January 13, 2003

Author links Saudi brand of Islam to worldwide violence
___By Ira Rifkin
___Religion News Service
___WASHINGTON (RNS)--Writer and activist Stephen Schwartz lost no time seeking to identify the religious ideology behind the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. In a barbed essay in Britain's Spectator published just days after the attacks, Schwartz asked of the al-Qaida hijackers: "What made these men into the monsters they are? What has so galvanized violent tendencies in the world's second-largest religion?"
___The answer, he declared, was Wahhabism, Saudi Arabia's austere and rigid interpretation of Islam.
___"It is violent, it is intolerant, and it is fanatical beyond measure," Schwartz wrote. "Not all Muslims are suicide bombers, but all Muslim suicide bombers are Wahhabis."
___At the time, few Westerners knew anything about Wahhabism. Today, the air is thick with observers who blame Saudi Arabia's official brand of Islam for influencing much of the extremism evident in the Muslim world from North Africa to the Philippines.
___Schwartz--a 54-year-old with an extraordinarily varied past (left-wing radical, punk band manager, newspaper labor union official, activist on behalf of Albanian Catholics and Bosnian Jews, convert to Islam's mystical Sufi branch)--has expanded his harsh critique of Wahhabism in a new book, "The Two Faces of Islam: The House of Saud From Tradition to Terror." The book has garnered generally favorable, or at least prominent, reviews in elite publications.
"Not all Muslims are suicide bombers, but all Muslim suicide bombers are Wahhabis."
--Stephen Schwartz
___Schwartz contends Wahhabism--a term Saudis disdain because of its negative connotation in the West--is the "Islamofascism" influence behind Osama bin Laden and the worldwide network of Islamic terrorists. Wahhabism, he says, is the greatest threat to liberal democracy in the world today. Moreover, he argues, it is no less a threat to the Islamic mainstream.
___The Islamic mainstream subscribes to a faith that is moderate, peaceful and "committed to coexistence with the earlier Abrahamic revelations, Judaism and Christianity," said Schwartz, a senior policy analyst in Washington for the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, an anti-terrorism think tank whose directors and advisers include such top-tier American conservatives as Steve Forbes, Jack Kemp and Jeane Kirkpatrick.
___Schwartz makes no secret of his animosity for Wahhabism. However, his book is broadly sympathetic toward Islam and Islamic culture, a trait that sets him apart from many of his fellow conservatives who have taken to bashing Saudi Arabia in the wake of that nation's reluctance to wholeheartedly support the U.S. war on terrorism.
___Schwartz maintained that this sympathy for Islamic society--coupled with his conversion to Islam following years of immersion in Sufism, Islam's mystical teachings--make him suspect among some American conservatives.
___"There are issues of bigotry," Schwartz said during a recent interview. "Neo-cons sometimes think I'm a Trojan horse for Islam because my spiritual practice includes Sufism. But I'm no proselytizer for Islam."
___In his book, the child of a Jewish father and a Protestant mother who both rejected religion for communism recounts the alliance between the 18th century Muslim cleric Muhammad ibn abd al-Wahhab, after whom Wahhabism is named, and Muhammad ibn Saud, a tribal chieftain whose descendants would come to control Islam's holiest cities, Mecca and Medina, and, perhaps more importantly as far as the West is concerned, the oil-saturated heartland of the Arabian peninsula.
___The alliance lent the Saud family, after which Saudi Arabia is named, Islamic credentials, a crucial component for leadership in their staunchly religious desert domain. In return, al-Wahhab's followers gained unchallenged political power, elevating their rigid interpretation of Islam to template status for many Muslims worldwide.
___"The essence of Ibn abd al-Wahhab's preaching came down to three points," Schwartz wrote. "First, ritual is superior to intentions. Second, no reverence of the dead is permitted. Third, there can be no intercessory prayer, addressed to God by means of the prophet (Muhammad) or saints. Prayers to God by means of a pious person or even honors to any individual other than God were condemned as idolatry, despite their acceptance by all previous generations of Muslims and the prophet himself."
___The result, Schwartz added, was a faith that was uncompromising in its vision of monotheistic purity and unforgiving to those who disagreed.
___ Schwartz, whose previous writings on subjects as varied as the Spanish Civil War, the Nicaraguan Sandinistas, the Balkans and West Coast maritime unions attest to his eclectic intellect, said Saudi attempts to export the Wahhabi "death cult" have met with considerable success from Afghanistan to the United States because of the kingdom's willingness to lavish petro-dollars on the construction of mosques, Islamic schools, Islamic scholarship, and Muslim political and charitable institutions.
___Schwartz's provocative personal style, his take-no-prisoners writing and his eyebrow-raising past have made him a lightning rod for criticism.
___John Esposito, director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, faulted Schwartz for grouping all Islamic radicals together under the Wahhabi umbrella.
___"Schwartz is clearly concerned with putting mainstream Islam into perspective. But he misses the mark in his understanding of how Islam works internationally. He presents it as a black and white set of categories," Esposito said.
___"It used to be that 'fundamentalist' was the catch-all term for Islamic radicalism. Now it's 'Wahhabism.' But distinctions need to be made that Schwartz fails to make. One is that even conforming to an ultra-conservative, anti-pluralistic faith does not necessarily make you a violent individual. And a second is that Saudi Arabian religion is not as monolithic as Schwartz makes it out to be."
___ Schwartz is critical of President Bush and many in his administration for past associations with Saudi Arabia. Vice President Dick Cheney, who headed the oil field technology firm Halliburton prior to joining the White House team, comes in for particular criticism.

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