberal and religious reform in Saudi Arabia can and must be accomplished through a peaceful, orderly transition, without any further violence (except, I should hope, capital punishment for the founders of al-Qaida, and other terrorists). It does not require the overthrow of the royal family. The royal family may remain as heads of state after the British model, and even retain their sources of wealth. But the form of governance and relationship between the state and the Wahhabi ideology must change, and inevitably will change.

I and the Saudi dissidents with whom I have contact do not believe the Saudi propaganda, and the line put forward by their apologists, that the only alternative to the present regime is a worse one. In terms of its treatment of its own subjects, Saudi Arabia is the worst tyranny in the world. Even Iran allows women to drive and the organization of labor unions, and is undergoing a debate over the extent of press freedom and the institution of freer elections. None of these rights, and no consideration of their possibility, exists in Saudi Arabia.

Not surprisingly, the Balkans have fallen off the radar lately with the world's attention focused on the Middle East and Central Asia. One of the lesser known aspect of the Balkan wars was the attempt by Islamic fundamentalists to infiltrate the region, radicalize the local Muslim population and give the Caliphate a foothold in Europe. These efforts were largely unsuccessful. As somebody who was there on the ground in the Balkans in those crucial years, could you tell us briefly why the Wahhabis failed and what the current situation in the region is?

"Caliphate propaganda" is, in reality, a minor theme in radical Islam and is commoner in Central Asia, where a strong Islamic order is proposed to fill the gap created by the fall of Communism. Wahhabism failed to gain a foothold in the Balkans for several reasons. First, Bosnian and Macedonian Slav Muslims see themselves as natives of Europe first, as Muslims second, and as having little to do with the Arab world and its extreme ideologies. Second, Slavic Islam is overwhelmingly identified with the Ottoman tradition of Hanafi religious law, which is pluralistic. Third, the long period of Titoist tolerance toward Slavic Islam reinforced pluralist habits. Fourth, the struggle of the Bosnian Muslims (Bosniaks) was conducted in defense of a multiethnic, not a "Muslim" Bosnia-Hercegovina.

Nevertheless, as I observed in a trip to Bosnia in late summer 2004, a kind of "street Wahhabism" is visible among alienated young people who are disillusioned with the international powers governing the country. Unemployment stands at 60 percent. In such an environment, Wahhabism has an appeal. It is for this reason that I am pleased to note the translation and imminent publication of my book, The Two Faces of Islam, in Bosnian, with the support of leading Bosnian and Croatian Muslim religious scholars (ulema), in Sarajevo and Zagreb.

The situation in the Albanian lands is somewhat different, because of the much stronger presence of Sufism among Albanian Muslims. The unfortunate truth is that when the Tito regime ordered the suppression of the Sufi orders in Bosnia-Hercegovina in the early 1950s, Bosnian Sufism became a purely folk phenomenon, losing its organized character. This happened because Bosnian Muslims accepted the equation of Titoism with progress. By contrast, Albanian Muslims in Kosovo, Western Macedonia, south Serbia, and Montenegro always viewed Communism in every form, including that of Enver Hoxha in Albania proper, as a form or tool of Slav imperialism. The Sufi orders could not be broken in Kosovo, Western Macedonia, south Serbia, or Montenegro. They remained a vital element of local cultural life and were a bulwark of the Albanian national culture. It is estimated that 40 percent of Muslims in western Kosovo (known as Dukagjini in Albanian and Metohija in Serbian) are Sufis today. The number may be as high or even higher in Western Macedonia.

As anybody who has explored the topic knows, Wahhabis hate Sufis with a homicidal rage. For this reason alone, Wahhabism had and has no future in the Albanian lands.

Finally, however, I am sorry to say that Bosnian Muslims have a tendency to look toward Germany and Turkey for emulation, and have grown somewhat disaffected with U.S. policies in the Middle East. This is not true of Albanians, who realize that without the support of the U.S., dating to the Woodrow Wilson administration, Albania proper would never have been allowed to survive, and, certainly, in 1998-99 Kosovo would have been drowned in blood. Albanians will never desert the United States and will never support radical Islam.

In the past you have written extensively about the problem that generated a great deal of discussion on my blog: does Islam need a Reformation or an Enlightenment?

I believe it is a mistake to think that the form of historical renewal of Islamic societies would follow the experience of Christian and, to a lesser extent, Jewish society. Islam does not need a reformation; indeed, Wahhabism poses as a Muslim reformation, with some justification - i.e. alleged simplification of the faith and removal of "superstitious" traditions. Nor does Islam need an Enlightenment, meaning a period in which religious belief is overthrown. Islam needs the restoration of pluralism, in which reformation and enlightenment ideas may be discussed freely and answered rationally, peacefully, and with full intellectual freedom by believers. If there is a model for Islam to be taken from the West it is that of the Catholic counter-reformation and modernization of the Roman church. Islam does not need a Luther; it has one in Ibn Abd al-Wahhab. Islam needs a Leonardo and a Leo XIII. That is, it needs both creative intellectuals and clerics who can revive its spirit of inquiry and debate.

A colleague of mine, a Catholic neoconservative, recently noted that "neocons" seek to reestablish some place in the Western public square for Christian and Jewish religiosity. It is therefore unfair to ask Muslims to abandon their religion, and then to have to make the long journey back to affirmation of religious values in society. Turkey had 75 years of forced secularism, and its people now want to see whether religious believers can govern with less corruption and militarism, and fewer false promises and nationalist excesses, than the heirs of Mustafa Kemal. There is a curious parallel, in this context, between Turkey and Mexico, where a similar historical evolution has occurred. I would like to see Muslim countries become like Catholic countries such as Poland and Nicaragua, in which faith suffuses the culture and contributes to public civility, but in which there is no religious usurpation of political power.

In addition, I believe that Muslim zakat or required charity provides a basis for Muslim countries to avoid involvement with welfare state bureaucracies.

Having read your blog comment, I would say we are in agreement. I would also ask the public to consider the following question: was the life of the ordinary people, and of the mind, better in Renaissance Italy or Elizabethan England? This question is especially relevant if one takes as one's standard the status of Jews. (In which terms, by the way, life was overwhelmingly better in Ottoman Turkey.)

I believe we make a mistake in thinking that historical and social success is determined by religious success; I believe the opposite is true. To me, Protestantism flourished because it took root in nations living on the North Sea where navigation and commerce were impelled by individual initiative, from which Protestant theology, for various reasons, benefited. Spanish Catholicism fell into decline because it conquered the richest provinces of the New World, and the country choked on all that gold and silver. Similarly, the Islamic world has been slow in its social development; first, because it conquered ancient and overcrowded societies where progress was always slow; second, because it gained control of the main global trade routes.

Bernard Lewis asked why Columbus departed from Spain rather than Morocco. But the Muslims had no incentive to travel out into the Atlantic, because they controlled the routes for silk, spices, silver, gold, and slaves. (Unfortunately, oil today plays the same role as the control of trade routes did in the Muslim societies of the past. It is a curse, holding social and economic progress back.) The Portuguese, Dutch, British, and Danes (the latter were early traders in southeast Asia, which is largely forgotten today) explored and subdued distant territories thanks to the incentive of their disadvantageous home locations. The British turned out to be the most successful at it, and since they were Protestant, Protestantism advanced in their wake.
Italy, by contrast, traded very successfully with Ottoman Turkey, got fabulously rich, and remained Catholic. Here the Jewish issue becomes relevant. Italy's treatment of Jews was uneven. Never forget: the Talmud was published (by the great Christian printer Daniel Bomberg, who was employed by the Venetian Jews) but then ordered burned in Italy beginning in 1553; was then printed without any interference whatever in Constantinople, at the end of that century, and next in Poland, in 1609. The Amsterdam edition of the Talmud did not appear until 1644-47. The printing of the Talmud in England came much later. But in general, Jews lived only somewhat less well in Italy than in Protestant Holland, and because of their minority situation, the status of the Jews is always the best guide for judging the situation of a society. In this the exalted Ottoman state can hardly be excelled.

Here are links to some articles of mine on the question of the "Islamic Reformation": here, here and here.

Is radical Islam a growing force? What are the chances of the Muslim world becoming more accepting of modernity?

I believe radical Islam is in decline, and inasmuch as I define "modernity" as the triumph of capitalist democracy, I believe that the Muslim world will be transformed in the next two decades. There is no obstacle in Islam to capitalist democracy. Muhammad the Prophet himself (peace be upon him) was a caravan merchant, and Muslims were once one of the world’s great trading communities. Aside from occasional problems represented by political loudmouths, Malaysia represents a good example of this. Bosnia-Hercegovina could have become the Singapore of the Muslim world, a European center of commerce, cultural exchange, and intellectual achievement, but for the Yugoslav aggression of 1992-95.

Flowing from the previous two questions, in the world enamored with anti-Americanism, I'm very heartened by the presence of what I call the "triple K" - the Kurds, the Kuwaitis and the Kosovars (and more broadly, of course, the Balkan Muslims), all communities where not just the elites but the "men on the street" remain quite friendly towards the United States. Can the rest of the Muslim world over time become more like "the triple K" or is that sort of Muslim pro-Americanism too much a function of specific historic circumstances?

I believe Iraq shows us that as capitalist democracy advances, friendship with the United States, the most successful capitalist democracy in history, will also prevail.

As a convert to the Sufi branch of Islam you bring a perspective to the discussion of Islam that is absent from writings of most other Western commentators. Please tell us more about Sufism and its place in Islam of today.

I am not a "convert," because I previously had no religion to "convert" from. My mother was Christian, my father Jewish, but I was raised in an antireligious atmosphere. Sufism is my first experience in complete religious affirmation.

Sufism plays a role in Islam comparable to traditional (not "pop") Kabbalah in Judaism and to the activities of the religious orders in Catholicism: it teaches spirituality and reinforces "the faith of the heart" in contrast with ritualized observance. Many Muslims view Sufism as the majority form of Islam, given that Sufism or Sufi-influenced Islam dominate in French-speaking West Africa, Morocco, the Balkans, Turkey, Kurdistan, Central Asia, India, Malaysia, and Indonesia. In addition, although they face political problems, Sufi orders are powerful in Egypt, Sudan, Syria, and Iran, where they can play a positive role in the future.

But Sufism, like authentic Kabbalah or the activities of the Franciscan order, cannot be politicized. The Way of the Sufi is the Way of the Heart. It is personal and must remain so. Nevertheless, Sufi commitments to pluralism, interfaith respect, and, in general, peace, represent an immensely positive influence in Islam. One Sufi order, the Albanian Bektashis, proudly call themselves "the most progressive Muslims in the world" - they support the complete equality of women, popular education, and civic activism. But to repeat, the Way of the Sufi is the Way of the Heart, like the Way of the Kabbalistic Jew or Franciscan postulant, and must not be corrupted by political demands.

Sufism is an extremely complex phenomenon, for me as for others, and I am not yet prepared to expound on it publicly at length. I will say that lately I have been more drawn to Central Asian Sufism, with its history on the borderlands of Buddhism, shamanism, and the Chinese religions and martial arts. A Sufi of my acquaintance once said there are two kinds of Sufis, and you can tell them by their favorite movies. Western and Arab Sufis love The Matrix, because they equate the matrix program with Wahhabism, and the film's heroes break through its control by self-discipline. Eastern Sufis love Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, because it shows that love and spiritual discipline produce miracles. I find myself increasingly drawn to the latter.

Sufis are also generally divided between "sober" Sufis and "ecstatic" Sufis. I was recently interrogated in an official public forum about which group I belong to. I said I have a lot of both in me. But of such details, enough for now. As I said, Sufism is personal.

Like so many other influential intellectuals you've also made a political journey in your life, having started as a man of the left. Was it a slow and gradual process or was there one particular drastic breaking point?

I was a confirmed and enthusiastic believer in the (very) radical left from the age of 14, in 1962, to the age of 29, in 1977. It was then that I first began to doubt the millenarian promises of Marxism. Let me stress here that I was a serious Marxist, not a '60s street radical. But I had studied anthropology and realized that since our species had existed for some 35,000 years, and in all that time a "great change" and the onset of "species being" or "the end of history" had never taken place, it would not take place. State-socialist revolution is a fantasy of return to the security of the womb, of a world without conflict or death. But conflict is innate to nature and death is the unavoidable outcome of life. I further recognized that no social experiment could succeed on a compulsory or "universal" basis. I tried to find ways to reconcile my emotional identification with the left and intellectual and political liberty, through anarchist, syndicalist, and surrealist conceptions, as well as the legacy of Trotsky.

But most importantly, I was and am bilingual in Spanish and the rise of the Sandinista dictatorship in Nicaragua was the final blow for me. I simply could not support the erection of another Cuba. In addition, I saw that in Spain after Franco, popular sovereignty had been secured by a monarchy, not by revolution. I broke publicly with the left in 1984, after seven years of doubts. The process of disengagement was mainly internal, but was painful for myself and those close to me.

My vision of global capitalist democracy is not a fantasy of "the end of history" or eternal peace and security, in contrast with the false claims of Francis Fukuyama. It is based on entrepreneurship, not compulsory collectivism, meaning that competition will always be a factor in society, and competition inevitably leads to contention. History will not end until humanity ends, and in later generations wars and revolutions may again take place. At the same time, however, their extremity may be ameliorated. Still, we have no guarantees for the future. History, like the human mind, plays tricks, and we can only do the best we can to secure liberty for the greatest number of people, act morally, and defend our rights.

Friedrich Engels predicted that the arrival of a single world market - what we call "globalization" - would institute the social improvements called for by the revolutionary movement of his time. Trotsky wondered if, after the coming of worldwide Communism, human psychological needs might not give rise to a new religion. (Muslims do not like this idea at all, by the way, since Muhammad (pbuh) is believed to be the final prophet.) But, to repeat, there are no guarantees. A single world market dominated by China might give rise to fresh tensions; a new religion very likely would provoke new confrontations.

A sneak preview to my readers of what you're currently working on?

"Sarajevo Rose", a collection of articles on the relations between the Balkan Sephardic Jews and Balkan Muslims (with some material on Balkan Catholics and Orthodox Christians), will appear in March 2005, i.e. next month, from Saqi Books and the Bosnian Institute in London, distributed in the U.S. by Palgrave/Macmillan. It will be very interesting to see the reaction to that book. It represents a practical attempt to express my conception of the Sufi mission: to promote interfaith respect between all the believers in One God, the same God, that created the universe and, as both Muslims and Jews affirm, is alone worthy of worship. I have several other projects in hand but to discuss them now would be premature.


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