Michael Totten

From San Francisco to Sarajevo

Stephen Schwartz was raised a communist in the San Francisco Bay Area and once worked for the Cubans. Then he became a Republican and converted to Islam in the Balkans. When he’s not busy with his duties as the director of the Center for Islamic Pluralism, he writes books and articles for magazines like The Weekly Standard.

His analysis of the Middle East and the Muslim world generally is more fresh and interesting than that of most. He is the first Westerner to use the word “Islamofascism” to describe the “use of the faith of Islam as a cover for totalitarian ideology,” and he did so not as an “Islamophobe” but as a Muslim believer. Those who yearn to hear from moderate Muslims, and those who have somehow convinced themselves that the likes of the Muslim Brotherhood are the moderates, really need to hear what he has to say.

MJT: So, what are your thoughts on Egypt?

Stephen Schwartz: Well, during the first two weeks most of the usual chatterers had no chattering to do. Everybody was stunned. Nobody had an answer. A lot of what should have been said was considered politically incorrect. Nobody for the first two weeks wanted to say there weren’t just two alternatives in Egypt, Mubarak or the Brotherhood. There were three alternatives—Mubarak, the Brotherhood, and the army which really rules Egypt.

Egypt has been controlled by the army since 1952. In certain kinds of countries the military takes over because it’s the only stable force. But in other countries the army is more ideological. Some of the armies in these latter countries develop a political ideology that I and a few other people have called the concept of the “army-party,” meaning the army acts as though it were a political party. It’s not simply a matter of a military dictatorship or a regime based on a militaristic or fascist party, and it’s not always necessarily an ideological phenomenon, but the army acts as a political party. It acts as a political force, and it acts as a political arbiter.

Stephen Schwartz at the grave of Bosnian President Alija Izetbegović

MJT: Like in Turkey, for instance.

Stephen Schwartz: Turkey is an example. There are lots of examples in Latin America. Argentina was an example. Algeria and Egypt are examples.

MJT: And Pakistan.

Stephen Schwartz: Yes, and Pakistan. You know exactly what I’m talking about. Egypt has an army-party.

MJT: It does.

Stephen Schwartz: So it’s not a question of Mubarak or the Brotherhood. The army will not, I think, permit the Brotherhood to take power, but the army will shuffle things in some ways. There may not be much of a change at all. When Mubarak said he wouldn’t run in the next election, well, the election is seven months away. How do we know there will be an election?

I’m for democracy throughout the world. I want bourgeois democracy everywhere. I’m an activist for it, but I’m also cautious about euphoria. I think a lot of people have been swept away by hope in the Egyptian case. They think this is the beginning of the great Arab transformation, but they don’t notice that there are few political alternatives in Egypt. There’s no labor-based party. There’s no bourgeois party. There are no parties representing particular social and economic interests.

The most important point, in my view, is that Iran and Saudi Arabia are two countries where democratization, or, at least, popular sovereignty, means leaving Islamist ideology behind. The problem with Egypt is that democratization, to a certain extent, represents a leap into the void. The Egyptians haven’t yet learned about Islamist ideology, through experience, what the Saudis and especially the Iranians have learned. We don’t want them to have to learn it.

MJT: But how are they going to learn it without learning it?

Stephen Schwartz: They can learn it by looking at the experiences of Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Pakistan. They don’t have to suffer it in their flesh. People in the West rejected Communism without having to live under it, thank God.

The other problem is that the weight of corruption and despotism in Egypt is so heavy and has persisted for so long. I often compare Egypt with China in this sense.

Democracy in Iran could lead to social reform in Saudi Arabia and a stiffening of the resistance to radicalism in Pakistan. It could conceivably change the whole Muslim world.

MJT: The Arab world doesn’t look up to Iran or Pakistan.

Stephen Schwartz: No.

MJT: Arabs do look up to Egypt, though, and in different ways to Saudi Arabia.

Cairo, Egypt

Stephen Schwartz: If Iran becomes democratic, if the Iranians overthrow the clerical state as we should all hope and pray for every day, there will be a tremendous impact in Saudi Arabia.

MJT: You think?

Stephen Schwartz: Absolutely.

MJT: What kind of impact would you expect?

Stephen Schwartz: If Iranians overthrow the clerical state and put Islamist ideology behind them, they can move quickly along the path of democracy and stability. Iranians are very well educated, very sophisticated.

MJT: The Saudis don’t seem to be so educated and sophisticated about democracy.

Stephen Schwartz: No, but Saudis are close enough to Iran and they have TVs. The Saudi populace will react to whatever happens in Iran in ways I think will be positive. My position is that the overthrow of the clerical state in Iran will lead to a strong movement for social reform in Saudi Arabia. And we in the Center for Islamic Pluralism think King Abdullah would support it. We know the king doesn’t like the Wahhabis. The king wants to disestablish the Wahhabi cult as a state form of Islam. We want him alive and active as long as it takes to abolish the Wahhabi religious monopoly.

Saudi King Abdullah

MJT: If he’s against the Wahhabis, why hasn’t he done it already?

Stephen Schwartz: Because he’s isolated in the royal family in his dislike of the Wahhabis. Also, the Wahhabis are a branch of the state. That can change very quickly, though. Saudi Arabia has already changed a lot.

MJT: How is it different? I’ve never been there.

Stephen Schwartz: I haven’t either, but we work very closely with people there. Young people are listening to hip-hop music and young men and women are sending pictures of themselves to each other with their cell phone cameras. The king has initiated step-by-step reforms. Saudi Arabia is slowly breaking out of the Wahhabi grip. And when—not if, when—the clerical regime is overthrown in Iran, there will be an impact in Saudi Arabia we think will be positive.

The Saudi-Iran thing is a rivalry. It’s not a traditional confrontation. One of the reasons Al Qaeda emerged is because the hard-core Wahhabis had to prove that they were more anti-Western than the Iranians. I think the overthrow of the Iranian clerical regime is the key to everything. I am hopeful that, at least, the mobilization of the Egyptian masses will inspire the Iranians to go back out into the streets and challenge Ahmadinejad and Khamenei, and, with them, the clerical dictatorship.

MJT: What if the Muslim Brotherhood takes over Egypt? Actually, let me back up. What do you think of the Muslim Brotherhood? Is it moderate or not?

Stephen Schwartz: Every Muslim knows what the Muslim Brotherhood is. The Muslim Brotherhood is Wahhabism-lite. The only difference between Wahhabism and the Brotherhood is that Wahhabism was not traditionally so opposed to the West because Western powers didn’t rule Arabia. When the Brotherhood emerged in Egypt, opposition to the British was a major part of its platform. Opposition to the West is still a major part of its platform. It’s the same with the jihadi movement in Pakistan. The British were in charge there, too.

A Brotherhood victory in Egypt would give a tremendous impetus to the Brotherhood in Jordan, Tunisia, and Algeria, and to the AKP in Turkey.

You know what takfir means?

MJT: Accusing Muslims of apostasy.

Stephen Schwartz: We use the term takfiri to refer to the Wahhabis, the Brotherhood, and the Taliban. It’s all essentially the same. It’s takfirism. In religious terms, the idea that one Muslim can get up and say other Muslims are not real Muslims because they do X or don’t do X is supposed to be forbidden unless the accused person is a Muslim who has openly, before reliable witnesses, denied the uniqueness of God and the revelation received by Muhammad. We are against unjustified takfir, but we are also opposed to physical attacks on those who leave Islam. Of course, no religious community is particularly fond of apostates. But even when people abandon Islam for another religion, we believe they should be left to go their way. Islam will not stand or fall on the loss of some of its members to other faiths. In the Koran it is repeated that those who abandon Islam will answer to God on the last day. The Koran does not say that those who abandon Islam must be held to account, especially with a threat of violence, by other Muslims in the present time.

Takfirism is based on the presumption that there’s a group of Muslims who have a superior moral standing and can judge the actions of others, who have to prove their commitment to the religion. As a widespread phenomenon it’s a modern innovation.

MJT: How old is this innovation? You’re referring to the founding of Wahhabism in the 18th century?

Stephen Schwartz: In reality, it has erupted three times in Islamic history. The Khawarij at the time of the Prophet killed imam Ali and started the Arab civil war. Then in the 12th century the Almohads erupted out of Morocco and wrecked Al-Andalus, leaving it in chaos. And then there are the Wahhabis in the 18th century. Those are the three famous eruptions of takfirism.

Takfirism, meaning the promiscuous accusation of apostasy, heresy, or unbelief, is supposed to be banned in Islam. For any group to say “we are superior in our belief and practice” is supposed to be prohibited because Islam discourages individual or sectarian ostentation in religion and the claim that one Muslim is better in religion than another. Only God can judge who is good and bad on the last day because only God can see what is in the heart, and whether a person was sincere or hypocritical. We can say, however, based on traditional Islamic theology, that those who deny the sinful nature of certain acts have taken themselves out of Islam. Terrorists, by denying that violence against civilians, children, and other innocent people is a sin, may be considered apostates, heretics, and so-called “unbelievers.” The correct translation of the Arabic term qafir is not “unbeliever” or “infidel,” but “concealer of the truth.” The same term, kofer, is used in Judaism. The radicals accuse moderates, Sufis, and secular Muslims of being apostates and “unbelievers,” and for a long time I opposed doing the same to the extremists because I felt that all such accusations should be ended on both sides. But I now think they, the takfiris, are the apostates, the heretics, and the “unbelievers.” They are not simply distorters of Islam. They are enemies of Islam. They may say we moderates, Sufis, and seculars are enemies of Islam, but we are moderates, Sufis, and seculars because we feel love for our religion, our fellow Muslims, and for humanity.

The Prophet Muhammad said that if one Muslim accuses another of “unbelief,” it is the accuser who is guilty, for lack of faith in the mercy and compassion of God and the will of the believers to find the straight path.

The Brotherhood says their interpretation of Islam is the interpretation of Islam and that there’s only one Islam. I don’t understand enemies of Islam who quote these radicals. They say, “Well, [Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdogan says there’s only one Islam, so there must be only one Islam.”

MJT: Sure, Erdogan says there’s only one Islam, but he’s an asshole.

Stephen Schwartz: There isn’t just one Islam. These people say there’s only one Islam, they know what it is, and they will lead society to betterment through it. But there are many Islams – Sunni and Shia and Ibadhi, first, then the various Sufi orders which differ considerably from one another, then the cultural distinctions between Islam in the Balkans, in the Arab countries, in West Africa, in South Asia, in Southeast Asia.

MJT: Is “moderate” the word we should be using, or is “liberal” a better word?

Stephen Schwartz: “Liberal” is not a better word.

MJT: Why not?

Stephen Schwartz: First of all, moderation has a solid theological history in Islam. The Prophet said he wanted his umma to be a community of moderation.

Do you know what an aqida is? It’s a creed. The one in which I and most other Sufis believe is the aqida al-Tahawiyya, which is traditionalist. It says a Muslim should be neither too convinced of salvation nor too despairing, neither too enthusiastic nor too doubting. Muslims should follow the straight path between despair and enthusiasm, between conviction and doubt. That straight path can only be described as “moderate.” So there’s a solid theological basis for the term “moderate.”

Anybody can call themselves liberal. The Liberal Islamic Network, a group in Indonesia, says they’re pro-Wahhabi because the Wahhabis got rid of superstitious practices in Islam. They think of Wahhabism as Islamic Protestantism. The comparison is an interesting one, but it matters what conclusions you draw from it. If you conclude that as an Islamic Protestant you’re supposed to foment division, conflict, bloodshed, puritanism, fundamentalism and radicalism in religion, that’s a problem.

The term “liberal” is too nebulous. A term we do use, though it’s a more loaded term, is “progressive,” by which we mean an Islam that stresses equality of women, secular government, mass public education and religious pluralism, within the religions as well as between them. We like the term “moderate.”

MJT: Erdogan says it’s offensive.

Stephen Schwartz: Sure, Islamists don’t like the term “moderate.” Of course not.

Look, moderate Islam is well-established in the tradition. It’s well-established in the hadith. And it’s what we think is good.

MJT: When you say “we,” you mean the Center for Islamic Pluralism?

Stephen Schwartz: Yes, CIP and the people we work with. We have correspondents now in 26 countries, and we have fourteen active groups.

MJT: How about telling us what your center does?

Stephen Schwartz: We publish books, we hold conferences, and we do media. We advocate opposition to radical Islam and a defense of moderate Islam. Our positions are what I described as the progressive positions. We take positions on other things, too. We want the Chinese to quit beating up on the Uighurs. We’d like it if the Uighurs would form an alliance with the Tibetans and the Falun Gong, but that probably won’t happen any time soon. Muslim-Buddhist relations in Central Asia are historically very complicated.

We advocate the disestablishment of the Wahhabi cult in Saudi Arabia. We don’t call for the overthrow of the Saudi monarchy, but we do call for the overthrow of the Iranian clerical state.

MJT: Why not overthrow the monarchy?

Stephen Schwartz: There’s no reason to think that the Saudi monarchy cannot someday arrive at a British solution. In a British solution, the royal family would maintain their titular status as heads of state and their large share of income, but there would be a written constitution, an elected parliament, an independent judiciary, and all the normal freedoms of a constitutional monarchy. We don’t want bloodshed in Saudi Arabia. We don’t want bloodshed in Mecca and Medina. We don’t want bloodshed anywhere near the holy sites.

But we do want the overthrow of the Iranian regime. Definitely. [Laughs.]

We advocate resistance to the radicals in Pakistan and the defeat of the Taliban in Afghanistan. The Taliban have active support networks in both Britain and the United States. People don’t realize that the plurality of foreign-born Muslims in the United States are from South Asia. Most of them are Pakistanis.

MJT: Most Arabs in America are Christians.

Stephen Schwartz: Yes. People don’t realize that among the Pakistani-Americans the Islamic Circle of North America are a front for the Jamaat-e-Islami, the most powerful radical Islamist group in South Asia.

In Britain there’s a battle going on. Seventy percent of the South Asian Muslims are traditionalists and anti-radical, though they have problems that I’ve written about. In the United States, the South Asian Muslim community is pretty much under the thumb of the radicals.

MJT: How is it that groups like yours are ignored while those like the Muslim Brotherhood and characters like Tariq Ramadan keep getting touted in the media, and even by the government, as being moderate and reasonable? Both Democratic and Republican administrations have done this. The Bush administration had people from the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) at the White House. Why does this keep happening?

An American flag inside a Sufi Muslim teqe in the Balkans

Stephen Schwartz: The Bush administration inherited a situation where they didn’t really know who any of these people were. They thought CAIR represented the Muslims.

MJT: Okay.

Stephen Schwartz: Even before 9/11, I heard all the time from the government and others that they had to deal with CAIR because they were the Muslims and they had the money. CAIR has a lot of money, Saudi money. These kinds of organizations have a lot of money, and a history of functionally dominating the Sunni community in the United States, mainly utilizing South Asians as “managers.”

CAIR comes out of the Hamas and Holy Land Foundation milieu, so their leaders are mostly Arabs. Many leaders of ISNA, the Islamic Society of North America, have been South Asians.

These groups have the money and they started organizing a long time before the moderates did. One of the problems with moderates is that they were and are moderate. Most moderate Muslims don’t want to see our religion have to fight in the public square. There’s a leap that most moderates don’t want to make, and it’s understandable. Not so long ago, Muslims were criticized by Westerners for fatalism and passivity, not for radicalism or aggression. And there are also serious problems of conformism, in American Sunni Islam, to the comparatively recent dominance of the radicals, reflecting a general Sunni trend toward conformism, in my view. The moderate position is not one of political activism. So the radicals, naturally, being more politically active, created a political space for themselves.

What happened under Bush happened because nobody in a position of responsibility really knew who any of these people were. What is happening under Obama, and what happens in the media now, is something very different. The Obama administration acts like there’s no such thing as radical Islam. It doesn’t even exist for them. It’s not a category they recognize.

And having been a daily newspaper reporter for ten years and an officer of the Newspaper Guild, I don’t blame reporters for this. But I do blame editors. Reporters are first responders, like policemen, firemen, and nurses. If there’s a bomb explosion, a reporter will go there, come back, and report on it. They depend on editors to determine the direction of coverage, and the reporters and editors are both dependent on the corrupt American academic establishment in Middle East Studies.

Soviet Studies was never so pro-Soviet. The field was largely critical of the Soviet Union. Between the 1960s and the fall of the Berlin Wall, pro-Soviet apologists accounted for no more than 20 or 30 percent of the academics working in the field.

Merle Fainsod wrote a book called How Russia is Ruled. It was a standard text in every decent college in the United States. After he died his book was reissued by Jerry Hough, who was an apologist for the Soviet Union. His edition was called How the Soviet Union Is Governed. In the new version, the Soviet Union wasn’t very different from the United States. But this sort of thing never really caught on in Soviet Studies because too many people who were trained in the field were employed by the CIA and the State Department. Their job was to counter Soviet blandishments.

The place where leftist domination was total, though, was Latin American Studies. There was a complete dictatorship of the left after the 1960s, as there is a dominance today in Middle East Studies by apologists for the radicals.

So big media and the politicians in the Obama cohort decided that they wouldn’t ask any hard questions about radical Islam, that everything could be solved with kumbaya methods. The media still depend on corrupt people in academia for guidance, people who are veterans of the 60s and attracted to the Muslim Brotherhood.

MJT: What’s wrong with these people, anyway? I could understand much better if you were an apologist for the Brotherhood because at least you’re a Muslim and have the same religion. What in the hell do atheist leftists from California see in the Muslim Brotherhood?

Stephen Schwartz: First, the Brotherhood is anti-American. Second, the Brotherhood is anti-Israel. And third, the Brotherhood represents a revolutionary tradition. They’re the people that the rulers of the world are afraid of.

MJT: These same people would viscerally detest a Christian version of the Brotherhood.

Stephen Schwartz: Of course.

MJT: Even if it were anti-American and anti-Israel. They wouldn’t accept a Jewish version of the Muslim Brotherhood either.

Stephen Schwartz: No, they wouldn’t. But neither Judaism or Christianity have produced equivalents that are as powerful and massive and influential. If you’re a paranoid liberal you can ascribe all kinds of terrible motives to Pat Robertson and people like him, but nobody sane is worried that Robertson’s followers are going to take over and radically change the country. On the other hand, you remember what Orwell said, that some things are so stupid only an intellectual can believe them.

If the Muslim Brotherhood was anything remotely like the Iranian Green Movement I would support it. The Green Movement expresses the end of radical Islamist governance in Iran. The Brotherhood hopes to introduce it.

Most non-Muslims don’t know anything about the Brotherhood. They’ve never read Sayyid Qutb or Tariq Ramadan or Yusuf al-Qaradawi, though I don’t think Qutb is as important as other people do. It’s important to understand that Qutb had no training as a Muslim scholar at all. His commentaries on the Koran are worth no more than mine, except that he read Arabic, which was his native language, and I do not. But reading Arabic does not make an Islamic scholar.

Many people in media know so little about the Brotherhood they seem completely unaware that Hamas is its Palestinian branch.

MJT: They either don’t know or don’t care.

Stephen Schwartz: Even among the anti-Islamists very few people are aware of the connections in the 1950s between the Brotherhood and the first really violent Shia group in Iran, the Fadaiyan-e Islam. They were inspired by the Brotherhood.

MJT: The guy who founded it met with Qutb.

Stephen Schwartz: That’s right. Oh, you know that. So you know that the Iranian clerics refer to Sayyid Qutb, who was hanged by Nasser, as a “Martyr of Islam.” The majority of journalists don’t know anything about any of this.

One of the sources of the emergence of Al Qaeda was the rage of people like bin Laden and Zawahiri at the fact that the Saudis accepted American support in opposing Saddam Hussein’s seizure of Kuwait. The Brotherhood supported Saddam Hussein. It caused a major split at that time. The Brotherhood was actually more radical on that issue than the Wahhabis were. Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of Tunisia’s branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, called for attacks on the United States throughout the Muslim world at the time of the Kuwait war.

MJT: Why do you suppose there is so much more of this in the Arab world than in places like the Balkans, the Caucasus, Kurdistan, Central Asia, and Indonesia? There are huge swaths of the Muslim world where this sort of thing is greatly reduced and sometimes barely even exists.

Stephen Schwartz: That sort of non-radical Islam also exists in French-speaking West Africa. In the past I thought of this in terms of the core versus the periphery, that in the core Muslim countries—the Arab countries—where Islam is very much the dominant religion, people didn’t have to make many compromises with people from other religions, that they didn’t have to deal with borderland issues, that radicalism was the natural product of their homogeneity.

My view now, though, is somewhat different. I haven’t thoroughly developed it yet, but I now view Arab Islam as having adopted and absorbed the despotic habits of Byzantine Christianity after the Arabs conquered Damascus. These tendencies were then reinforced after they conquered Egypt. And Islam expanded into places like Mesopotamia that had always been despotic. Authoritarianism and intolerance in these parts of the world became deeply entrenched. The sociology, rather than the religion of Islam, took too much from the despotic traditions in the Middle East at the time.

Islam was excluded from Europe after the expulsions from Spain in the 17th century and didn’t have access to the Enlightenment. Despotism is a form of totalism—not totalitarianism, but totalism—that leads to radicalism. These are somewhat inchoate thoughts that I hope to refine in a new book I’m working on called Islam and Oriental Despotism.

MJT: So how did you go from being a Jewish leftist to a Sufi Republican? That’s a pretty unusual personal journey.

Stephen Schwartz: I’m not actually Jewish. My mother was not Jewish. My father was Jewish, but Judaism is passed down through the mother. My mother was the daughter of a fundamentalist Christian minister. Both of my parents were leftists. My mother was a member of the Communist Party. I was brought up without religion. I didn’t know I was half Jewish until I was twelve, and I didn’t know it was the wrong half until I was twenty one.

I know a lot about Jewish theological history because of what Bernard Lewis calls the Judeo-Islamic period. The Islamic influence in Judaism as it exists now is enormous, but I don’t know a lot about Jewish practice or even the Jewish religious calendar. I am a convert from no religion, from atheism. I am not a Jewish apostate. If I were Jewish I would never have become Muslim. I would have already had a religion. I am very interested in the culture of Sephardic Jews because I speak their language – Judeo-Spanish, which is really just Castilian – and because of their interactions with Muslims after they settled in the Islamic lands, especially the Balkans and Turkey. That also contributed to my knowledge of Jewish theological history because so much of it flourished in the Ottoman dominions and in Morocco.

I stopped being a leftist in 1984 over Nicaragua. I was bilingual in Spanish and I knew what was happening there.

I had been an ardent partisan of Cuba. I actually worked for the Cubans.

MJT: You did?

Stephen Schwartz: Not in an espionage capacity, but yes.

MJT: Is this on the record?

Stephen Schwartz: Yeah. Everybody knew it.

MJT: I didn’t know it.

Stephen Schwartz: Well, everyone in the San Francisco left 40 years ago knew it.

MJT: What did you to for the Cubans?

Stephen Schwartz: I distributed literature. But around 1976 or 1977 I realized, after a year of reading, that I could not support the Cuban regime anymore. And I could definitely not support the establishment of any imitation of the Cuban regime.

Another thing was the civil war in Argentina. It was clear that the Trotskyist left, the radical left, led a whole generation to be massacred. There was an old Bolshevik principle, which I think is just common sense, that you don’t launch a revolutionary attempt in a country unless the army is divided or sympathetic to the opposition. In Argentina the army was not only united, it had a strong “army-party” ideology. The action of the radical left there was suicidal.

I also had an intellectual epiphany that had been waiting somewhere in the back of my mind since I had taken a physical anthropology class in college in 1970. If the great human transformation promised by socialism hadn’t yet materialized in the 35,000 years that our species has existed, it was never going to happen. The fantasy was just a fantasy.

I had to extricate myself from the radical left. I was deeply embedded in the leftist milieu of San Francisco, but it wasn’t until 1984 that I finally broke with them, and I broke by supporting Edén Pastora in Nicaragua.

MJT: What did you know about Nicaragua that your comrades didn’t know or didn’t want to know?

Stephen Schwartz: I knew that strikes were outlawed. A state labor organization was imposed. The newspaper La Prensa was shut down. I could speak Spanish and had a subscription to La Nación, a very well-edited, sensible and serious Costa Rican newspaper, so I knew about this. I also knew a lot of Nicaraguans in San Francisco. There have been a lot of Nicaraguans in San Francisco since the Gold Rush.

And what else did I hear? Indigenous communities being persecuted, Cuban advisors being imported. I knew it was headed toward becoming another Cuba.

A Sandinista mural in Grenada, Nicaragua

I had the opportunity to meet Edén Pastora. I supported him and lost almost all my friends and destroyed my family in a week. The destruction of my family took a bit longer, but I lost nearly all my friends in a week. It was that fast.

A lot of people, because of my last name, presume that I broke with the left over Israel. They’re surprised when they find out that it was over Nicaragua. If I had broken with the left over Israel, I believe people on the left would have been less harsh to me than they were over Nicaragua. To them, breaking over Israel would have been understandable as a product of presumed identity and emotion. But breaking over Nicaragua involved more abstract principles, and was considered a very serious betrayal. I lost almost all my friends immediately – literally, except for one or two, and it had a very bad effect on my family.

MJT: You must have based these friendships on politics.

Stephen Schwartz: I grew up in the Communist Party milieu. I had been an activist in the Communist milieu since the age of 14. But after breaking with the left over Nicaragua I went to work for a libertarian-conservative think tank, the Institute for Contemporary Studies. Then I went to work for the San Francisco Chronicle.

When I moved from the radical left to the libertarian right one of the things that struck me was that the libertarian right is much more open to debate and disagreement. They have more of a coalition mentality.

MJT: They are more open, aren’t they? I’ve noticed this, as well.

Stephen Schwartz: Oh yeah.

MJT: It’s easier to disagree with them without it being personal.

Stephen Schwartz: Much easier. They don’t freak out.

MJT: And you converted to Islam in the Balkans while working there as a journalist?

Turkish Quarter, Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina

Stephen Schwartz: I had been interested in Islam, and especially Sufism, since I was a teenager. You see, even though I was an “official” atheist, I realized at age eight that I believed in God. But I was not what we call in California a “shopper for God.” I kept my religious feelings to myself. I did not leave the Communist milieu for religion, though I was tempted to do so.

After I was about 15, I started to read anti-Soviet literature on the sly, in the library away from my parents, who were appalled when I told them I read Whittaker Chambers and Ayn Rand and National Review. I was more interested in Chambers than Rand. Though I rather like some of Rand’s writings, I was not drawn to her philosophy.

At the same time I began investigating religion. In the Stalinist milieu, to which I belonged, it was acceptable to read about Protestantism, and that was my mother and maternal grandparents’ religion, so I had two incentives to read about Protestant Christianity. Protestantism had a certain legitimacy among Communists because Frederick Engels, Karl Kautsky, and Franz Mehring – three of the most important German Marxists – had all written books identifying the Reformation in Germany with the modern socialist movement. Also, there was a fairly prominent group of American Protestant ministers who followed the Moscow line.

But I was also a poet, and was drawn to mysticism. The contradiction between Protestantism, which downplayed or condemned mysticism, and both Catholicism and Judaism, in which mysticism is a central aspect of the life of the community, was another factor that made Protestantism an acceptable topic among Communists.

I had personal associations in the San Francisco literary scene, so I naturally spent some time investigating Buddhism. My family was close to the poet Kenneth Rexroth, who promoted Buddhism in the U.S., and I was taught to read the most popular Buddhist text, the Heart Sutra, by Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder. The Communists didn’t know or care much about Buddhism – they were more concerned with Christianity and Judaism, which were widespread among working-class people and more prominent in American life. They didn’t care what the Beat Generation did.

But above all, living in California, I was very involved in Hispanic culture, reading and translating poetry from Spanish, and I was impressed by what seemed to me the greater intensity of belief among Catholics when compared with Protestants. So by the time I left high school I was hanging around with Catholics, and I married a Catholic girl. I attended Catholic masses but did not take Communion because I had not become a Catholic. Part of that had to do with the outraged reaction of my Communist associates to my interest in Catholicism, which I made much more visible than my previous inquiries into Protestantism and Buddhism.

I was moving on two parallel lines, the political and the literary. As a political activist I was definitely committed to the radical left, but as a poet I was heading deeper and deeper into religion. Still, since the Communists represented a kind of religion, I did not want to jump from joining them to joining a regular religion or successive religions. I left the Stalinists and became a sympathizer of the Trotskyists in 1968 and 1969, but did not join the Trotskyists consistently for many years. My experience of total affiliation with the Stalinist Communists made joining anything except labor unions and literary groups distasteful to me for a long time.

I first encountered Sufism as a teenager, reading the works of the Catalan Catholic mystic Raimón Llull. He described how he modeled his works on those of the Sufis. I began to read about Sufism and shamanism in Central Asia. I became deeply interested in that, although I never became involved with “New Age” Sufis in the U.S. I was interested for quite a while in academic study of Central Asia. There I recognized something that seemed to transcend the other religious communities I observed. I have written about some of these matters but have not yet fully divulged what I thought and learned at that time – I hope to do so in a memoir.

I should add that, of course, I also examined Judaism and Kabbalah, but without having been brought up as a Jew, without a bar mitzvah or anything else that would have brought me into Judaism, I didn’t perceive a very great difference between it and the other major religions, except that I rather quickly learned that Kabbalah and Sufism are in most respects identical. This brings up a very bitter matter for me. That is that very great Jewish intellectuals and academics like Gershom Scholem and Moshe Idel – representing the highest standard of secular scholarship on religion – have generously and intelligently acknowledged the great debt of the Kabbalists to the Sufis. But today, especially in Turkey but also in Iran, Muslim writers are busily defaming the Kabbalists as alleged plotters of Jewish world domination, practitioners of the blood libel, etc. This leaves me literally physically sick when I think about it. Muslim authors should repay the debt they owe people like Scholem by writing seriously on the progress of the Kabbalah in the Islamic lands. And they should ask for the forgiveness of God for having defamed the believers of the House of Israel, who are People of the Book we Muslims are commanded to respect, in this manner. The Ottomans did not tolerate such nonsense.

The now-Muslim majority city of Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina

MJT: Balkan Islam is a lot more moderate than Arabian Islam. Correct me if you think I’m off here, but it seems to me that Islam in Bosnia and Albania is more liberal, or moderate, because Bosnians and Albanians are Europeans. They were culturally European before they converted during Ottoman times, and they’re still culturally European today, so they have a much more Western and pluralistic approach to the religion than Arabs do.

Stephen Schwartz: I had broken with the left in 1984, over Nicaragua, and that was my big political shift; I now favored American interventionism. Then came the war in Yugoslavia, and, in Bosnia-Hercegovina the specter of a second massacre of a non-Christian people in Europe, after the Holocaust, while Western Europe stood aside indifferently. I had already gone to Yugoslavia in 1990 and 1991, because I saw what was coming. I reported straight on the Yugoslav war – anybody can look up my Chronicle clips or read the older documents on the CIP website and see that I treated the Yugoslav war ethically. But I was deeply disturbed by the tragedy of Bosnia. I hated myself because the Chronicle would not send me there, and I felt like a coward for not going there and volunteering to fight, even though I was past 40 and out of shape.

I had to argue with those who said I had lost my “objectivity” as a journalist, but I said that objectivity means accuracy, not neutrality, and nobody called for journalistic neutrality about Hitler. Bosnia was my Spanish civil war; and it came after I had already spent time in the radical left in Spain and had written extensively on the Stalinist sabotage of the Spanish revolution.

I spoke in many places about the Yugoslav war. I became involved with the Albanian Catholics exiled in America, and, once again, through them, was introduced to Sufism, this time in its Balkan form, since they, like the Spanish Catholic mystics, had and still have a special relationship with the Sufis.

In 1997 I was sent by the Newspaper Guild, the International Federation of Journalists, and the Council of Europe to Bosnia to analyze the role of media in the first postwar election. I took the Koran with me. I had a month in Bosnia and read the Koran from cover to cover. And I realized I had found my religion. If you want rational explanations, I sympathized deeply with the victims of Serbian imperialism and I was drawn to the Sufis. But that is not how I see it. For me, I can only say that God changed my heart. In my mind and soul, the moderate, Sufi Islam of the Balkans made and still makes perfect sense. I found the kind of Sufism I was searching for in Kosova.

The Albanian, Israeli, and American flags fly in Kosovo on the day Kosovo declares independence from Serbia (copyright K. Dobruna)

Young people in Vitina, Kosovo

And so I once again encountered something I could join and support, but without feeling the sense of conformism, rigidity, and intellectual timidity I had associated with joining the Stalinist Communists and, later, the Trotskyists.

If there is one point I want to emphasize – aside from making clear I am not an apostate from Judaism – it is that I did not become a Muslim to lead the moderates, or on the assumption I would be prominent in Islamic affairs or discussion of Islam. My motives were deeply personal and intellectual, and I have not written much about them. The role I had after September 11, as a writer on Wahhabism and eventually as founder of the Center for Islamic Pluralism, was thrust upon me by historical events. I hope I have fulfilled the tasks that were given me. But they were not the responsibilities I sought when I first said, “I believe there is no God but God. I believe Muhammad is God’s prophet.”

I have left out a lot here. The rest will have to wait for another book.

Stephen Suleyman Schwartz is the Executive Director of the Center for Islamic Pluralism in Washington, DC, and author of the books The Other Islam: Sufism and the Road to Global Harmony, The Two Faces of Islam: Saudi Fundamentalism and Its Role in Terrorism, and Sarajevo Rose: A Balkan Jewish Notebook.


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