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Wahhabism Unveiled By: Terry Eastland
The Weekly Standard | Monday, November 04, 2002

Stephen Schwartz's "The Two Faces of Islam: The House of Sa'ud from Tradition to Terror" (Doubleday, 288 pp., $25) takes as its point of departure September 11 and the terrorist attacks on America. They were carried out, we now know, by nineteen Muslims who subscribed--like their leader, Osama bin Laden--to a radical strain of Islam known as Wahhabism. No writer has done more to expose Wahhabism than Stephen Schwartz, formerly of the Voice of America and now a fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. (We are proud to add that much of that work was done originally in essays for The Weekly Standard.)

Now, in "The Two Faces of Islam," Schwartz expands his account at the greater length a book affords. He relates the life of Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, born in 1703 in central Arabia. Wahhab "showed extremist religious tendencies" in his youth and in his thirties called fellow Arabs to his vision of an authentic Islam that (in violation of all previous understandings) required the submission of Muslims deemed to have departed from it. Indeed, killing such Muslims was now conceived as a religious duty.

Wahhab made an alliance with a local ruler in central Arabia by the name of Muhammad ibn Saud. Saud and his family weren't strict Muslims, but they had the arms necessary to support Wahhab's violent form of Islam. Together, Saud and Wahhab took control of much of Arabia, including Mecca and Medina. In the early nineteenth century the Ottomans constrained Wahhabism, but in 1901 a scion of the Saud family named Ibn Saud, impelled by Wahhabi ideology, murdered the ruler of Riyadh. Within a quarter century Ibn Saud had captured much of the Arabian peninsula. The founding of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia soon followed.

Thanks to great wealth deriving from its huge oil reserves, Saudi Arabia has been able to spread its state religion throughout the world--even to America. The kingdom is also, Schwartz fairly argues, complicit in September 11, since fifteen of the hijackers were Saudi citizens fed on Wahhabism and thus motivated to wield the sword against infidels. Bin Laden himself came from a wealthy Saudi family, his father a builder whose edifices include mosques in Mecca and Medina.

This book, however, is not just about Wahhabism. Schwartz observes that only a small percentage of Muslims are Wahhabis and that Wahhabism is at odds with traditional Islamic values. Islam thus has two faces: the menacing one of Wahhabism, and the attractive one of "mainstream Islam." Schwartz usefully explores this Islam, drawing on his own experiences in the Balkans.

Schwartz perhaps underplays the fact that Islam throughout its history has tended to see religion and politics as unified rather than distinct spheres. Even the appealing face of Islam may thus have in it something to be concerned about. The union of church and state, as we know from centuries of experience in the West, is not a compelling principle of political organization. On that fundamental matter, Islam is more than ripe for a reformation.

But Schwartz is obviously right to contend that the United States should cultivate mainstream Muslims as allies--which we cannot really do as long as we regard the Saudis as our best friends in the Muslim world. The urgency facing the United States, as Schwartz makes clear, is to challenge the Saudi regime to quit supporting theological extremism and terrorism.

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