Science, Religion, and Culture January 2015
As a moderate Muslim, who works to unite moderate, traditional, conventional, spiritual, and even conservative (but not radical) Muslims, I must begin any commentary on the French atrocities by rejecting the claim that extremism and terror are not aspects of Islamic history. To declare, as even French president François Hollande did, “these terrorists and fanatics… have nothing to do with the Muslim religion” is inaccurate.
Islam, like other faiths, has been divided between extremists and moderate believers since its beginning. Prophet Muhammad himself was challenged by a radical trend, the Khawarij or “rebels,” also known as Kharijites, who declared that anybody who did not conform to the degree of piety they demanded was an apostate and should be killed.
The Khawarij challenged the honesty of Muhammad, and assassinated the third caliph who followed Muhammad, Uthman Ibn Affan. They supported Ali Ibn Abi Talib, the cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad who succeeded Uthman as fourth caliph, but then killed Ali as well. The degree of contention within the House of Islam then is illustrated by the example of Aisha, the widow of Muhammad, who incited Muslims against Ali, her relative by marriage.
Continue reading In the Aftermath of the Terror Attacks in France Guest Editorial in Special Issue: Islam, Culture, and the Charlie Hebdo Affair by Stephen Suleyman Schwartz
Social Science Research Network August 5, 2012
Aiello: Do you see the outcome of the Egyptian elections (parliamentary and presidential) as surprising, or as predictable? Do you think that it signals long-term Islamist political leadership in Egypt, or could developments be different after future elections?
Schwartz: The election outcomes in Egypt were not surprising to those informed about the situation there; if free elections were held in 2005 we would have expected the same thing to occur. The election results in Morocco and Tunisia were a little more surprising. As far as the future, however – it is impossible to predict. But in my view, Egypt’s role in the overall direction of Muslim politics is not as important as many think. Iran, the Hijaz region of Arabia (with Mecca and Medina) and Turkey are all more influential in the long-term geopolitical destiny of the region.
Clearly, the broader process of political change itself is not predictable, as shown by the way that the “revolutions” of the “Arab Spring” shocked almost everyone. But I believe the application of the word “revolution” is wrong. These were not chapters in a regional revolution, but a breakdown caused by the global financial crisis. Revolutions in the proper sense would have occurred when the rulers were incapable of governing in the old way, people were unwilling to live or be ruled in the old way, and a new system of social relationships was emerging to replace the old one. That was not that case in the “Arab Spring.” Instead, I perceive it as a “crash” of the old system because of the impact of the global financial crisis on the Arab world. There is no new order rising, but simply an old order which has collapsed. Islamist ideology, as represented by the Muslim Brotherhood, does not represent a new social order, but a reactionary fantasy of return to a “pure” Islamic past.
Continue reading Islam in the Arab Upheaval Interview with Stephen Suleyman Schwartz by Steven Aiello
The Weekly Standard Blog June 16, 2012
Saudi Arabian crown prince Nayef Bin Abd Al-Aziz, designated heir to King Abdullah Bin Abd Al-Aziz, died Saturday in Geneva, where he was receiving medical treatment. Nayef, 78, headed the country’s ministry of interior and was deputy premier in the royal cabinet. He was named crown prince last year.
President Barack Obama expressed “great regret” at the death of the crown prince, and praised his “leadership [under which] the United States and Saudi Arabia developed a strong and effective partnership in the fight against terrorism.” Vice President Joe Biden said that he was “saddened” by the news, and had “looked forward to welcoming [Nayef] to the United States.”
It is doubtful that Obama’s and Biden’s declarations of mourning, however perfunctory they may have been, were shared by many Saudi social reformers, who viewed Nayef with considerable fear, and may be glad to have seen the last of him. Saudi subjects considered him the leader of retrograde forces in the country and spoke with anxiety about the prospect of him gaining power after King Abdullah.
Continue reading Saudi Crown Prince Dies by Irfan Al-Alawi and Stephen Schwartz
The Weekly Standard Blog May 11, 2012
Haxhi Et'hem Beu Mosque, 18th-19th c. CE, Tirana – A most precious jewel of Albanian sacred architecture, subsidized by a Bektashi Sufi shahid. Photograph 2007 Via Wikimedia Commons.
While most of the informed Western public is aghast at the economic and political chaos that appears to be overtaking the government in Athens, southeast Europe has seen aggravated Islamist turmoil in the Balkan Muslim-majority lands and minority communities on and near Greece’s borders.
Immediately after the fall of communism in Albania in 1991, Arab Islamic fundamentalists infiltrated the mosques in the country, which is 70 percent Muslim. The interlopers represented the Saudi Wahhabis and the Egyptian disciples of today’s al Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri. In spring 1999, a dozen of Al-Zawahiri’s acolytes, known as the “Albanian Returnees,” were deported from the eastern Adriatic republic to Egypt, tried, and sentenced to death or extended prison terms for terrorism. The “Returnees” had been told by their “sheikhs” to stay in Albania and avoid going to Kosovo, where NATO military forces were, by that time, thick on the ground. But Albania booted them out with alacrity. Evidence in the case of the “Albanian Returnees” proved extremely important in tracing the evolution of al Qaeda’s Egyptian predecessors.
Arab Islamists gained greater room for maneuver in Macedonia, which left Yugoslavia in 1991, and where Muslims form a large minority, consisting mainly of ethnic Albanians. There, the Islamic clerical structure was soon under tight Arab control. The story of that extremist exploit is complicated, but it is a visible reality.
Continue reading Arabs, Iranians, and Turks vs. Balkan Muslims by Stephen Schwartz
NewsGram [India], April 15, 2011
Burning and banning Qur’an remain stimulating topics in global discourse, as the Christian preacher Terry Jones, in Florida, USA, affirms he will continue his anti-Muslim campaign. Jones is moving on, from a “trial” of the Islamic scripture, which ended with its consignment to the flames, to a similarly exhibitionistic proceeding against Muhammad. Presumably, the indictment of Islam’s prophet would be based on events attributed to Muhammad’s life, even though the first biography of Muhammad was written a century after he lived, and is considered unreliable.
Meanwhile, the very real legal case against the Dutch politician Geert Wilders, who advocates banning Qur’an, has resumed.
Much has been said by many people about the rights of Jones and Wilders to engage in their anti-Islamic agitation. Such arguments are usually conducted without much awareness of the real status of freedom of expression, including opinions critical of Islam, in the USA and Holland. Jones’ right to say and do whatever he wants short of direct incitement to violence is protected under American law. Wilders’ right of “free speech” is not. Holland criminalizes “hate speech,” considering certain opinions harmful to society and worthy of prohibition. Before Wilders can claim a right to voice his condemnation of Islam, he will have to establish that, in Holland, such a right exists.
Continue reading Qur’an: Why Not to Burn or Ban?by Stephen Schwartz
NewsGram [India], April 9, 2011
On Tuesday, 5 April, the Egyptian newspaper Almasry Alyoum reported that professor Ahmed Al-Sayeh of Al-Azhar university, the supreme academic institution for Sunni Muslims, had asked his relatives in Upper Egypt to send him a machine gun. He intends to use the weapon to defend the shrines of spiritual Sufis, which abound in the land along the Nile, against attacks by Islamist fundamentalists, who call themselves “Salafis” but who others call “Wahhabis,” based on their inspiration in the Saudi kingdom.
Professor Al-Sayeh is not alone. In the aftermath of the Egyptian Revolution, which brought so much positive expectation to the Arab and Islamic world, as well as to those outsiders observing it with interest, the complex networks of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) have appeared to many as prepared to assume political leadership of the country. While the Brotherhood now disclaims violence and radicalism in religion, it shares an extensive history with the more aggressive, so-called “Salafis”. All the strains of Islamist fundamentalism claiming authority over Sunnis have a common basis, from Saudi Wahhabis beginning in the 18th century, through the MB and its recent imitators in the Turkey, the Justice and Development Party (AKP). This essence is incorporated as well in the South Asian jihadist followers of Abu’l Ala Mawdudi (1903-79) and the present-day Pakistani-Afghan Taliban, which draws its inspiration from the purist Islamic movement founded at Darul-Uloom Deoband in India a century after the Wahhabi outbreak in Arabia. That is, all have embodied an ideological fantasy of return to an idealized, primordial Islam – and an Islamic state – imagined as pristine and unaffected by 14 centuries of historical and cultural change, as well as by interactions with and borrowings from local and global non-Muslim societies.
Continue reading The Widening War Against Sufism by Stephen Schwartz
NewsGram [India], March 12, 2011
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Critics of radical Islam, and indeed of Islam as a whole, often claim that moderate Muslims do not speak out against extremism. But when Islamic progressives protest against the radicalism of the hardcore Saudi Wahhabis, the Deobandis and Taliban, other South Asian jihadis, and the fundamentalism of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Turkish Justice and Development party (AKP), we are typically belittled. Non-Muslim media, academics, politicians, and other so-called experts will dismiss us as allegedly lacking the base of support enjoyed by the “Wahhabi lobbies” in the US, UK, and, yes, even in India. We who are believers are not experts, we are told, compared with university-appointed apologists for Islamist ideology; the experiences we have had in confronting fundamentalism in Muslim societies and in the West, in mosques and medresas, do not verify or vindicate our opinions.
This was brought home to me, in the latest instance, during an uproar in US and UK media over an American congressional hearing on radical Islam, chaired by Pete King, a Republican from New York as well as chairman of the House of Representatives’ Homeland Security Committee. I will not recall here the absurd chronicle of events preceding the first of what are now called “the King hearings,” which was held on 10 March. Suffice to say that the media manipulators and political priests who seek to diminish the significance of radicalism in American Islam tried to make the King hearing appear menacing to the rights and security of all American Muslims.
Continue reading Voice of Moderates in Islam by Stephen Suleyman Schwartz
The Weekly Standard, issue of February 21, 2011
The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, or al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun, is more than a radical network, comparable to al-Qaeda; more than an ideological phenomenon, like the followers of Khomeini in the 1979 Iranian Revolution; and more than a political insurgency, similar to Pakistani jihadism. It is an Egyptian Islamist subculture of great depth and influence.
It is therefore also much more than a product of political decisions made by Hosni Mubarak. The Brotherhood was powerful before Mubarak, before his predecessor Anwar Sadat, and before their elder comrade, Gamal Abdel Nasser.
But the Brotherhood today is not identical with the paramilitary Arabist-Islamist Ikhwan that functioned in the 1930s through the 1960s. After those decades, the Brotherhood underwent a social and political transformation that was both impressive in its novelty and disturbing in its effect.
Beginning under Nasser, the Brotherhood came out of the shadows and began organizing to take over the Egyptian professional guilds of doctors and engineers. A researcher sympathetic to the Brotherhood, Amani Kandil, publishing in Arabic but cited in Western sources, has said the decision to focus on medicine and engineering was motivated by the recognition that these were the fields of aspiration where social change had become concentrated in Egypt as the 20th century ended. Universities ballooned in size and ambition, establishing new curricula in technological studies, backed by Nasser’s government. Along with them, the professional guilds expanded their membership.
Continue reading Professional Islamists: The Muslim Brotherhood’s long march through the institutions by Stephen Schwartz
Hudson Institute New York, February 11, 2011
Hosni Mubarak has come to a wretched pass, and it is impossible not to sympathise with crowds of ordinary people demanding democratic change. But Westerners are being led by their ignorance and good-hearted idealism to believe in a “reasonable” transformation of the Muslim Brotherhood [MB] and, as a consequence, the alleged standing of the MB as an appropriate participant in the democratisation of the Islamic lands. The MB has always believed that the West could be swindled into assisting the rise of the Brotherhood to power, and the recent effort to convince America and Western Europe that the MB represents a “tame” form of radical ideology has gone on for several years.
Moderate Muslims are not fooled, and Westerners should not let themselves be gulled into promoting an outcome in Egypt that would open the way to a Muslim Brotherhood state there.
Western media coverage and political commentary on the Egyptian events frequently leaves Muslim moderates dismayed. It is shocking to observe the wide success of the MB’s campaign to present itself as an acceptable option for the government of Egypt.
At the beginning of February, for example, a five-word rumour spread among British Muslims: “Kamal al-Helbawy has left London.” Al-Helbawy, since his arrival in Britain in 1994, has served as the main representative of the Muslim Brotherhood in the West. He was officially designated the MB’s spokesperson from 1995 to 1997.
Continue reading The Danger of the Muslim Brotherhood by Irfan Al-Alawi