Sufis, Islam, and Democracy
by Stephen Schwartz
The first thing that must be said, and said again today, as it was during the Spanish civil war 75 years ago, is that the combat in Libya is not the private affair of the Libyans, but the cause of all civilized humanity.
But as the U.S. and NATO have commenced their military intervention against Libyan dictator Mu'ammar Al-Qadhdhāfi, Western political and media leadership circles have once more displayed a depressing characteristic of their recent involvements with the Islamic lands. That is, utter ignorance is masked by "common unwisdom." The U.S.-NATO response to the terror in Libya, as admirable as its intention and execution may be, has seen repetition of commentaries and regurgitation of advice and "expertise" that would be comical if lives were not at stake.
The same global intellectual strata that were caught by surprise when the Balkan wars began in 1991, were equally bewildered when the late Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, stood aside in confusion during the uprising of the Green movement in Iran in 2009, and were confounded into silence by the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, along with the turmoil in Bahrain and Yemen, have suddenly become querulous "authorities" on the Libyan opposition. Knowing nothing of Libyan history, a topic easy enough to research, they question, from both the left and right sides of the political spectrum, the democratic bona fides of the Libyan freedom fighters. Jihadists, we are told, have infiltrated the Libyan opposition – the same lie purveyed by Al-Qadhdhāfi himself, as he purports to be the victim of an al-Qaida operation. In addition, rumors circulate in Western capitals that Lebanese Shia Hezbollah terrorists have joined the struggle against the Libyan tyrant, even though there are no Shia Muslims in Libya. By contrast, the presence of African and Serbian mercenaries fighting for Al-Qadhdhāfi has received little or no attention.
In reality, it is relatively easy to gauge the ideological direction of the Libyan rebels by their use of the pre-1969 monarchist flag of King Idris, who lived from 1889 to 1983. Although some Westerners speculate that the adoption of the Idrisian banner is a matter of tactical opportunism, few people anywhere in the world are prepared to die for an emblem symbolizing values they do not share. And the heritage of the Libyan monarchist standard is particular and evocative. King Idris ruled Libya from 1951 to the Al-Qadhdhāfi coup of 1969, and was also master of the Senussi Sufi order, one of the most remarkable exemplars of the Islamic spiritual tradition.
Will the Libyan Sufis assume a leading role in the battle against Al-Qadhdhāfi? The probability of this is very high. Will Westerners comprehend the value of Sufi participation in the Libyan struggle, as well as in the advancing crisis in Syria and revival of the opposition movement in Iran? The probability that Westerners will not recognize or appreciate the Sufi contribution to the process of Arab and Muslim democratisation is equally high.
Libya presents the clearest case of a popular upsurge within an Islamic culture in which Sufis historically enjoyed great influence and prestige, but where the mystics are ignored by the same "experts" who did not anticipate the collapse of Yugoslavia, the invasion of Kuwait, the Iranian Green movement, or the new Arab Revolt. Some ask if Senussi Sufism could have survived 32 years of al-Qadhdhāfi's tyranny. Yet Sufism resisted 75 years of suppression in the Muslim regions of the former Soviet Union, 63 years of Chinese imperialism in Eastern Turkestan, 45 years of surpassingly brutal repression in the Communist Albania of Enver Hoxha, plus eight additional years of persecution in Serbian-ruled Kosovo, and, let us not forget, 80 years under ban in the Saudi kingdom dominated by the most extreme form of Islamic fundamentalism: Wahhabism.
The great Western historian of Islam Bernard Lewis has described Sufis as "peaceful but not pacifist," and every Muslim territory that has experienced efforts at liberation in the past 32 years possesses a distinguished Sufi history. These include Iran, Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan, Kurdistan, Chechnya, Bosnia-Hercegovina, Kosovo, and now Libya. In Somalia, resistance to the terrorist Al-Shabaab, a movement inspired by Wahhabism, has been lead by Sufis, but that phenomenon has gained little more than footnotes in Western media. Sufi-oriented Islamic movements such as the Alevis in Turkey and Kurdistan are a bulwark of secularism against the ideological aggression of the Justice and Development Party headed by Recep Tayyip Erdogan. But the Alevis must also work hard for recognition of their victimisation and their commitment to democratic values.
The bloody confrontation in Libya has also turned the direction of Arab and Islamic democratisation away from the easy path of mass demonstrations, abdication, and "soft landings" for both the rulers and the populace, as seen in Tunisia and Egypt. From Tripoli, it is probable that the Arab liberation campaign will move to Damascus, and the dictatorship of the weak and deficient Bashar Al-Assad. Syria is also a great country in Sufi history, and Syrian Sufis have kept Saudi-Wahhabi radicals from penetrating it – although the radical Muslim Brotherhood has a significant Syrian presence. The fall of Al-Assad's regime would deny the homicidal and hateful Tehran demagogues their most important ally.
The repressive bodies of the Iranian regime long ago became aware that, although their country is an outstanding contributor to the development of Sufism, Sufi orders like the Nimatullahi-Gonabadis and the heterodox Ahl-e Haqq or "People of Truth" represent a spiritual alternative to the distorted "Islamic revolution" imposed by official clerics and their political pawns, exemplified by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The Iranian state has conducted sustained attempts to wipe out the dissenting Sufis, and a particularly hallucinated Iranian radical pseudo-intellectual, Payam Fazlinejad, has composed a spurious politico-historical analysis claiming that the U.S. government intends to use Iranian Sufis as "knights of a cultural NATO" to stir a peaceful overthrow of the Tehran apparatus.
Fazlinejad's conspiracy theories claim to link unrelated and irrelevant events in a grand conspiracy against the Tehran rulers. These include the award of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Literature to the German-Romanian author Herta Mueller, and recognition by the Rotary Club, a charitable institution in the global business community, of 2003 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian human rights activist. In what passes for Fazlinejad's mind, publication of Mueller's work, The Land of Green Plums, in Persian translation, represented incitement to overthrow of the Iranian clerics. This fling into paranoia is fascinating, since the parallels between Romania under Communism and Iran, which may be extrapolated from Mueller's work, seem to begin with the very mention of the color "green" – as in both Transylvanian plums and Iranian protestors. But reading Mueller's works may remind Iranians of the special place of literature in the development of oppositional culture under Communism, leading them to compare the dictatorship that oppresses them with those formerly ruling over Eastern Europe. And one may discern the shadows of Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu, the Bucharest brutalists who were finally executed in an act of uncontrolled popular justice, among the misrulers of Iran; the probability of a similar fate must always haunt them.
Ebadi's association with Rotary is twisted by Fazlinejad into evidence of complicity with "freemasonry," a hobgoblin employed by Islamists in many countries as a symbol of Western subversion. While it is true that French Freemasonry played a role in seeking the modernization of the Ottoman empire and other Muslim powers of the past, today's Freemasons, especially those in the U.S., have little in common with their revolutionary predecessors. Their political influence is nil.
But reality does not impede the rampant delusions of Payam Fazlinejad and his patrons in the circle of Ahmadinejad and Khamenei, including the ultra-radical editor of the Iranian daily Kayhan, Hossein Shariatmadari. This is the same gang that called for the hanging of opposition political leaders, including Mir Hossein Mousavi, Mehdi Karroubi, and even ex-president Mohammad Khatami during February's protests in solidarity with the Egyptian Revolution. Fazlinejad has taken references to Sufis as allies of the West, appearing in U.S. policy literature – which specifically excluded Iran from consideration of such a strategy – as proof that Islamic mystics are dangerous foes of the clerical order, that must be crushed. And as we have learned, Iranian terrorism is different and perhaps worse than Wahhabi-takfiri terrorism. Agents of the former stalk their victims for years and murder them hideously, attempting to cover their trail by making political assassinations look like the products of personal quarrels or simple criminal assaults, while the violence of the latter is indiscriminate.
Nevertheless, choosing between such feral enemies is impossible, and the promiscuous violence of the Wahhabi-takfiri radicals has, perhaps, a more intimidating effect than the targeted murders carried out by Iranian agents. As I have written previously in NewsGram, Pakistani and Afghan Taliban and other jihadi radicals – Deobandis and followers of the Jamaat-e-Islami founded by Mawdudi – are engaged in a sustained, violent assault on Sufi shrines and devotees across South Asia. But the Barelvi and other Pakistani Muslims who incorporate Sufi orders into their lives, like Shias and secular Muslims in Pakistan, appear incapable of defending themselves, transfixed by the cobra's stare and simply waiting for their own destruction.
But let us return to the topic of the moment for the whole world: Libya. Every educated Sufi in the Muslim world knows the significance of Libya, as a country where Sufis fought Italian imperialism for some 35 years, led by Sufis; where the monarchy rested on respect for the Senussi Sufi order; and where Islamic clerics and jurists were kept under strict control and prevented from imposing archaic shariah precedents. In addition, and most important, the Senussi Sufi order derives from the Idrisiyya, a Sufi movement founded in North Africa at the end of the 18th century of the common era. Ahmad Ibn Idris (1760-1837), the Moroccan-born founder of the eponymous order, went to Mecca to confront the Wahhabis that had taken control of Islam's holiest cities. The outstanding disciple of sheikh Ahmad Ibn Idris was the grandfather of Libyan King Idris, who was deposed by al-Qadhdhāfi.
To emphasize: every educated Sufi in the world knows this history, and knows of the symbolism of Libya's rebellion for the Islamic world. But will the Westerners who have taken charge of humanitarian action to save the Libyan people pay heed to history's lessons? Sufis may assume a key role in the positive transformation of the Muslim countries, based on respect rather than direct recruitment, beginning in Libya. Historical volumes on the Italo-Libyan conflict and the Senussi Sufis are available in every university library – it only requires patience to read them. Revolutionary energies are coursing throughout the Muslim umma – it only takes courage to face them.