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The Two Faces of Islam: Saudi Fundamentalism and Its Role in Terrorism

Product Description
Since its formation in 1932, Saudi Arabia has been ruled by two interdependent families. The Al Sa’uds control politics and the descendants of Ibn Abd al-Wahhab impose Wahhabism—a violent, fanatical perversion of the pluralistic Islam practiced by most Muslims. Stephen Schwartz argues that Wahhabism, vigorously exported with the help of Saudi oil money, is what incites Palestinian suicide bombers, Osama bin Laden, and other Islamic terrorists throughout the world.

Schwartz reveals the hypocrisy of the Saudi regime, whose moderate facade conceals state-sponsored repression and terrorism. He also raises troubling questions about Wahhabi infiltration of America’s Islamic community and about U.S. oil companies sanitizing Saudi Arabia’s image for the West. This sharp analysis and eye-opening expose illuminates the background to the September 11th terrorist attacks and offers new approaches for U.S. policy toward its closest ally in the Middle East.

The Two Faces of Islam: Saudi Fundamentalism and Its Role in Terrorism


  1. This is a very peculiar book. Schwartz takes a particular form of Islam–Sufism–which is certainly not the mainstream of the religion, and tries to use it as the yardstick by which to measure any other form of Islam. The result, as with most ventures in using the wrong tools, is a poor book.

    Schwartz actually tells the reader very little about Islam, even his favored interpretation. Instead, he rants about how a strict traditionalist form of the religion must be the heresy. He makes it very clear that he doesn’t like Saudis. Perhaps that’s why he’s never visited the country?

    But if you don’t actually know your enemy, then how do you critize him honestly? Schwartz hasn’t figured that part out.

    The book is worthless.
    Rating: 1 / 5

  2. In line with its title, the author of this book comes himself across as a bit of a Janus Head: an adherent of Sufism and religious pluralism on the one hand, a staunchly patriotic political conservative, on the other. The Two Faces of Islam is not the work of a detached analyst of political Islam, but an unabashed diatribe against ‘Wahhabism’ and the Saudi role in promoting this strand of Islam. Here lies the main weakness of this book: although Schwartz provides us with many interesting facts and noteworthy observations regarding the rich pluralist heritage of Islam, he is so selective in his argumentation against Wahhabism that it undermines his credibility.

    For example, in one and the same chapter, “Sword of Dishonor”, Schwartz claims that the US should let Uzbek president Karimov get on with exterminating the Muslim extremists who are terrorizing his country, but that Washington should protest on every occasion against Russia’s repression of the Chechens. His argument for this inconsistency: The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and Hizb al-Tahrir are of a distinctly Wahhabi signature and thus a menace to Central-Asia’s centuries-old pluralist Islam. Therefore they must be routed. What are the guarantees that Karimov will only target ‘Wahhabis’ and leave ‘Traditionalists’ alone? Chechnya’s Sufi tradition, on the other hand, has supposedly survived intact and its representatives are in the vanguard of the struggle against a Russian-Orthodox threat. Since the assault on a Moscow theater it can hardly be denied that extremism has also taken root in Chechnya.

    Schwartz is so eager to lump all Sunni extremists together that he refuses to believe Bin Laden is anti-Riyadh. It is all a ploy to mislead the West. Yet at the same time he engages in what amounts to an apologetics of Khomeini and the Iranian revolution. Because he was educated as a philosopher and initiated in ‘Irfan or gnosticism, the Ayatollah does not fit into Schwartz’ paradigm of militant Islam. Instead Khomeini is credited as a “standup guy” who at least makes no secrets about his anti-Western views. Anti-Khomeinism in the West was fed by the Saudis because of their vehement anti-Shi’ism. Schwartz goes even further, Khomeini is implicitly dubbed a tolerant pluralist because he taught philosophy, was mystically inclined and wrote poetry in the same vein as the great Sufis. In furthering the cause of Sufism Schwartz could have selected a more convincing argument.

    In making his case against Saudi-sponsored Wahhabism, Schwartz is further hampered by having never visited the Kingdom and the use of secondary sources only. His selection of these is also questionable. It features Said Aburish but not Mamoun Fandy’s excellent study of Saudi dissidents. Schwartz reviles explorer and royal confidant Harry St. John Philby although there is no evidence in the bibliography that he has read any of Philby’s books or even Elizabeth Monroe’s biography. T.E. Lawrence, however, is presented as a pure idealist, while certain studies shed a very different light on his persona, revealing both a deeply disturbed psyche and political duplicity.

    This selective use of material also explains his erroneous assessment of the succession question in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi ambassador to Washington, Prince Bandar, and former intelligence chief (now envoy to London), Prince Turki al-Faisal, are certainly high profile figures. But in the line-up for the throne the governors of Riyadh and the oil-rich Eastern Province — one a full brother, the other the oldest surviving son of ailing King Fahd — figure more prominently, yet their names – and those of some other key contenders — are not even mentioned.

    His report of the Najran uprising in early 2000 fails to notice that the Shi’ites clashing there with security forces are Ismai’ilis (Seveners), while those in the Eastern Province belong to the Twelvers branch. Although the regime does regard the former also as a liability, failing to make the distinction is not only factually incorrect but also a misjudgment of the potential political impact.

    In his description of Wahhabism Schwartz lowers himself to the level of outright demonization. While it can hardly be denied that Wahhabism is rife with bigotry, difficult to engage in constructive debate, and generally not conducive to intellectual maturing, an attempt should be made to understand how and under which circumstances it developed, and how it is rooted in Islamic tradition. Whether we like it or not, Wahhabism is a factor of very considerable significance in the Muslim World as Schwartz is admitting by writing a book about it. Instead Schwartz makes himself guilty of what he accuses Wahhabism of: dualism and the inherent demonization of “the Other”.

    Schwartz qualifies its namesake, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, as a “monster” and calls the inhabitants of Central Arabia “savages”, prone to sedition since the time of early Islam. He also implies that Ibn Abd al-Wahhab was bound to dissent due to his affiliation with the Bani Tamim: because the Bani Tamim had once joined the Kharijites, a descendant of the tribe is bound — a millenium later – to concoct an equally uncompromising form of Islamic revivalism! In an attempt to further soil the Saudis’ reputation, Schwartz wrongly represents them as belonging to the Bani Hanifa, a tribe associated with Musaylama, ‘the false Prophet’ active in Central Arabia during the days of the Prophet Muhammad. The Al Saud descend from the eastern Arabian Dur’u and the clan’s ancestor Mani al-Muraydi was only in the 15th century invited by the Bani Hanifa to take up residence in Najd .

    With his eclecticism and invectives Schwartz has undermined his in itself sympathetic plea for pluralist Islam. Militancy, extremism, and other intolerant forms of Islamic revivalism have rendered the atmosphere in the Muslim world rather insalubrious and Saudi politics have some very unsavory aspects, but Schwartz’ approach will do little to clear the air. There are certainly two faces of Islam, but readers would have been better served if the writer had elaborated more on that pluralist Islam instead of this negativist account of what Islam should not be about.
    Rating: 1 / 5

  3. The main thesis of this book, that the Saudi elite seem to be our friends on the surface while encouraging fundamentalist extremism behind the scenes, should be very clear to everyone with a brain by now. Schwartz shows plenty of evidence of how the Saudis and Wahhabism effectively have been deceiving the west with some very frightening results around the world. That’s the main message of the book and it’s right on target.

    Other parts of it are a lot harder to swallow. He seems to think Iran is pretty harmless, which seems ridiculous given the latest elections and the nuclear bid. Without giving any evidence, he asserts that Bush really wants to start putting the pressure on the Saudis and do the right thing while it’s Cheney that’s really to blame for the continued whitewashing by our government of the Saudi role in terrorism. Last I checked, Dubya’s still president and he’s to blame if steps aren’t being taken to really alter our relationship with the Saudis.
    Rating: 3 / 5

  4. The author’s suggestion that pre-Wahhabist Islam had been peaceful, and the Ottoman Empire tolerant, is a fallacy better understood in the context of his own conversion to Islam. Mr. Schwartz is known among his co-religionists as Suleyman Ahmad and has an eccentic entry on >< about his relgious experience. This is essential information about the author and his agenda. It is unfortunate that it is missing from the blurb or from the book itself. Rating: 1 / 5


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