Books of The Times: The Two Faces of Islam

The Saudis’ Brand of Islam and Its Place in History
New York Times, Nov. 8, 2002

In April 2002, eight months after the attacks of Sept. 11, a Saudi cleric named Sheik Saad al-Buraik, preaching in a mosque in the Saudi capital of Riyadh, called for the enslavement of Jewish women by Muslim men. “Do not have mercy or compassion toward the Jews,” Mr. al Buraik said. “Their women are yours to take, legitimately. God made them yours.”

Mr. al-Buraik, it is important to note, was a member of the official Saudi delegation that accompanied Crown Prince Abdullah during his visit to President Bush in Crawford, Tex., at the end of April 2002. And Stephen Schwartz argues in “The Two Faces of Islam” that the closeness to power of one who proclaims Jewish women to be Muslim slaves illustrates the deep hypocrisy and corruption of politics in Saudi Arabia, a country that promotes and fosters an extreme, intolerant, terroristic Islamic cult even as it presents itself, in Crawford and other places, as pro-Western and moderate.

It has always been thus there, Mr. Schwartz contends, or, at least, it has been thus since the 18th century when an obscure, vengeful, narrow vagabond-cleric named Muhammad bin Abd al-Wahhab became the spiritual leader of a Saudi tribe, the House of Saud, that eventually became masters of most of the Arabian peninsula. Mr. Schwartz’s book is essentially a history of Wahhabism, which is still Saudi Arabia’s official, exclusive and, in Mr. Schwartz’s view, darkly medieval religion.

His central theme is that Wahhabism has over the centuries waged a bitter struggle against all other variants of Islam, most particularly the tolerant, peaceful, poetically mystical schools of thought that, in Mr. Schwartz’s view, are the true and admirable historic Islam. Moreover, he maintains that Wahhabism, which gave rise to Osama bin Laden and the Afghan Taliban among others, is the most dread menace faced in the world today by the forces of tolerance and pluralism, whether Muslim or otherwise.

“Wahhabism exalts and promotes death in every element of its existence, the suicide of its adherents, mass murder as a weapon against civilization, and above all the suffocation of the mercy embodied in Islam,” Mr. Schwartz writes. “The war against Wahhabism is therefore a war to the death, as the Second World War was a war to the death against fascism. But triumph over death is the victory of life.”

As that paragraph indicates, the emphatic Mr. Schwartz, a journalist and scholar who writes for several American publications, minces no words. The 4,000 members of the Saudi ruling family are, as he puts it, “a vast mafia of princely parasites.” He holds the Western oil companies, especially the Aramco partners and “the American political and media elites that have served them,” responsible for “the continuation of dishonesty and injustice in Arabia.”

Contrary to the standard view of him, Mr. Schwartz writes, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran is at the opposite end of the spectrum from Wahhabi extremism and actually represents “the pluralist face of Islam.”

All of these assertions will bring rejoinders from those who have different views, but Mr. Schwartz’s opinions are not just forcefully expressed; they are also born out of a sophisticated and informed vision of history, and he merits both an open mind and a close reading. His book demonstrates a comprehensive mastery of history and historical connections, as well as a deep humanistic concern for those who have been oppressed by Wahhabi ruthlessness.

When, for example, Mr. Schwartz turns to the powerful influence of Wahhabism during the years of the anti-Soviet “holy war” in Afghanistan, he not only shows that he understands Afghan politics, but he also makes a strong case that the American failure to understand the complexities of global Islam are one of the main reasons that Afghanistan fell into the Taliban-bin Laden camp.

In Mr. Schwartz’s version of events, the Americans failed to understand that “two faces of Islam” were present in Afghanistan from the beginning. “On one side, there was the bright aspect of Sufi traditionalism, ever renewed, happy, filled with love of God and humanity,” he writes. “On the other was the ugly visage of Wahhabi fundamentalism, narrow, rigid, tyrannical, separatist, supremacist and violent.” The Taliban, the products of Saudi-financed Wahhabi schools in Pakistan, clearly represented this second visage, and Mr. Schwartz contends that they could have been avoided altogether had American policymakers only understood that.

But Mr. Schwartz argues that “Islam, especially in the days of Khomeini, remained too alien and frightening” for the State Department to make such distinctions. Or, if American policymakers did make distinctions, he says, they made the wrong ones, preferring the Saudi-backed guerrillas to anyone who echoed Khomeinism. Still, Mr. Schwartz writes, “The real exporters of international Islamic extremism were the Saudis,” though “the Saudis did not miss the opportunity to stoke the Western fear of Iran in order to bolster their false image as Arab `moderates.’ “

One might argue here that Khomeinism, which dispatched the terrorist Hezbollah, or Party of God, into the world, did its share of exporting extremism, as it did when it called on good Muslims to execute the writer Salman Rushdie for the crime of blasphemy. And while Afghan traditionalism may have been filled with love of God, over the centuries it produced its share of blood-letting even without the help of the Saudis. In other words, some of what Mr. Schwartz writes makes you want to argue with him, or at least raise some questions.

Nonetheless, there is an admirable shrewdness, a suffer-no-fools briskness, to his analysis, and he has that ability to make the hard-to-see historical parallels. Among the most interesting of them: in the first half of the 20th century, the Saud-Wahhabi alliance came to supreme power in Saudi Arabia by cleverly aligning itself with British imperialism; how similar that now seems to the Saudi ability to enlist unwitting American support for putting into power the Wahhabi faction in Afghanistan (at least until it was dislodged after Sept. 11). It is fascinating suggestions like this that give “The Two Faces of Islam” some of its value — along with its more general ability to engage the mind, making it grasp matters in a new way.


(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)

Religion News Blog posted this on Saturday November 9, 2002.
Last updated if a date shows here:


More About This Subject



Our website includes affiliate links, which means we get a small commission -- at no additional cost to you -- for each qualifying purpose. For instance, as an Amazon Associate, Religion News Blog earns from qualifying purchases. That is one reason why we can provide this research service free of charge.

Speaking of which: One way in which you can support us — at no additional cost to you — is by shopping at