Meet America’s Foremost Advocate of Islamic Pluralism Stephen Schwartz heads the Center for Islamic Pluralism and is the author of several books on Islam and Saudi sponsorship of Wahhabist extremism by Elliot Friedland
Clarion Project April 12, 2016
Note: Biographical Information and Illustrations included at the Clarion website with this interview may be accessed by clicking the “Clarion Project” link above.]
1. Clarion Project: What first drew you to Islam?
Stephen Schwartz: Paradoxically, my interest in Islam – in which literary and historical concerns were intertwined – began with my search for the roots of California, where I grew up.
California’s half-Anglo-American and half-Hispanic heritage pushed me toward Latin America, then to Spain. I published one major book on California history beginning with the first Spanish explorations, as well as two books on the struggle of Latin American intellectuals to free themselves from the influence of the radical left.
I additionally published an important book on Soviet interference in the Spanish civil war of 1936-39.
Anybody who engages with Hispanic culture, especially in Spain itself, must recognize the deep Islamic influence in its development. I was in early manhood when I first encountered the traces of this heritage, but as the years went by, investigated it superficially. I further studied Spanish academic literature about the singing traditions of the Sephardic Jews, who were exiled to Morocco and the Ottoman Empire.
I was curious to learn more about Islam but did not find any Muslims interested in discussing it with me. They were fixated on finding enemies of Israel, of which I was not one.
My mother was Christian and my father Jewish, but I was brought up in an atmosphere of severe criticism of religion. They were of the radical left, from which I had to depart. But while I was christened at birth in the Presbyterian Church, I had no religious education of any kind.
At the end of the 1980s these strands came together when, as a journalist, I became aware of the imminent collapse of Yugoslavia. The country had been a showplace for “liberal communism” but became a place of horrific atrocities.
I went to Bosnia-Hercegovina in 1991, before fighting began there, but confrontation was in the air.
I was aware that in Bosnia-Hercegovina a small remnant of Spanish-speaking Sephardim was to be found. I was impressed to learn that their cultural achievements were appreciated by the non-Jewish Bosnians.
Even before the Bosnian war began, as I reported and debated about the collapse of Yugoslavia, I began to meet Bosnian Muslims. I realized that their form of Islam – like Balkan Islam in general – is extremely European, Western, and open-minded. More importantly, I observed that the Bosnian “Muslim” Army – which included Serbian, Croatian, and Jewish officers – did not engage in terror, and was not jihadist in its rhetoric.
A small number of crimes were committed by its members, but in general the Bosnians fought a clean war.
When I asked – many times – why the Bosnians did not commit terrorism, I was told that Bosnian Islam was not jihadist and would not reply to the brutality of the Serbs with equal cruelties. The Bosnian Muslims, who spoke the same dialect as the Serbs, and of whom many were married to Serbs, fought for the right to live in peace with their long-standing neighbors. That was very impressive.
Finally, in 1997, two years after the war ended, I was sent on a survey of the Bosnian media by the Council of Europe.
I took the Qur’an in English with me and, as I read it, realized I had found my religion.
Another chapter in the journey comprises my volunteer work, as a repentant ex-leftist, with the exiled intellectual leaders of the Albanian Catholics in America and Europe. Albanians are Muslim in their majority and Catholics account for only 10 percent among them, but relations between both of them and the Orthodox Christians (about 20 percent) are good.
I learned a great deal about Islam from the Albanian Catholics.
2. Clarion: Why did you become involved with Sufism?
Schwartz: My interest in Sufism began at the same time as my inquiries into Islam – very early after high school. I read Spanish mystical literature that cited the Muslim Sufis as examples of effective religious instruction. I was living in San Francisco in the 1960s and could not help absorbing some “New Age” Sufi animation. But I stayed away from the “New Age” circles.
Much later I studied the relations between Sufism and the Jewish Kabbalah. I did not become seriously involved with Sufism until I went to the Balkans, because Bosnian and Albanian Islam are deeply permeated by it.
Even Enver Hoxha, the ferocious enemy of religion who declared Communist Albania “the world’s first atheist state,” and who murdered Catholic intellectuals and imprisoned Muslim clerics and Sufis, could not defeat Albanian Sufism.
3. Clarion: You are very critical of the Wahhabi sect. Why?
Schwartz: My critique of Wahhabism began when I learned in the late 1990s that the Saudi Wahhabis were the most dedicated enemies of Sufism in the Muslim world.
To confirm the bad reputation of the Wahhabis among moderate, conventional, traditional, spiritual, and even conservative – but not radical – Muslims, I inquired about them among the Bosnians and Albanians, whose opinions I trusted.
I heard that the Bosnians in particular resented the interference of the Wahhabis in their affairs, using the pretext of Islamic solidarity during the war. As Bosnians would tell me, they needed arms and relief, which they got from America, but the Saudis sent them Wahhabi editions of the Koran.
A small number of “mujahidin” went to Bosnia but did not affect the outcome of any battles.
After the war, the Saudis promised to rebuild the large number of mosques that had been destroyed by Serbian and Croatian radicals. But rather than reconstructing the classical Ottoman mosques the Bosnians loved and considered their own, the Saudis built overbearing, modernistic structures in which the Bosnians found spiritual comfort lacking.
This was symbolized by a simple piece of evidence: when the Saudis rebuilt a major mosque in Sarajevo, they declined to replace its centuries-old decorations, because Wahhabis prohibit decoration of mosques as a diversion from worship.
Then, of course, I also heard in Sarajevo about Al-Qaida and its intention to attack the U.S. Saudi “relief” functionaries in Bosnia helped run Bin Laden’s network. This was, to me, a dreadful stain on the Bosnian cause, as well as a threat to my native land.
4. Clarion: Why did you found the Center for Islamic Pluralism?
Schwartz: First, to combat every form of radical Islam: Wahhabism, Deobandism (the doctrine that inspires the Taliban and which has great influence among South Asian Muslims, in the UK and U.S. as well as in Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh), the other South Asian jihadist groups, the Muslim Brotherhood, and radical Shia groups coordinated by Iran.
I recognize that institutional Saudi Wahhabism has drawn back from the excesses of the so-called “Islamic State,” but the fundamental identity of the two phenomena, as well as Saudi Wahhabi responsibility for Al-Qaida, cannot be denied.
Second, to promote better relations between Muslims, Jews, Christians, other believers, and people of no belief.
5. Clarion: What do think has been the biggest success of the Center for Islamic Pluralism to date?
Schwartz: The successes of the Center for Islamic Pluralism have been modest but real.
We have established the credentials of our international director, Irfan Al-Alawi, as a leading expert on and critic of the Saudi monarchy. This fits within our broader profile as the chief voice against Wahhabism in the West – criticism of Wahhabism is much commoner in Muslim countries, because Westerners have yet to understand it.
We have established a scalable network of correspondents in 36 Muslim-majority countries and Muslim minority communities. Our main centers of activity have been the U.S., the UK, the Balkans, and India.
6. Clarion: What in your eyes is the best solution to Islamist extremism?
Schwartz: Islamist extremism must be defeated by mobilizing the categories of Muslims I mentioned above: moderate, conventional, traditional, spiritual, and even conservative – but not radical – Muslims.
In non-Muslim countries this means reinforcing the standard Islamic principle that Muslims must obey the rulers of the lands in which they live, or leave. In Syria, it means defeating the dictatorship of Bashar Al-Assad and his Russian and Iranian enablers, as well as the anti-Bashar jihadis, including the so-called “Islamic State” and affiliates of Al-Qaida.
Where moderate Muslims are attacked by arms, they should defend themselves by arms, with non-Muslim help. Where moderate Islam is under assault in the competition of ideas, its exponents – who are very many, from Europe to Indonesia, but unfortunately lacking in the U.S. – must be assisted to preach and teach Islamic pluralism.
Sadly, American Islam may have the lowest intellectual level in the world, thanks to the influence of Saudi Wahhabi funding of mosques and academic programs.
But the survival of Islam depends on reaffirmation of moderation. Every effort in that direction is positive.