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A Struggle for the Soul of Islam By: Naseeb Vibes
Naseeb Vibes | Thursday, June 09, 2005

[The following is an interview with Stephen Schwartz,  author of The Two Faces of Islam: The House of Sa'ud from Tradition to Terror and a frequent contributor to Frontpagemag.com, National Review, The Weekly Standard, and other publications.]

VIBES: As a Muslim, inspired by Sufism of 13th century Spanish Muslim mystic Ibn Arabi, can you talk about your journey to discovering Islam and the inner compulsion to convert?

Stephen Schwartz: I did not feel the call to become Muslim until I had spent time in a Muslim society, namely Bosnia-Hercegovina. Until then, Sufism was a fascinating intellectual phenomenon for me, and Islam is, of course, a great, civilization-building faith. I am now 56 years old, and began studying Sufism almost forty years ago. But my road to shehadeh was a fairly long one in terms of my life-span. I grew up and spent most of my adulthood in California but I was not a “New Age” Sufi. I came from a mixed background (mother Christian, father Jewish) but had no religious upbringing, and although drawn to both Catholicism and Judaism, did not join either community formally. My work as a journalist in the Balkans, however, and my relations with Bosnian and Albanian Muslims, transformed my life. I began to see a hidden logic to my journey I had not previously imagined, and to understood why my life had led me to the door of the mosque. A part of me feels at home in synagogues, and I know I am welcomed and useful in Catholic churches, but when I first entered a mosque, in Sarajevo in 1991, I immediately sensed, if only in the form of “sparks,” that “this is the home of my whole soul and being.” I read through Qur’an, and after some readings of Ibn Arabi, made shehadeh, at the age of 49, alhamdulillah!

I do not describe my decision as “conversion” because I did not have a specific religion before becoming Muslim; I did not “convert” from one thing to something else. I would also add that the indigenous European character of Balkan Islam was an important element in my development. For me there was no cultural barrier to Balkan Islam such as might have existed if I had first gone (as I often thought of doing) to Morocco, Turkey, or Central Asia. In Sarajevo and in Kosovo, I am at home spiritually, culturally, and psychologically. Finally, the similarities of the Balkan Islamic heritage with the East European Jewish legacy inherited from my father also affected me significantly.

VIBES: You have enunciated the belief that a pluralistic traditional Islam was reformed by the Arabs in the 18th Century to reflect a radicalist agenda. What is your take on the call to “reform” Islam today by various progressive groups, given that context?

Stephen Schwartz:
I do not call for reform of our religion, but for restoration of pluralism. Once pluralism and debate are restored, with the end of the Wahhabi monopoly in the Haramain, we can discuss the legitimacy of reform and of issues that may need new interpretations. But first we must reestablish pluralism.

VIBES: Is the concept of Ijtehad (reform) a valid one in terms of practicality in a global world with Muslim Diaspora?

Stephen Schwartz:
In my view, as a Sufi, ijtehad was never lost in Islam. The glory of our religion is that it encouraged debate and reason among the believers from the beginning, and the debate bore magnificent fruit, religiously and civilizationally. As Muslims in the world, how can we be prouder than of the historical fact that we reintroduced the scientific and philosophical heritage of the Greeks to a Christian world that had lost it? In addition, as Sufis, we represent a spiritual tradition that transformed Jewish and Christian theology. How can we forget these great gifts to humanity?

The Wahhabis have sought to eliminate all this from our consciousness as Muslims. It is like slashing the face and cutting the heart out of one’s beloved spouse. Ijtehad, as reason, is relevant and a practical necessity in the life of every Muslim everywhere.

VIBES: You point to Wahabism as the main problem in the struggle for the soul of Islam. How could it be that simple?

Stephen Schwartz:
It is that simple because the Wahhabis were enabled to seize control of the Haramain and the hajj, and then benefited incredibly from the generous support of the foreign oil companies and Western governments. Saudi Arabia remains the richest and most powerful Muslim country. When it stops financing Wahhabi colonialism in the Sunni community, the struggle will be nearly won by moderate Muslims – taking the term “moderate” as it was used by Rasulallah (saws) when he said, “I want my ummah to be a community of moderation.”

VIBES: In your book, "The Two Faces of Islam", can you explain the features of these two faces, and which of the two will outlive the other in your opinion?

Stephen Schwartz:
Islam has two faces: that of a pluralistic civilization, and that of a narrow ideology. The first is normal Islam as it is practiced from French-speaking West Africa to Indonesia, from Bosnia to South Africa. The second is Wahhabism as it is imposed in Saudi Arabia and on Muslims in America, and other forms of takfirism, represented by the Muslim Brotherhood and the Jamaati movements in Pakistan. Wahhabism will lose; it will be reduced to the status of a sect in Islam, among many sects, because it is a deviation from the pluralistic and civilizational reality of Islam.

VIBES: As the most vehement critic of American foreign policy vis a vis its dealing with Wahabism, can you outline the dangers in continuation of the current policies?

Stephen Schwartz:
The main danger is that the U.S. will continue to equate superficial stability in Saudi Arabia with real progress. Saudi Arabia faces a deep crisis and the only solution to it is the restoration of religious pluralism in the Haramain. The alternative is continued Saudi financing of terrorism, continued internal tension in the kingdom, and failure of the U.S. project for economic and social progress in the Muslim world. But U.S. policies are changing. I work in Washington and am very aware of this, although I cannot reveal everything I know about it. In addition, the crisis in Saudi Arabia is slowly reaching its climax. We must work and pray for a bloodless transition in the country of the Haramain, from the Wahhabi order to a pluralistic system based on a written constitution, an independent judiciary, and religious freedom.

VIBES: What can be done to change the NYT style of agenda setting with regard to only presenting an extreme Islamic front and reinforcing that the “bad Muslims” are the only Muslims out there?

Stephen Schwartz:
This is a major task and I am not convinced we can win it in the West before we win it in our ummah. When we begin to clearly prevail on the ground in our ummah the Western media and governments will begin to understand us. The struggle is ours.

VIBES: You name names of ISNA, CAIR and the ISRU (Islamic Society at Rutgers University) among others, as institutions that promote segregation and discrimination of other sects of Islam, eg Shias. Have you included the Zaytuna institute in California among these? Also can you give specific and concrete issues with the claims you make about their activity?

Stephen Schwartz:
I have published repeated criticisms of Zaytuna’s bogus “Sufi” boss, Hamza Yusuf Hanson. (See this www.weeklystandard.com/Content/Public/Articles/000/000/005/174izpiw.asp) Any activity that separates Muslims from each other and from their non-Muslim neighbors diminishes the spiritual and moral strength of our ummah. The Wahhabis teach disrespect for non-Muslims, the illegitimacy of democratic institutions, disregard for the traditional Muslim oath to obey the laws of a non-Muslim country in which he or she resides, segregation of women and segregation of Muslims from each other and from their neighbors. They preach and recruit for terror. All of these actions are immensely damaging to our ummah, and, by extension, to the whole of humanity.

VIBES: What are the regions where Wahabism is prevalent, exported though petrodollars of the Saudis and what can be done to resist the spread of undemocratic Islam?

Stephen Schwartz:
Wahhabism rules Islam in Saudi Arabia, the U.S., and, in a highly attenuated form, Qatar. It has immense and dangerous influence in Pakistan. It is working to gain a foothold everywhere Sunnis are to be found. To resist its spread, we must fight for the restoration of pluralism in the Haramain, and organize the silent Sunni majority in the U.S. to expel Wahhabi imams and teachings from their mosques, schools, and other public squares. We must also inflict a consequential defeat on Wahhabism and its variants in Pakistan, including its complete removal from governmental agencies. Everywhere else we must work to hold the line against Wahhabism among Sunnis, and defend Shias against Wahhabi aggression, with complete faith that as Musa prevailed against Pharaoh, and Rasulallah prevailed against the mushrikeen of Makkah, we will prevail against the distorted ideology of the Wahhabis.

VIBES: What personal message would you like to give, over a quarter of a Million Muslims on Vibes who’ll be reading this, with regard to their influence and the utility of the Internet to spread ideas of a more inclusive Islam?

Allah swt has blessed us with the resources and technology from which the Internet has been developed. It is an unparalleled tool for right instruction in religion, for the defense of our faith and ummah, and for the improvement of our children’s lives. Islamic pluralism will be immeasurably helped by the existence of the internet. I myself owe a great deal to the availability of internet sources on Islam. Let there be, insha’allah, as many pluralistic, anti-extremist Muslim blogs as there are stars in the heavens!

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