The Blog of Cafe Dissensus Magazine – we DISSENT

Plural Islam in South Asia: An Interview with Stephen S. Schwartz

By Ashraf Thachar

Stephen Suleyman Schwartz is the Executive Director of the Centre for Islamic Pluralism in Washington, DC and author of the 2008 book, The Other Islam: Sufism and the Road to Global Harmony (Doubleday). In 2002, he published the bestselling, The Two Faces of Islam: Saudi Fundamentalism and Its Role In Terrorism (Doubleday). He is also author of Sarajevo Rose: A Balkan Jewish Notebook, published in the U.S. by Routledge Macmillan and in Britain by The Bosnian Institute and Saqi Books. He is a Shillman-Ginsburg Writing Fellow of the Middle East Forum.

The Two Faces of Islam has been translated into Bosnian (Dva Lica Islama), Albanian (Dy Ftyrat e Islamit), Farsi (Du Chehrhe Az-Islam), and Indonesian (Dua Wajah Islam). As of 2015, Hindi and Urdu editions are forthcoming. The Other Islam has been published in Albanian (Islami Tjetër) and Bosnian (Jedan Drugačiji Islam). Sarajevo Rose has been published in Bosnian (Sarajevska Ruža).

Stephen Schwartz was born in 1948, and has pursued a long literary and journalistic career. He was a staff writer for the San Francisco Chronicle for 10 years and was secretary of a trades union, the Northern California Newspaper Guild, AFL-CIO. In 2004-06, he was an institutional historian at the National Endowment for the Arts, a U.S. federal agency.

In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, his extensive and authoritative writings on the phenomenon of Wahhabism identified him as one of the leading global experts on Islam, its internal divisions, and its relations with other faiths.

His articles have been printed in the world’s major newspapers, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, the Toronto Globe and Mail, and many more. He is a regular contributor to The Weekly Standard and The Huffington Post as well as to leading periodicals in the Balkans.

He began a serious examination of Islam in 1990, when he first visited Yugoslavia. Researching the approaching collapse of that state and the history of Jews in the Balkans – for articles published in the San Francisco Chronicle, Jewish Forward and other periodicals – he developed close relations with Balkan Islamic intellectual, religious and political leaders.

During the 1990s he continued his intensive study of Balkan comparative religion, supplementing his reporting on the region with work as an editor for the Albanian Catholic Institute in San Francisco. He also completed missions in Bosnia-Hercegovina, Kosovo, Croatia, and Slovenia for the International Federation of Journalists, the Council of Europe, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the International Crisis Group, the Soros Fund for an Open Society, the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, and the U.S. Department of State.

In 1999, with the Kosovo intervention, Mr. Schwartz retired from the San Francisco Chronicle and moved to the Balkans.

He wrote a weekly foreign affairs column for the Sarajevo daily, Oslobodjenje, a weekly opinion column in the Kosovo newspaper Dita, and reportage for the Bosnian Islamic weekly, Ljiljan. In 2000, he published a book in Bosnian and English on Muslim identity and media issues in the Balkans, “A Dishonest 20th Century Comedy” (Forum of the Congress of Bosnian Muslim Intellectuals, Sarajevo).

He has returned to the Balkans at least once yearly since 2003.

He has been a student of Sufism since the late 1960s and an adherent of the Hanafi school of Islam since 1997.

In this interview, he speaks to Muhammad Ashraf.


Muhammad Ashraf: As 2016 began, terrorists attacked the Indian air force base at Pathankot.  Seven members of the military and six extremists were killed in four days of fighting. Media report that responsibility for the assault belongs to a terrorist group mainly active in Pakistan, Jaish-e-Muhammad [‘Army of Muhammad’], which is aligned with Lashkar-e-Taiba [‘Army of the Righteous’], which has focused their violent intentions on Kashmir. What is the main motive guiding such terrorist networks in Pakistan in your opinion?

Stephen Schwartz: I believe these groups function on two levels.   On one, which is broad, they are associated with South Asian jihadism in general and reflect the same intolerant ideologies as Al-Qaida and the so-called ‘Islamic State’.  In addition, they train and indoctrinate jihadist fanatics in a setting away from Western intervention.  The aim of that aspect of their activity is to sow fear and confusion in the Indian subcontinent and the subcontinental Muslim diaspora.   On a second level, which is narrow, they fulfil the needs of radicals in the Pakistani government who wish to maintain local chaos in Kashmir.   The vacillation of the Pakistani regime in dealing with these groups is evidence that Pakistan truly is a failed state.  It cannot control its internal politics, and terror continues unchecked, often with official protection.

MA: How should we analyse the fact that the ‘Islamic State’ has less impact on South Asia than in other areas?  Is there a particular reason for this?

SS: First, the ‘Islamic State’ already has a considerable number of radical competitors in South Asia, drawn from the Wahhabi, Deobandi, and Mawdudist extremist trends.  Second, Pakistan is, at least in name, an ‘Islamic Republic.’  Third, while groups as distant as Indonesia on one hand and West Africa on the other claim loyalty to the ‘Islamic State’, and many misguided Muslims have gone from those places to fight in Syria and Iraq, finally the ‘Islamic State’ is an Arab and (supporting Bashar Al-Assad) an Iranian matter.  Lastly, the crimes of the Al-Assad regime have inflamed Sunnis in Syria and nearby countries but no such atrocities are occurring in South Asia, such as might produce a new jihadist outburst on so great a scale.

MA:  Since you have been active for a long time in working for Islamic pluralism, how do you view South Asia as a platform for discussions of pluralism?

SS:  South Asia is the most diverse culture area in the world.  It is unique.  Not to engage in clichés, let me relate a story I consider relevant here. The Mexican poet Octavio Paz, who was the 1990 Nobel Laureate in Literature, was Mexican ambassador to India until 1968.  He was greatly devoted to India and somewhat absorbed the old-fashioned Spanish notion that Islam was backward and violent, destroying benevolent societies.  Octavio, whom I knew, viewed India as a ‘big Mexico’ – freed from colonialism, multilingual, filled with indigenous communities and folkloric customs, violent, colorful, exuberant, and young while old.  He needed to change his view of Islam, a matter in which Sufi poetry could be important.

MA: Can you describe the way Muslims in South Asia may live while keeping their pluralistic tradition of moderate Islam?

SS: The key for maintaining moderate and pluralistic Islam in South Asia is simple, and comprises moderate and pluralistic Islamic education.  Muslims trained in the philosophical, theological, and metaphysical aspects of the Islamic past and present will not turn to radicalism.  Muslims aware of the living nature of the Islamic classics, especially those of the great Sufis, will be encouraged to avoid the rigid dogmas of the Wahhabis, Deobandis, and their like.

MA: Is there anything for governments to do in this direction?

SS:  In the West, some countries, like the United States, stay strictly out of religious affairs.  France goes the furthest in this direction.  But other democratic countries, like Germany and Britain, support education about religion in the public schools, and The Netherlands finances diverse media for its religious communities.  In countries like India, where there is great religious variety, it seems obvious that government will have no choice but to administer religious institutions. For Muslims, these include waqf boards and hajj programs.  Moderate and pluralistic Muslims must press action to prevent these bodies from falling into the hands of radicals. Government must be prepared to take action in this direction.

MA: Unlike South Asia, the Western societies are generally secular. What is integral to sustaining the pluralism in our times, religion or secularism?

SS: The French Muslim ulema are known for arguing that strict French secularism protects Muslims, like other believers and non-believers.  That is, French law prevents the establishment of a single state religion, and leaves matters of faith up to personal conscience.   A less rigorous form of secularism is found in the U.S. – for example, France bans religious symbols from public schools, which would never take place in America.  As a believer, I am convinced that the works of religion are integral to contemporary pluralism.  Religion promotes social values; the state arbitrates among the issues those values produce.  We may say that religion and secularism are the two legs on which ‘modernity’, that much-evoked but vague concept, stand.

MA: We know the difference between Western secularism and Eastern or Indian secularism. What do you perceive as the meaning of Islamic secularism? Is it a mere theory without practical implications?

SS: I do not know India well enough to compare Western and Indian secularism, but the long domination of Indian politics by multi-confessional parties and minority personalities suggests to me that there is not much difference.  Regarding Islamic secularism, it is not a theory.  It is a reality in the Balkans, Turkey, Azerbaijan and the other ex-Soviet Muslim states, and Indonesia.  Islamic secularism recognizes the Islamic majority in a country’s census but separates religious decision-making from state policy.  That is in reality a well-developed, thoroughly Islamic concept that had its origins in the decline of the Mu‘tazila, who created a state interpretation of Islam, beginning in the 10th century of the common era.  The Mu‘tazila are widely praised in the West and among some Muslim scholars as ‘rationalists’, and as a counterforce to the ulema.  But this view ignores the adoption of state compulsion by the Mu‘tazila and the importance of the ulema as a counter-power to the rulers.  That was the beginning of a form of secularism that may be revived.  Further, we have the example of the post-Mongol Baghdad caliphate, which refused to grant lawmaking status to the ulema, but retained their Mongol customary law, and the Ottomans, who similarly preserved their traditional code of law.  Whether limiting the interference of rulers in religion, as in the Mu‘tazili case, or that of religion in governance, as with the Ottomans, Islamic history has a solid foundation on which to erect a sustainable theory of Islamic secularism.  Unfortunately, as noted in my answer to your fourth question, in countries with great religious differences government may be forced to intervene in religious affairs – but it should do so in a non-sectarian manner, aiming at the common public good.

MA: We really must understand the value of pluralism in this time of extremist upheavals. But how do we recover our religious communities from extremist misinterpretations?

SS: The answer remains the same as to your earlier questions: through Islamic education, mobilization, and monitoring of Islamic institutions.

MA: I was mesmerized by your book, The Two Faces of Islam, in which you described the serious threat of Wahhabi extremism enabled by Saudi funding.  How would you comment on Wahhabism in South Asia today?

SS: We see Deobandism, which also has a presence in the South Asian diaspora communities in the West, and the followers of Mawdudi, as more directly threatening to South Asia now.   They are entrenched in local governments, attack shrines, and kill innocent people.  During the reign of Saudi King Abdullah, which ended at the beginning of this year, the Saudi Wahhabis drew back from their global campaign of corruption and agitation.  Unfortunately, they may now resume their aggression in South Asia, with new Saudi King in power.

MA: As my last question, can you describe a personal experience, of seeing anyone rescued from extremist ideas?

SS: I have met former jihadis and spoken with them.  In the period directly after the attacks of 11th September, 2001, I perceived among them three types, which I had also seen, decades before, in radical leftist politics.  Jihadi recruits broke down among ambitious, frustrated men and women who desired to excel but who could not do so in their native societies; convinced ideologues; and sojourners who happened to fall into jihadist company.  I referred to these three types as ‘the leader’, ‘the theorist/writer’, and ‘the haphazard follower’.  Since the years directly after 11th September, it has become clear that criminals have flocked to the ranks of the jihadis.  One thing I can say about nearly all these types:  except for the ‘haphazard follower’ and the criminal, who may abandon jihadism as soon as they realize the risks and difficulties they face, the ‘leaders’ and ‘theorists’ often go to jihad with little religious education in Islam.  Once they begin to study the faith, many will become alienated from jihadism.

But in the past, this was also true of the radical left: reading and study are the enemies of zealotry.

Muhammad Ashraf Thachara Padikkal is completing his graduation from Madeenathunnor, Calicut, Kerala. He is an interviewer, writer and independent research fellow, specializing in the areas of Sufism, Islamic studies and cultural anthropology. He is also interested in tradition, philology and subaltern literature.

Like Cafe Dissensus on Facebook.  Follow Cafe Dissensus on Twitter.

Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, based in New York City, USA. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.


Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine on ‘Jewish-Muslim Relations in South Asia’, edited by Dr. Navras Jaat Aafreedi, Assistant Professor, Gautam Buddha University, Greater NOIDA, India.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Basic HTML is allowed. Your email address will not be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: