March 19, 2003 | The Atlantic

Interview with Stephen Schwartz

By Katie Bacon

What misunderstandings about Islam do you most want to correct with this book?

First, I want Westerners to get over their fears. Second, I want to correct the misunderstanding that there's just one Islam, and that it's the Saudi-extremist form. Third, I want to correct the misunderstanding that Islam is inherently intolerant of the Christians and Jews. I want to correct the view that Islam is inherently violent. I want to correct the view that Islam is incompatible with democracy, prosperity, and pluralism. And, finally, I want to correct the view that Islam as a religion is an impediment to democracy in the Middle East.

The response to my book has been very positive from the three groups of people I most want it to reach. Now, one of the paradoxes is that I always wanted to reach Muslims with this book. When I first told my editor that, he scoffed and said, “Well, they're not going to read it.” But as matter of fact, a lot of Muslims are reading my book. I wanted to reach thoughtful people, people who were looking for factual presentation and who were looking for a way out of prejudice, and I think I'm reaching people like that. And I wanted to reach people who wanted the low-down on the Saudis. And I'm reaching them. Now, there must be people who buy my book because they think it's anti-Islamic, because when I look at Amazon, very often I find that people who have bought my book have also bought anti-Islamic books. But anybody who reads my book expecting dirt about the Islamic faith will be sorely disappointed.

What sort of comparisons would you draw between Wahhabi Islam and puritanical branches of Christianity and Judaism? Are there any similar motivations behind them?

Absolutely. This is an extremely complex and paradoxical issue. In Islam, there has always been the argument that Wahhabism arose directly as an imitation of Protestant Christianity. And there are Wahhabis who do make this comparison. They say, “We are creating a Protestant Islam.” I used to respond to this by saying to Wahhabis, “If you're looking for models from the Christian world, the Catholics are much better models.” If I went to Jerry Falwell and asked him how he thinks the poetry of William Blake relates to theology, it is very doubtful he would even know what I was talking about. If I were to go to Pat Robertson and ask him what he thought of John Milton as a representative of Protestant culture, it's very doubtful he would have an intelligent comment. But I can go to a Catholic priest anywhere in the Catholic world and talk about philosophy and poetry, literature and art, because Catholicism is a whole civilization. If you want a Protestant-style Islam, fine, I can't stop you from wanting that, but Protestantism begins with John Milton and ends with Jimmy Swaggart. A Protestant-style Islam would be stripped down, with no spirituality, no sense of Islam as a civilization or a culture, no love of poetry, of mysticism, of religious philosophy, no beautiful mosques. When you look at Protestantism versus Catholicism, or Wahhabism versus traditional Islam, these are the striking parallels. It's a big cliché in the West: “Islam needs a Reformation.” No, Islam does not need a reformation. If Islam needs anything comparable to developments in Christian history, it needs a Counter-Reformation. That is, what the Catholics did. You reaffirm faith, you reaffirm tradition, but you adjust the day-to-day functioning of the Church to the realities of a modern society.

The bottom line is this. I always said to the Wahhabis, You think the world is impressed when someone goes into a bus in Israel and blows up a bunch of kids. That doesn't impress people. What impresses people about Islam is a picture of the Taj Mahal. What impresses people who are not Muslims is Islam as a culture, Islam as a civilization, Islam as a set of beautiful mosques. Wahhabism wants to get rid of all that, it wants to drain all of that out of the religion.

There is one extremely important difference, however. Protestantism did not attempt to enforce conformity. Protestantism fostered pluralism. Wahhabism does not foster pluralism, unlike traditional Islam, which is pluralistic, non-conformist, and allows for a multiplicity of opinions. And that's why, in the end, I now essentially reject the parallel.

You write about helping “the Muslim world conquer its own destructive demons—its version of fascist and Communist totalitarianism—and thereby help[ing] ourselves.” But wouldn't a large portion of the Muslim world reject this help, since Wahhabist regimes, for all their faults, have been very effective at gaining power and respect for themselves?

I wouldn't agree with that at all. First of all, there have only been two Wahhabist regimes: Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Qatar is backing off. The Wahhabis are continuing to struggle to take over Pakistan, and in the final analysis, they won't be successful. They had a satellite regime in Afghanistan, but it was not a totalistic, Wahhabi regime. In the rest of the world they haven't been successful.

What made me think of it was the Russian reaction to the recent anniversary of Stalin's death. Even though he presided over an era of the most brutal repression imaginable, many in Russia think he was a good leader, because of the influence Russia had while he was in power. To some extent Wahhabism does seem to confer power, maybe not on the people, but on the regimes.

I know this is going to sound very counterintuitive to a Westerner, but I have great hope that the Muslim communities, because of their pluralistic and intellectual tradition, will be able to avoid the trap that the orthodox Christian nations—Russia, Serbia, and so forth—have walked into. Russia and Serbia really accepted this totalistic view of life, and they accepted this power ideology. Islam does not worship power. Islam has always seen itself as a counter-force to power. Ayatollah Khomeini's idea that the scholars should rule was considered really heretical because of that. The Wahhabi inveiglement of the faith with power is not considered by most Muslim scholars to be a legitimate phenomenon.

But you're right, there are sections in the Arab world where there is a great admiration for Saudi power. The Saudis have given the Arab nation, which has had its own problems of unification, development, transformation, and bourgeois revolution, a temporary sense of power and status in the world. But real Muslims, at least the Muslims I know, have never been admiring of this—they've never accepted that this is the way for the Muslim ummah, or community, to go.

I'd like to talk for a bit specifically about Saudi Arabia. Your account and others I've read demonstrates how incredibly intertwined America and Saudi Arabia are. Aside from our oil dependence, many former government officials are involved with companies that do business with the Saudis, Saudis have given money to just about every lobbyist, PR firm, and think tank in Washington, and they have a lot of money deposited in U.S. banks and invested in the stock market. How do we disentangle ourselves from the Saudis when we're connected on so many economic levels? Is it likely that any change will happen during the Bush Administration, which seems especially tied to the Saudis compared to past Administrations?

Well, there is a simple way to do all this—we have to let the authorities in the Saudi Kingdom know that we will not settle for anything less than a complete, thorough, and transparent accounting of involvement of Saudi subjects in 9/11. The importance of this is dual. First of all, we have to have this for our own moral health, because I'm soon going to be a grandfather I'm told, and I do not intend to tell my grandchild that our government covered up Saudi involvement in 9/11 because of big oil, which is essentially what this is about. We have got to have a situation where our President can say, “The Saudis have handed me a full report and it has every name, no matter how high he is in the regime,” and where the Saudis make it clear that all the people involved in al Qaeda and all the people involved in the financing of 9/11 will be brought to justice. There is no way that the United States can repair its relationship with Saudi Arabia without this.

At the same time, the beauty of the whole thing is that if and when the Saudi kingdom can admit what happened on 9/11, this will be the beginning of moral health for the Saudis. This will be the beginning of the opening up of the Saudi Kingdom to the inquiry, scrutiny, self-examination, and self-criticism that it needs. This is already taking place by the way, because 9/11 was not a victory for Wahhabism—it was a devastating defeat. A lot of people within the kingdom are asking themselves, How did this happen? Why did it happen, what contributed to it, and what can we do to make sure it doesn't happen again?

Would it be enough of a moral cleansing just to ask for that full accounting?

We can't just ask. We have to press for it, we have to demand it.

But it seems like we have to go beyond a full accounting to a disentangling of the connections we have with the Saudis in terms of oil dependence.

If there's anything right now that's painful for me to have to say, because I do consider myself a conservative on issues like private property and privatization, it's that the record of big oil—Standard Oil and its successors—has been so negative in the history of our country for so long that maybe the only solution is to have congressional hearings on the role of big oil in covering for and fronting for the Saudis. Maybe the only solution is to do what people wanted to do in 1907, which is to nationalize big oil.

Do you think we should be freeing ourselves from dependence on Saudi Arabia?

Absolutely. If you want an immediate solution, don't buy an SUV. The question is, How do we disentangle ourselves from Saudi oil? As long as the American people think they have some kind of a constitutional right to cheap gas, and as long as they view an automobile as a form of entertainment rather than as a form of transportation, we're going to have these problems. And it is quite striking that after the great oil shocks of the 1970s everybody talked about change, everybody talked about new technologies and new cars, and nothing was ever really done about it. Also, if the United States had not dismantled its railroad system and public-transit system as it did after World War II because of cheap gas, then we would not be having this problem.

A cartoon by Sage Stossel Our dependence on Saudi oil breeds Saudi contempt for us. The Saudi royal family does believe that a gasoline fix is coming into our arms each day and that we can't get off it. They do believe they have us over a barrel with the gasoline, and they don't believe we will come back at them firmly and demand the accounting we need.

On the other hand, obviously the Saudis are very dependent on us. You talk in your book about the hypocrisy of that dependence. They are dependent, yet they are also inciting this violence against us.

Well, that's always been the case. They've always depended on the Christian powers to protect their rule on the peninsula, while at the same time outside of the peninsula they've incited violence against other Muslims and against other religions. Other Muslims see their hypocrisy. They see that Wahhabis posture as the purest Muslims and as having the sharpest swords of jihad, yet at the same time they don't make a move without insuring that there are British or American or French troops to protect them.

What people have to realize is that Wahhabism embodies violence, because Wahhabism begins by saying that everybody who isn't a Wahhabi who calls himself a Muslim isn't really a Muslim. And that is in essence a violent proposition.

But at the same time that doesn't mean that all Wahhabis are about to go out and kill others and then kill themselves.

Well, not all Nazis were running to Auschwitz to pull the switch at the gas chambers. In fact, it was noticeable in both the Nazi state and the Stalinist state that lots of people, when it came down to whether or not they would sacrifice their conscience for their ideology, wouldn't do it. But I don't know any Wahhabis who are like that. Of course there are Wahhabis who are not directly involved in going off and killing people, but they support the ideology that supports the people who are going off and killing people. The difference is that the Wahhabis have a religious dispensation that creates a totalistic sense of self-righteousness. Nazism and Stalinism didn't have this.

There's another thing I'm wondering about the Saudi Arabian regime. You've talked about how the first big step we need to take is to force the Saudis to acknowledge all the people with terrorist connections. But how much effect can we actually have on the regime and its beliefs?

First of all, demanding the accounting of 9/11 would be the beginning of the emergence of civil society in Saudi. Second, success in Iraq would be a tremendous challenge to Saudi Arabia, and this is why the Saudis aren't happy with the whole Iraq deal. The beginning of a democracy in Iraq would be a tremendous incentive to democratization in Iran, and this in turn would be a tremendous incentive to the three or four healthy groups of oppositionists in Saudi Arabia. Some of these oppositionists are Shia Muslims who are well educated, have satellite dishes, computers, and e-mail, and who want to live in a society that's like Malaysia—a constitutional and parliamentary monarchy; others are underground pluralist Sufi scholars in Mecca and Medina. I think that Saudi Arabia is a totally normal society that's going through all the same problems that South Korea went through—that the Philippines, and Iran, and Spain, and Poland, and every other country that was living under some form of a tyrannical government went through. The political transformation is inevitable, and it's already begun. The question is, Will we impede it or enable it?

Bush of course has said that he's hopeful that if we depose Saddam Hussein this could start a flowering of democracy in the Muslim world. So it seems like we'd be in a pretty awkward position if democratic movements started springing up in Saudi Arabia and we didn't support them.

You betcha. It would be horrible. I come from the radical left, and in many respects, I haven't changed. One way I haven't changed is that I hate dictatorships, and I hate the fact that the United States has this reputation for sticking by corrupt dictators. I give a lot of speeches to Muslim audiences—I spent the last two days with Shias from Iraq. I stand up and I say to them: “We are turning a page.” The comparison I make is with slavery. America tolerated slavery for about seventy years after the foundation of the Republic, but America finally sacrificed a lot of blood to get rid of slavery. My great friend Octavio Paz, the Mexican writer and Nobel-prize winner, said that the greatness of the United States is that it corrects its errors. We're no longer going to support these corrupt dictators. We're no longer going to go into the Muslim world with this patronizing attitude of let the Arabs be corrupt if they want. We are going to help the Arab and Muslim nations find their way to democracy, prosperity, and stability on their own terms—as we did in South Korea. South Korea is not a completely Americanized culture. It's still a traditional culture in many respects. It is democratic, pluralistic, stable, and prosperous. If I'm proven wrong and in the end we do stick by the reactionary wing of the Saudi regime, then I guess I'll have to admit that I was wrong in trusting our leaders, and I'll have to go back to the left. That's okay. In some ways, that might be fun. However, let me say this: I truly and with absolute sincerity believe that Dr. Wolfowitz is on the same page with me on this. Very few people realize that the defining moment in his life was when he convinced President Reagan not to support the continuation of Marcos in power. He is a supporter of world-wide democracy. He is a sincere man. I believe that the Administration is going to do the right thing here. Last night I said to an Iraqi Shia imam, a very beautiful man of god, a very sincere, very sweet man, “President Reagan said, 'Let Poland be Poland.' I want President Bush to stand up and say, 'Let Islam be Islam.' Liberate Islam from the grip of the corrupt rulers, from the tyrants, and the terrorists, and Islam will correct itself.”

I wanted to ask something about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Saudi Arabia was among the slowest of the Arab countries to get involved in the conflict. But you argue that there is now a connection between the Wahhabi-Saudi campaign for the global colonization of Islam and the suicide bombings in Israel.

Look, Hamas is a Saudi front. There is no argument about this. The ideology of attacking civilians is a Wahhabi ideology. In the Muslim tradition, the Muslim soldier fights soldier to soldier, as they fought in Bosnia. The Muslim soldier does not attack children in a school bus, or mothers walking down the street, or old people, or the infirm and sick. The fact is that the whole wave of suicide terrorism is directly traceable to the influence of the Saudis and Wahhabism among the Palestinians. If the Saudi regime ever accepts that they can no longer export Wahhabism and can no longer give money to Wahhabism as an extremist ideology, I think that would have a salutary effect on a resolution in the Middle East.

You know, I usually stay away from talking about this. My problem with talking about Israel and Palestine is that I don't trust my own instincts. Given that my father was Jewish, and that my grandfather's generation died in the Holocaust, naturally I'm defensive about Israel. But all of my life, whether as a leftist or a conservative, I've wanted social justice, so I also want some kind of fair resolution for the Palestinians. And growing up in an atmosphere of secular Judaism, I have to tell you this: those of us who were brought up to think of the Jewish people as the people of Einstein and Freud are not happy to see an Israeli policeman with a club hitting an Arab woman.

I was always an advocate for some kind of peaceful, fair resolution, and I was always an advocate for Israeli-Arab dialogue. But I do think that Jewish-Muslim dialogue has a lot better chance in the short term than Israeli-Arab dialogue. In my book, I call for what I term the “believers peace,” an attempt to bring the religious leaders together to find a way to peace. I do think that if the grand rabbis, the mufti in Jerusalem, the Arab patriarch, a Catholic patriarch, and a couple of Sufis could all sit down, they could at least begin a dialogue. It's never been tried. And you know, after the war in Bosnia we had a very successful interfaith council of Jews, Catholics, Orthodox, and Muslims. If it can work in Bosnia, there should at least be the beginning of an attempt at it in Jerusalem.

You describe the increasing influence that Wahhabis have among the American Muslim community. How should the U.S. be reacting to them? Are they dangerous just because they're Wahhabi? How do we keep tabs on Wahhabis who don't appear to have done anything wrong without compromising our ideals?

In terms of the media, we've got to stop privileging Wahhabis as the representatives of Islam in America. We've got to have some non-Wahhabi Muslims on TV—some Shias, Sufis, Balkan Muslims, Moroccan Muslims. We've got to stop having a situation where every time they talk about Islam on the television you see a picture of Saudi Arabia. I can understand that there would be a picture of Mecca, but they've got to stop privileging Saudis and the Wahhabis as the representatives of Islam.

Now, in terms of the government, we have a situation where the state prisons in most states have Wahhabi imams as state employees. And these people terrorize the non-Wahhabi Muslims in the prisons. That has got to stop. There is right now a lawsuit in the state of New York, with which my foundation assisted. Frankly, it's a suit to clean the Wahhabi imams out of the prison system The Islamic chaplains in the American prison system should be representative of the full range of Islam. And I have to say honestly that the federal authorities should crack down absolutely on the fake charities, or shall we say the corrupt charities. They should arrest and indict and bring to trial those people who have used Islamic charities to promote terrorism. Those are two things that will have a very powerful effect on the Wahhabi conspiracy.

Beyond those two things, which are very practical and concrete issues, I am very hesitant to bend civil liberties. I'm not entirely comfortable with the issue of surveillance of mosques, because I don't think that's an effective way to deal with the issue. A lot of mosques are under Wahhabi control, but that doesn't mean the believers in the mosque are Wahhabis. And I'll say something that will probably get me into enormous amounts of trouble. I'm always on the side of the victims, and if there is an innocent Arab or Muslim guy who gave some money—though I don't think people give this money without knowing where it's going—and it went to Hamas, I want that guy to think about what he's doing, but I don't want that guy to have to tremble when he's walking down the street, and I don't want him to have to be locked up, and I don't want his children to have to not know whether their father is coming home. On the other hand, I don't want the federal and the state government to pay Wahhabis, and I don't want any of these people to get away with anything.

You have spent a lot of time during the last decade as both a journalist and an interfaith activist in the Balkans. How did your experience there shape or inform your thoughts about Islam and Wahhabism?

It's personal, very personal, very intense for me. My parents were leftists, and my mother was a Communist. When I was growing up, the Spanish Civil War was everything, in a certain sense. Bosnia was my Spanish Civil War. Bosnia, for me, was a stark, direct confrontation between the forces of good and the forces of evil. It was a confrontation between fascist monsters who wanted to slaughter people and rape women and destroy people's lives and a completely innocent population that wanted nothing but to live and prosper in safety. I will never forgive anybody who stood in the way of rescuing Bosnia—not Colin Powell, not George H. W. Bush, not James Baker. Imagine if you woke up tomorrow and The New York Times headline said “Israeli Forces Rape Four Arab Girls.” Well, 40,000 women and girls were raped in Bosnia. The West stood aside, Europe stood aside, the British and the French, in essence, enabled the Serbs to do this. The United Nations basically became accomplices to the Serbs. No Muslim suffered in modern times worse than the Bosnians. But they never left the straight path. They never took up terrorism. They never took up extremism. They look the same as the Serbs, they speak the same language as the Serbs, they were many times intermarried with the Serbs. Terrorism would have been the easiest thing in the world for them. And if they'd all become Wahhabis, nobody would've reproached them for it. But they never did. They did not fight a jihad. They did not attack civilians. They did not attack Christian churches. They fought honorably, even though they had gone through this unspeakably terrible ordeal. When I saw that, that was what I wanted to tell the West, and that is still what I want to tell the West. You have to respect these people and you cannot have a West that says it's okay to slaughter them. But also, you have to understand that this is the real Islam. An Islam that gives the Bosnians the strength to try to reconstruct their lives in peace and with respect for their Jewish and Christian neighbors after what happened to them is a positive force in the world. When I looked into the eyes of people, when I talked to these people, I heard unbelievably terrible things. Things that it destroys me to talk about even now. But the Bosnian Muslims didn't come out of this experience with hard hearts, the desire for revenge, or the feeling that any atrocity was justified. Their Islam saved them spiritually in the ordeal that they underwent.

Did the fact that we eventually did go into Bosnia and then Kosovo restore your faith at all? Or was it too little too late?

It did restore my faith that we could do the right thing. We did go into Kosovo pretty quickly. We didn't delay as we did in Bosnia. Clinton fulfilled a Wilsonian ideal when we went into Kosovo. Right now I'm having a lot of arguments with partisan people from the Democrat side who say we shouldn't go into Iraq. If you were for Bill doing it in Kosovo, you have to be for George doing it in Iraq. Look, I want America to be a powerful rescuer of the victims. I want America to be the powerful nation that brings democracy and freedom to those who are oppressed. I want America to be the liberator. I know that isolationists don't want to hear this, and realists don't like to hear this, and people think I'm inflamed by some crazy spiritual or religious ideal. But this is the country that ended slavery. This is the country that said that kings could not rule the world, this is the country that said that Hitler would not be allowed to rule Europe. This is the country that changed its whole society to bring civil rights to the African-American. This is the country that produced Martin Luther King. That's who we are, and that's who I want us to be. And, yes, it's a big burden, it's asking people not just to drive home in their SUVs at night, and lock their doors, and put their tapes in their video players and do whatever they do. It's asking us to live to a higher standard. But I want this country to be that country. I want America to be the country of Martin Luther King.

9/11 posed an enormous moral challenge to America—a challenge to understand what is happening in the Arab and Muslim world, and to do the right thing. It was a challenge to reject Islamophobia, to turn a page in the history of our relations with these corrupt regimes, to make a new start in our relations with the Arab and Muslim world. If we can do those things, then we will be worthy to stand alongside our parents and our grandparents, and also to accept the challenge that Dr. King presented to us. And we will be worthy to say that we accepted this moral challenge and we fulfilled it and carried it on.