There is nothing surprising about the last name Schwartz appearing on the roster of speakers for the right-wing Zionist Organization of America, but Stephen Suleyman Schwartz is no ordinary Schwartz. The son of a Jewish father, Schwartz later became a Muslim and is now the director of the Center for Islamic Pluralism.
Next week, at a Washington gathering of ZOA activists, who staunchly oppose Israel’s plan to pullout of Gaza and part of the northern West Bank, Schwartz is scheduled to deliver a speech on Saudi fundamentalism. Also speaking during ZOA’s advocacy mission will be Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Daniel Ayalon.
As the founder of the Center for Islamic Pluralism, Schwartz has been battling against established Muslim organizations, which he says are Saudi-controlled and promote the violent Wahhabi stream of Islam. Schwartz, who served as the Forward’s Washington correspondent in 2000 and 2001, says his goal is to emphasize the many non-violent streams of Islam. He has written about the topic for the neoconservative magazine The Weekly Standard and in books.
The press release announcing Schwartz’s June 21 appearance at the ZOA gathering calls him a “well-known author and columnist,” but does not mention his personal religious journey, nor his new middle name, Suleyman.
Schwartz was born to a Christian mother and a Jewish father who had lost most of his family in the Holocaust. Both parents, he says, were “very anti-religious.” Schwartz says he didn’t even know of his Jewish heritage until he was 12.
Schwartz developed his interest in Sufiism — a stream of Sunni Islam — while reporting from war-torn Bosnia during the 1990s. In 1997 he made his profession of faith to Islam.
He says he has retained a great deal of interest in Judaism since his acceptance of Islam, citing his upcoming book on Balkan Jewish history, “Balkan Rose.”
Schwartz resists the idea that he converted to Islam because, as he puts it, “I didn’t have a religion before.”
For Schwartz, the real conversion was political. After growing up in a radical left-wing home — Schwartz was an active Communist until 1984 — he began to abandon his political roots in response to turmoil in Venezuela.
Many in the organized Muslim community have criticized Schwartz for his allegiance to right-wing forces in the Jewish community (see accompanying article). Schwartz says that he has avoided the Israel-Palestine issue, but that he agrees totally with the ZOA’s harsh critique of Saudi Arabia and Wahhabism, which will be the subject of his talk.
“I have a right to decide who my allies are,” Schwartz said. “I will meet and work with anybody who supports my agenda.”
Schwartz said he has had “informal dialogue” with the ZOA in the past, but declined to say whether he had ever done work for the organization. ZOA’s national president, Morton Klein, did not return calls seeking comment.
The scheduled ZOA appearance has already caused a bit of a stir, according to Schwartz. He says that some of the organization’s members have tried to block his appearance because of a line in one of his books stating that Prime Minister Sharon had become a “symbol of intransigence” in much of the world. As for his religious identity, Schwartz says he has never gotten much grief from anyone other than Christian conservatives.
Schwartz says he has been told more than once: “‘You joined that satanic cult that worships the Arabian moon god and you’re going to burn in Hell.’” But he shrugs off the criticism. “This is America — a guy named Schwartz becomes Muslim — what else is new?”