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The Other Islam: Sufism and the Road to Global Harmony

Let's be upbeat: this book, released last month, doesn't totally stink. The author's personal politics might lead one to expect the worst, but neoconservative Stephen Schwartz does manage in his book to provide both interesting information and genuine thoughtfulness about religious faith and Sufi Islam. This is salutary because his likely readership will mostly be those who take seriously all kinds of simplistic tripe about Muslims. Or, still worse, lap up the manurish anti-Muslim bigotry that is pervasive in the general society and in certain political blogs (e.g. the sicko Little Green Footballs blog, etc.)

The book's key characteristic nevertheless is a core faulty assumption implicit in the subtitle, based on a wrongheaded assumption about the role of religion in foreign and international affairs. More on that as we go along, but for the moment let's begin with the author and where he is coming from.

Author & Basic Premise

Schwartz's personal odyssey is interesting for evaluting this work. He is a convert to Islam, and to a particular Sufi subsect, but apparently has never abandoned his neoconservative politics, or target audience. Additionally he has held on to an odd ideological nostalgia for Leon Trotsky. His particular biographical-political niche might fill a phone-booth and little more -- American Jewish converts to Bektashi Sufi Islam and who still feel that the US is the historically-ordained Global Force of Transformative Righteousness.

The book's title, The Other Islam, becomes easier to understand when one takes into account the author's ideological background and his target audience, for it is addressed to those who have trouble thinking that Muslims are not a monolithic group and who need to learn that there may be more than one religious outlook among a billion people. .

Among neoconservatives there tends to be two views of Muslims and Islam:

a) that they totally and utterly and irredeemably suck, or

b) that they mostly suck, but there may be some hope.

For the (b)'s, the exceptions to the "mostly" are, of course, those merry bands of “moderate" IslamoLuthers and -Lutherettes who will, when fully empowered by the transfomative magic of Iraqi purple-fingered voting and a wave of Wafa Sultan youtube downloads, lead those currently barbarized honor-killing, Israel-hating, Danish-cartoon-attacking hordes into a brave new world of scarfless women and gin & tonics. Not to mention non-stop shouted condemnations of suicide bombings whenever and wherever they occur, except perhaps when Randy Quaid does it at the climax of the movie Independence Day, where it's a good thing.

The book's title is part of its attempt to assist group (b) against group (a) in that neocon/bigot intramural dogfight (one where even Daniel Pipes is a moderate).

To his credit, Schwartz unironically challenges Islamophobes by lobbing that very label at them. But the attempt to keep good neoconservative credentials is evident in an early genuflection to Bernard Lewis, the historian-turned-schmuck who is the high-priest of Middle East expertise for neoconservatives, and for Dick Cheney.

Schwartz basically attempts to set up Sufis as the heroic moderate Exhibit A's for group (b) -- an Islam with a human face primed for a Meccan Prague Spring. In that dalectic, the other Other Islam then, the bad bad Islam, is the dread Wahhabi sect, for whom he interchanges “Saudis” as a descriptive term with a reckless and clearly politically-bred imprecision. (“Wahhabi” actually does not even directly equal “Saudi government” despite the official status of the sect, and neither term is entirely congruent with the Saudi population, or rather, populations. )

Wahhabis, the portrayal goes, have been behind almost everything bad among Muslims. (One may see in all this a possible reversion to the simplistic dialectic thinking of the author's sentimental Trotskyism) Not that Schwartz's point is far off at all – the looming prominence of Wahhabism, a Saudi-based, dysfunctionally retrograde, Bedouin-rooted sect, in Islamic religious and social institutions is all too real.

That came about because the Arabian peninsula hit the oil jackpot in the days soon after the British bestrode the globe like a colossus and decided to bitch-slap their uppity Hashemite friends via helping the Bedouin al-Saud family take over Mecca. But one cannot overstate Schwartz's relentless overstatement of that simplistic Wahhabi v. Sufi dialectic.

Style & Substance

On other matters, I cannot catalogue clear substantive flaws of this book, not being entirely familiar with the full range of Sufi-dom, or Islam for that matter. More informed (Sufi-sticated?) readers may pick up on some oversights, and a suspicious Amazon reviewer here suggests a few serious ones, but Schwartz does manage to get across what is generally likely to be the case, that

a) Sufism is itself rather varied in its outlook, ranging from traditional to flexible schools,
b) it helped spread and embed Islam in mainstream societies, and
c) has had many effects on Islam as commonly practiced.

For myself, I found Schwartz making a valiant, and by all appearances sincere, attempt to suggest that the mystical nature of Sufism possesses such a core goodness of spirit that it might justify the subtitle's aspiration for global harmony (more on that shortly). But even your humble religion-friendly reviewer here must confess that I find cultivated mysticism in all faiths to consist unduly of gibberishy contradictions set to poetry of varying quality. (Sounding something like: “I am the fish and I am the hook/ I loved the Is and the Is-Not/ I breathe dawn and I cough dusk/ Rejoice in My sun-graced fishwalking”, or possibly worse than my fabrication here.)

A bigger problem is the book's organization. I lost a feel for strong logical order rather early on. It seemed I was busy reading a poetic reflection or two (can I say Rumi-nations?) when all of a sudden I am reading a catalogue of Turkish Sufi schools, and then I am part of a journey to some obscure saint's tomb in Central Asia. One page, sadly, is so incoherent it really reads like a bad translation of a foreign text reprinted verbatim. In fairness, however, there is a lot of meat throughout the book, if one wants to bite.

The Main Problem: How Well Religion Determines International Affairs

The biggest flaw of the book, however, is the one implicit in the subtitle for it assumes a premise which constitutes almost the whole fundamental poison in Middle East and West relations. The subtitle phrase, "The Road to Global Harmony” contains and feeds a widespread assumption that is so utterly and completely ultra-super-mega-dangerously wrong, wrong, wrong and wrong that rather than repeat the assumption I will assert its opposite here vehemently.

And I insist that those who have endured this review to this point should get out their pencils and write it down. Or at least copy and paste it indelibly on their neurons.

The accurate counterassumption to the prevalent and erroneous outlook that Schwartz presumes -- and so many others accept as well -- is this, listen up:

Religion and religiosity are, at the very very most, rather unreliable predictors or determinants of the foreign policy or global outlook of a person, institution, society, state, region or even “civilization”.

This applies even to the Vatican, ok?

From time to time, and place to place, the influence of religion on foreign relations will be stronger or less. But that is only because time to time and place to place are the true deciding factors in such matters.

If the whole world turned Sufi Muslim tomorrow or Wahhabi or Mennonite or agnostic, different communities and geographies and languages will still be smashing each other toothless without any coaching from deity, dervish or dominee (hat tip to you Calvinists out there). The Hundred Years war was fought by Catholics against Catholics.

Small groups of sneak-attack insurgents will be ever hanging out in Afghan caves, as others have been doing since the days Bactrian pagans were fighting the Alexander's Macdeonian pagans, and as back then not because of conflicts of religion particularly or necessarily.

Wahhabis helped America strangle the Soviet Union. Reliigous Wahhabis suicide-bombed the World Trade Center. Wahhabis have declared Shiites worse than infidels. Wahhabis have cut deals with Iran to arm Catholic Croats against Orthodox Serbs, and join in condemnations of Israel.

Non-religious worldviews also trade alliances. The atheist Communist Soviet Union aligned with paganish ex-Catholic totalitarian Hitler to invade heavily Catholic Poland. The atheist Soviet Union aligned with the Orthodox Church for moral support to fight Hitler. And people still haven't reached a basic consensus on where the Vatican, a centralized absolute monarchy, stood in all that, or where different communities of Catholics stood, many of whom blew each other up over the course of the second world war. (The current Pope was briefly part of the army that occupied and terrorized his beloved predecessor in an underground seminary.)

And after that Catholic intellectuals gave us both the anti-communist Cold War and Marxoid liberation theology.

Go to an American evangelical-type church. Ask their opinion on Middle East policy, for example. There won't be total uniformity inside the same church, and if I expand that to try a mostly white versus a mostly black church, the differences might be quite stark despite the near-identical theology, if not denomination. The reason: political outlooks depend a lot more on personal experience, interpersonal temperaments, and perceived communal interests than any theological formulae.

Rarely do religion's best features (love your neighbor as yourself / no compulsion in religion), or its worst (kill the infidel / stone the adulteress), affect what relationships or actions or opinions any person or a community or a state will have regarding outsiders.

At its strongest, in relations with outsiders, religion is a tribal-like magnet around which the ordinary iron filings of humanty may temporarily orient themselves -- but only when shaken intensely, and not for long. Thus now and then, religion can be important and even decisive, and certainly so the more religious a society is. But even when most active, religion's abstract dogmas, canons, ideals and mystiques remain minor intrusions and afterthoughts in the determination of policy, program, and outlook.

A good illustration of that may be found in the fact that Schwartz is not alone in the demographics I noted earlier. There is another prolific converted American Jewish writer of note – and also an ex-Marxist of sorts - - to a Sufi form of Islam: Abdullah Schleifer. (Schliefer's foreign policy as best as I can determine is not identical to Stephen Schwartz's, or at least lacks American neconservative dogmatics). Both current and past religions, even when working in lockstep, are rarely decisive in determining one's final global political vision.

For the reason of its acceptance of a tragically wrong implicit assumption regardng the decisiveness of religion in global affairs, Schwartz's book is fundamentally flawed. But in that regard, however, it is no worse than a lot of larger discussions about Middle East and global affairs.

Posted by Matthew Hogan at October 19, 2008 02:17 AM
Filed Under: Islam , MENA History , Ottoman Empire , Political Islam , Society & Culture

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I'm familiar with several Jewish American converts to Islam, and while I know (more than a phonebooth full) who are involved with Sufism (tariqas or Traditional Islam), I've also met salafis amongst them... political ideologies are all over the map.

I must say that I respect Schleifer, knowing several of his colleagues at AUC and his contributions to 'Control Room'; and he even has a story of meeting, and arguing with, Zawahiri:

Posted by: dawud at October 20, 2008 05:19 PM

Nice link.

Ooops, I kind of shifted the goal posts a bit in my description of the demographic niche: in the case of Schwartz I refered to his embrace and perserverance in neoconservativism as well as his background, which political outlook I think is rare among such converts, if not phone booth sized.

More generally though, as you note, American Jewish converts to Islam, and Sufi Islam, are politically diverse as any set of different individuals of different experiencesin life would be.

I too like Schleifer.

Posted by: matthew hogan at October 20, 2008 06:10 PM

“Schliefer's foreign policy as best as I can determine is not identical to Stephen Schwartz's?”

Dud link.

Posted by: Ahem at October 25, 2008 06:15 AM

Odd, will fix asap, sorry about that and thanks Ahem.

Posted by: matthew hogan at October 25, 2008 01:13 PM

I'll probably use this one. And fix up above as soon as able.

Posted by: matthew hogan at October 25, 2008 01:24 PM


Political beliefs are, at the very, very most, unreliable predictors or determinants of the foreign policy or global outlook of a person, institution, society, state, region or even “civilization".

Posted by: Ahem at October 25, 2008 05:41 PM

I'd knock a "very" or two off that one, but yeah.

Posted by: matthew hogan at October 25, 2008 11:22 PM

Thanks for clarifying something for me.

Do you employ “homo economicus” as the basis of your main analytical framework to avoid flabbergast overload?

Posted by: Ahem at October 27, 2008 01:38 AM

Not sure what will gast my flabber but homo economicus is not toally sufficient to account for the full weight of human irrationalities or non-raionalities, but it is also not bad as far as it goes. People do act inevitably for self-fulfillment and calculate accordingly (not always rationally or informedly).

Posted by: matthew hogan at October 27, 2008 08:45 AM

Your talent for Pun-Distriy is truly impressive. Honestly, I couldn't even hope to rise to 1/3 of your level, even if I liked puns.

Posted by: The Lounsbury at October 27, 2008 10:39 AM

Thank you.

I do think in the world of global disputes that wordplay is preferable to swordplay, especially as it allows one to act like a real pun in the s.

Posted by: matthew hogan at October 27, 2008 01:57 PM

Unrelated to this book, but since we agree on most (if not all) axioms of social mechanics, I was wondering if you didn't have a good reference book on the Israel lobby in the US.

I don't want anything that's going to repeat the yawn-provoking arguments about the IP issues. No "Jooz pull the strings of the universe" and no "you're an antisemite if you think there's such a lobby". I know the Arab Israeli conflict to the last detail, I've see it all a million times, so I don't care about that either.

I'm looking for something that, in the context of the US, could explain the history of this lobby, its evolution, how it came to be so influential, what makes its fortunes (and misfortunes) and in which circumstances, etc. I'd like more nuance than simple assertions - e.g. no simplistic "70 million Christian Zionists" (heck, the political perception, right or wong, is that it's probably less dangerous for one's career to be pro-choice than be less pro-Israeli than Netanyahu, so more pragmatic analysis of the underlying mechanics is what I would like to see). What's different (or not) about it when compared to other lobbies, whether community-related (e.g. any Mexican/Latino lobby) or not (e.g. NRA).

Everything I came across so far is just an unreadable piece of crap, with some underlying agenda or value judgement. In summary, I'm looking for something strictly descriptive, based on hard data, and rather scientific in its approach. Anything in mind?

Posted by: Shaheen [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 29, 2008 01:29 AM

not exactly what you were asking for, Shaheen, but John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt's report on the Ïsrael lobby" - http://www.lrb.co.uk/v28/n06/mear01_.html - does cover a lot of ground that you asked for, although it is largely a foreign policy argument that making middle eastern policy based solely on the interests of Israel has been a disaster for the US, not a historical analysis of the existence of AIPAC.

Posted by: dawud at October 29, 2008 10:03 AM

I think Mearsheimer and Walt overplay a bit and oversimplify.

Shaheen --

Try this one; no axe to grind (e.g. Findley) and very historical in focus, at least in the edition I recall from circa 1990s.

Then write a review here.:-)

Posted by: matthew hogan at October 29, 2008 11:30 AM

A good view of pressure group/lobbies from 1997 poll of congressional staffs (I think) with AIPAC as #2. Without clicking, guess number 1.


Posted by: matthew hogan at October 29, 2008 05:54 PM

Thanks guys.

You have a free (and summarized) draft version of Mearsheimer and Walt here.

I'll read it Matt. For the review, you'll have to wait though. I have a backlog of 7-8 books to read already, and accumulating as a result of an insane schedule.

Posted by: Shaheen [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 30, 2008 10:32 AM

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