This time the talk hosted by the Bosnian Institute is the important thing. This time it is about Islam. I’m not sure how I feel about that. I know that I want to hear Stephen Schwartz speak. I’ve just recently read his book, “The Two Faces of Islam”, a forceful and compelling work arguing against the teachings of Mohammed ibn Abd al Wahhab (or Wahhabism as it is often referred to), the official Saudi interpretation of Islam.
It is doubtful whether I’d have read the book were it not for this talk. Any serious historian of Islam knows that many of the tendencies lumped under the heading of “Wahhabism” have an extremely long tradition, beginning immediately after the death of the Prophet. Also they are strikingly similar to those found amongst movements as diverse as the Revolutionary France and Russia, and countless independence movements. Lastly it is too often easy to mix Wahhabism with a neo-Salafist (emulating the first Muslims) doctrine that argues for a strict interpretation of Islam without ‘historical accretions’ that is a product of post-colonial, anti-Socialist politics and economics.
The spread of Wahhabi ideology has as much due with the failure of other systems to present results as it has to do to the money backing it. This has more to do with education, urbanisation and dislocation than to any particular respect for Saudi leadership of the Muslim world. The Saudi doctrine, backed by as many petrodollars that exist, would have had little effect if there were no potential adherents discontented with their lives.
Despite these misgivings, I ended up finding “The Two Faces of Islam” a very well-researched, and extremely well-written book. There were obvious gaps (South & South East Asia with more than half a billion Muslims, barely get a look in while Turkish Islam is disproportionately well represented), but the book was written with a great deal of feeling and passion and very far from a simple polemic. So I very much want to hear Schwartz speak, but I am hesitant to hear him in the context of Bosnia, even if his talk is titled “Balkan Islam: the indigenous European alternative”.
Despite being the main victims of the Balkans war, Bosnians remained a mixed lot, defying a singular identity of being only Muslim, just Muslim, exclusively Muslim, that was being thrust upon them. Even now Bosnia-Hercegovina barely has a majority Muslim population, and even they identify themselves largely as Bosnians first and foremost. Milosevic’s regime began the war with the phantom of Muslim fanaticism, and the Bosnians were beaten with this stick. It is difficult to see how most of the Bosnian participants at the talk would react to being praised for this very stick. Peter Maass, who was the Washington Post correspondent in the Balkans ends his book, “Love Thy Neighbor”, by remarking on the fragility of the institutions of civilisation that don’t discriminate on the basis of race and religion. As a personal observation he reflects that it makes him understand something of what his own Jewish identity might have meant in another time and place, something that he had never had to confront [Note 1:He also mentions that Elie Wiesel confronted President Bill Clinton about the situation in the Balkans at the inauguration of the Holocaust Memorial Museum and asked for something to be done. In contrast Efraim Halevy, the former head of Mossad, mentions in his book “Man in the Shadows” that Ariel Sharon had suggested backing Milosevic on the argument that somebody following an anti-Muslim policy might be a natural ally for Israel. The suggestion was rejected.].
Doesn’t the meaning of the verse about there being no coercion in faith logically extend to mean that nobody should be forcibly defined wholly by their religion? And isn’t the true evil of ‘ethnic cleansing’ the fact that it is as much a rape of the soul as it is a violence to the flesh?
And yet, isn’t it extreme hypocrisy of my own to resist the allusion? There have been, and continue to be, other tragedies. There have been, and continue to be, brave people willing to resist the lies of tyrants. Isn’t part of the reason that Bosnia is special to me, the fact that Muslims were attacked? Doesn’t part of my interest stem from the fact my name is Omair, the same as that of the first Muslim soldier to die on the battlefields of Islam?
The hypocrisy takes on a sharper edge because it is Ramadan, and I am fasting, one of the few disciplines that I keep.
I dawdle on the way to the talk. There is no point in arriving too early. There will be drinks and snacks, and I will feel a bit of a fool if I have to avoid them until the right time, and then start eating non-stop. Luckily iftar, the time to open the fast, is just before seven in the evening, the time the talk is supposed to begin. I pick up nuts and a packet of chocolate fudge along the way, and then discover a bakery before the University of Westminster building. The pain au chocolat is tempting, and a quick glance at my watch confirms that the time is correct. I tuck in, and the rest of my walk is conducted with a sugar high, with all thoughts of hypocrisy and angst flung by the wayside.
There are more attendees than usual at this meeting. I nod to some acquaintances and offer the fudge that I am eating to friends. It is a silly thing, but I’m pleased not to be opening my fast on my own. The secrecy of the pleasure only adds to it. With a glass of orange juice in hand, I wander over to the books on display. One of them is titled “Sarajevo Rose”, an history of the Jewish community in the city. I had seen it at an earlier visit to the Bosnian Institute and had mentally added it to my reading list. It hadn’t registered that Stephen Schwartz was the author of that one too.
Then the talking ebbs, and we make our way to the seats. Before the talk there is an announcement. Somebody who I can only describe as a gentleman of the old school gets up to say that he is part of a foundation that is working in Kosovo. They are currently raising funds for a particular school there. “This town was captured by Serbian forces. All the young men and boys over the age of seventeen were separated from the rest of the town’s population, and then executed, with a shot to the head.”
The words are blunt. The violence is too easy to imagine. Various people in the room know such towns, either as Bosnians, or as those who have worked with widows, rape victims, and the other detritus of the Balkans war.
“This is a school with Catholic and Muslim children. The teachers are good, and the students are enthusiastic.” His words are crisp and sure. “But they need supplies and equipment. We are having a fundraising dinner, the tickets are £65 a piece. If you need to know more details, I will be here at the end of the talk, and will be happy to provide them.”
The quality of silence that he leaves behind tells us that we are now firmly back in the Balkans, even if we are sitting in a room just of Oxford Street. In the aftermath Quintin Hoare, the director of the Bosnian Institute, introduces Stephen Schwartz.
Schwartz begins with a digression about Islam and Islamic institutions in the United States, and the influence of the ‘Wahhabi lobby’, as he terms it. From there he moves to the Dublin-based European Council for Fatwa and Research. It takes about ten minutes or so before I realise that this is not going to be a talk about the history of Islam in the Balkans. It is, instead, a talk where Schwartz is arguing between the leadership of immigrant Muslims and Saudi-funded clerics versus the leadership of European (Ottoman, Balkan) traditions. He talks of the latter as “us”, “we”, and gradually it becomes clear that his full name now is Stephen Suleyman Schwartz. A son of a Jewish father, but with no particular faith that he called his own, he had gone to visit Sarajevo to research the Jewish community living there. He had come into contact with a Sufi Islamic order, and become a Muslim. He is currently the head of the Center for Islamic Pluralism [Note 2: http://www.islamicpluralism.org/bios.htm ] based in Washington DC. He is a believer and a willing participant to a conflict that he has made his own, arriving there through a faith he had found.
“People call it a second Holocaust, but this second Holocaust wasn’t completed because the victims were able to raise an army and fight in defence. They fought honourably, with clean hands, as lions of Islam.
“I don’t often speak of this but my grandfather escaped the Holocaust by illegally immigrating to the United States, but both he, and my father, suffered terribly from the guilt of surviving. It destroyed them, and both of them ended up committing suicide.
“There are so many similarities between Islam and Judaism, and so much of the criticism that I hear now makes me think, ‘Hey, hold on, Christian Europe has said these things before. The same criticism about the cruelty of Muslims when it comes to the killing of animals according to halal procedures was the same one said about the cruelty of Jews in killing animals according to kosher regulations. That road leads to Auschwitz.’
“Much of the Western media has no understanding of Islam. They think that a fatwa is a death sentence, and that sharia is a totalitarian system. I tell them that I live under sharia, as any Muslim trying to live as a Muslim lives under sharia. I tell them to go to Israel where they have halakha courts, and sharia courts.
“Everywhere I go to speak people want to hear about Bosnia. In Indonesia they have a list of the top ten Muslims. King Fahd of Saudi Arabia never made it on that list, but [the Bosnian President] Alija Izetbegovic made it to the top for ten years running.”
Despite the breadth of his interests and the range of his work, his story is a deeply personal one. He wishes to believe in the Bosnian Muslims, the Bosniaks, as the lions of Islam, who held up a standard higher than that of their enemies, and of vacillating, duplicitous Christian Europe. It is not a belief that all, or any, of the people in the room share. Most of the Bosnians present are deeply European. It was an identity denied to them, and instead they suffered for the myth of the “lions of Islam”. It isn’t a label that they are willing to take on, as a number of interjections make plain, even by a person who praises them for it.
They have no wish to be called mujahedin. The word has cost them too much already. And there is knowledge too. They suffered more than just physically, and even if in the final analysis the Bosnians committed very few crimes and nothing in comparison to the genocidal war that was unleashed against them, only a blind believer would accept that the Bosnia that emerged from the war was as clean as the one that entered it.
Quintin asks the first question. “My son wrote a book about the subject, and isn’t it one of the tragedies of the conflict that the Bosnian Army that started out with Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks became completely dominated by the Bosniaks by the end?”
Another audience member asks, accuses, “Are you saying that conservative religious leaders should have a greater say in public life? That will just drag us back two hundred years behind Europe.”
A woman asks, “You say that reform isn’t really necessary, but there are serious issues dealing with the position of women in society in sharia. Nobody gives up power willingly, how can this happen without reform?”
One British lady who set up camps for refugees asks, “I’m Jewish, and part of the Reform movement. We have women rabbis, and gay ones. Do you think this will happen in Islam?”
Schwartz has answers, but not ultimately convincing ones for many of his questioners. He has faith, though, and he tries to share it with one final example. He relates a story of a journalistic colleague who discovered that one of the synagogues had been built centuries ago on the order of a Muslim ruler and had been maintained until 1941 through the awqaf (Muslim charitable trust) funds.
“Why,” his colleague had questioned Schwartz, “would a Muslim do that?”
Schwartz had paused, marvelling at the ignorance and prejudice that such a question revealed, and finally replied, “You know, I’m going to let you figure that one out.”
It is clear that Schwartz derives great comfort in finding a people who had, at times, behaved with great nobility. It is also clear that he has taken sides to defend them when they have been so evilly treated. It is deeply moving that Bosnia’s story can provide comfort for a generous man whose forefathers suffered so much. It seems, though, more his story than Bosnia’s. But then who am I, of all people, to pass that judgement?
The piece is written by Omair Ahmad who follows his Among the Bosnians I with this narrative report of a talk titled “Balkan Islam: The Indigenous European Alternative”. The speaker was Stephen Schwartz author of the book, “The Two Faces of Islam”, a 'forceful and compelling work arguing against ...(...Wahhabism as it is often referred to), the official Saudi interpretation of Islam'. Please leave your comments and address them to Omair.
Coming Next: The Introductory Extract from Omair Ahmad's forthcoming book Encounters