A Singular View of the Mideast

A profile of : Abdallah Schleifer

 Written by Simon Houpt   This article appeared in TAM (The American Muslim)

A Jewish American who converted to Islam, controversial Cairo journalist and pundit Abdallah (formerly Mark) Schleifer brings a critical eye to all sides in the festering dispute. Things have gone from bad to worse to horrendous,  he tells SIMON HOUPT .

The past three years have been tough on Abdallah Schleifer. Call him a one man global village, driven by an internal version of the major geopolitical conflicts playing out across the world.

An American living in Cairo, he has had to defend his homeland from the Arab world’s reflexive anti-Americanism. A Muslim convert from Judaism, he has harshly criticized the Islamist terrorists fouling the name of his religion while prosecuting their so-called holy wars. A journalist who values objectivity, he has watched as the truth about America’s actions in the Middle East has fallen prey to the chauvinistic biases of reporters at outlets across the spectrum, from Arab news network Al-Jazeera to U.S. cable channels.

The name doesn’t ring a bell? Maybe you remember him as Mark Schleifer. That was what he was called in the 1970s and 80s when, as a Middle East correspondent for NBC News, he delivered reports characterized by balance, historical perspective and passion fed by the personal understanding of what was at stake in the region.

Since 1988, he has directed the Adham Center for Television Journalism at the American University in Cairo, teaching a student body evenly divided into Egyptians and Americans about the need for truth.

This month, during a series of long conversations across a crackling transatlantic phone line from his home in Cairo, the 68-year-old Mr. Schleifer spoke with growing distress about the dangers of religious fundamentalism fuelling the multiplying conflicts in the Middle East and Chechnya, the horrors of Sudan and the American campaign in Iraq.

‘Things have gone from bad to worse to horrendous’, he says, referring to the seething emotions between the West and the Middle East.  I’m appalled by the tremendous gulf. It’s almost like mirror images. There are forces in America today that are almost aching to take on one billion Muslims. And we know there are forces in the Muslim world, i.e. al-Qaeda, radical Islamism, that would love to see one billion Muslims take on America. And I’m appalled not just as an America, I’m appalled as a Muslim.

Mr. Schleifer is appalled because it was precisely the opposite impulses of traditional Islam , its abhorrence of xenophobia and political engagement, its focus on the individual relationship between man and God, its desire to embrace the worlds physical beauty,  that drew him toward the religion in the first place.

It all began in the late 1950s. A few years out of school, his term of duty in the U.S. infantry safely behind him, Mr. Schleifer was working at the advertising firm Young & Rubicam in New York City, a short distance from where he had grown up on Long Island, and contributing articles to the Village Voice. An editor asked him to interview poet Allen Ginsberg for a profile.

‘Ginsberg was extraordinary’, Mr. Schleifer says. ‘He was a mentor, and very seductive. Im speaking in metaphorical terms, of course, although he was seductive for some people in other than metaphorical terms.  And he was very flattering, you know? I mean, he took an interest. Im a young poet, a young writer, and here’s Allen, who two years earlier had come out with Howl, the most extraordinary work of the decade.  I was completely entranced, so I threw over my job at Young & Rubicam and joined his band of merry beatniks, and just started hanging out with the whole beat scene, which was New York, San Francisco, Mexico City, Paris and Tangier.’

Shortly after Fidel Castro seized power in Cuba, Mr. Schleifer went to the island with some of his beatnik friends, who were enthralled by the revolutionary leader.

Every one of us were writing poems for Fidel’, he recalls, his memories kissed softly with a self-conscious overlay of historical irony.  'You know, he had a beard, he wore a field jacket, I’m sure he slept around a lot, probably smoked hash , that was just our assumption. He was a very Rambodian figure. And some of us stayed with that, the fascination with him, even after a couple of months when he became a little unfashionable because of the firing squads.  I was radicalized, like many people, by Fidels revolution, and came to see myself as some sort of radical Marxist, or whatever.

But Mr. Schleifer, with growing horror, watched the Stalinization of the revolution, when Mr. Castro turned everything over to the Cuban communist party. He had read Arthur Koestlers Darkness at Noon, and had seen the bloody Soviet crackdown of the 1956 Hungarian revolution. I said, My God, that was all true. I could see it happening again.

He fled to Morocco, with no particular interest in the Arabs and Islam. ‘I was going there because I was a hippie disillusioned with the revolution and that was a beautiful place where we went, as part of my set, he says.

Meanwhile, his fellow beatniks were dying like flies: either overdosing or bank holdups  you know, because there was a certain romance with crime revolutionary activism, going off like Che did on some little thing.

And there in Tangier, having embraced a daisy chain of philosophical inquiry throughout his life that ran from the Beat-inspired drug experimentation through agnosticism and communism, he fell apart. IӒd just about pressed as far as you can press on the walls of Western thought, he says.

Still, Mr. Schleifer was soothed by the physical beauty of Morocco and the cordial and almost courtly behavior of the people. He hungered for their traditional sense of community. Everyone was very polite, he says. There was no religious xenophobia. No one would insult your Christianity or Judaism.  This was traditional Islam. There’s a phrase in the Koran that says: ‘Don’t ridicule other peoples religion, or they’ll ridicule yours.  I was deeply moved, he recalls.  ‘I saw people who were at peace with themselves, in contrast to my disquiet and unhappiness.

He was also deeply unsettled, because he didn’t believe in God, so had no chance of embracing Islam. But one day in early 1965, back in New York, he had a startling experience. In the depth of despair, he called out to the heavens for some sort of sign.  Opening the Koran, his eyes fell on a phrase that said, ‘Know that God is beyond your comprehension’. That was good enough for him.  He changed his name to Abdallah and became a practicing Muslim.

In time, even his parents came around to his conversion, recognizing that the religion had given structure to his life.  Mr. Schleifer moved to the Old City of Jerusalem, where he worked for a Jordanian daily newspaper and witnessed the siege of the city in 1967, then moved to Amman to write a book about the war. He began doing pickup work for The New York Times and then NBC. They wouldn’t let me broadcast as Abdallah Schleifer in the seventies’  he says. They just thought that was too weird, so I broadcast as Mark Schleifer.

This summer, Mr. Schleifer served as executive producer on Control Room, a documentary about Al-Jazeeras coverage of the Iraq war. He is ambivalent about the Arab news channel, which received qualified permission for access to Canadian cable systems in July.

He admires the way in which it has shaken the Arab world. ‘Prior to Al-Jazeera,  television journalism did not exist’, he says approvingly, outlining how it was the first outlet to offer an alternative to the state run propaganda broadcasts dominating the region. But he feels that the channels journalists are sometimes hamstrung by a flawed pan-Arab nationalism.

After 40 years in the region, Mr. Schleifer brings a rare legitimacy to his criticism of all sides. He attacks the extraordinary naivetө, provinciality or stupidity in the Arab world, which so misunderstands the rest of the world and which tends to blame Israel for so many of its problems. He also outlines the complaints of the Arab street for Americas double standard toward Israel and the Arab nations.

                                                                    Abdallah Schleifer in conversation with President Anwar Sadat of Egypt

                                                                    Abdallah Schleifer in conversation with President Anwar Sadat of Egypt

Mr. Schleifer is depressed by the ability of Osama bin Laden and other terrorists to exploit the streets anger, particularly since violence is ultimately counterproductive to any legitimate cause.  But he also is merciless toward the American interests who seek to overhaul the region, especially members of the extremist premillennial Christian right wing who inflame with anti-Islamic rhetoric.

Bin Laden picks up on it, he notes. These thousands of radical Islamic websites pick up on it and say, See, this is what the Americans really believe.’ Theyll quote that right-wing American woman [Ann Coulter] who said, ‘Lets nuke ‘em all and convert  them to Christianity.’

In the end, Mr. Schleifer agrees that the only way Islamist terrorism will be defeated is if Muslims themselves wage war against it and take back their religion from those who have turned it into a vicious revolutionary ideology, like fascism or communism.

This is a religion where your ongoing goal at every given minute is to be at peace, he says, with sadness lining his words. So its terribly depressing when all these crimes are being committed by people shouting, ‘Allahu Akbar.’ ( God is great.) Thats supposed to be a wonderful thing. It implies there’s nothing else as great as God’, he says. But instead its become a battle cry for terror. That’s a terrible feeling.

Simon Houpt is a member of The Globe and Mails New York bureau.

Originally published in the Saturday, September 18, 2004 issue of the Globe and Mail in the Focus This Week Section.  Reprinted with permission of Abdallah Schleifer

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