Prayers, singing and spirituality have become the new velvet weapon in the fight against violent Islamist groups. In Algeria and Pakistan governments are now trying to combat the local rebel groups – "Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb" (AQIM) and the Pakistani Taliban – by getting people interested in Sufism, as an alternative to sympathy with the more extreme forms of Islam.
It is estimated that about half of the world's Muslims are Sufis or under a strong influence of that tradition. Sufism is generally perceived as a peaceful and moderate current within Islam, the believers in which focus on the spiritual rather than on reviving an Islamic caliphate and overthrowing existing regimes.
Algeria has decided to establish Sufi television and radio channels and has appealed to Sufi shaykhs to become more involved in religious and social affairs.
"We are doing a lot to encourage people to come back to our traditional Islam: a peaceful, tolerant and open-minded Islam. And thank God, people are much more attracted by our message than by the Salafi message [Salafis (Wahhabis) are a conservative, sometimes extremist wing of Islam, KD ed.]," Muhammed idir Mechnane of the Algerian Ministry of Religious Affairs told the British news agency Reuters.
Also the government of Pakistan has decided to play a "Sufi card" against the country's militant Islamists. The Pakistani newspaper Dawn reported recently that the government will establish a Sufi Advisory Council [SAC] to combat extremism and fanaticism by supporting Sufism in the country.
"There is no doubt that there is a tendency to place a greater emphasis on Sufism. We see it also in Europe," says Ulla Holm, a senior researcher at the Danish Institute for International Studies, specializing in Algeria, Islam and terrorism.
She suggests that the anxiety and frustration that many young Muslims feel, because they see few prospects in their home countries, need outlets in concrete action. At worst, this results in a fascination with extremist movements, and they are the movements governments want to prevent. By promoting Sufism they hope that young people instead will turn their anxieties inwards toward a spiritual quest.
"The characteristics of Sufism include the worship [sic] of dead saints, which makes it very backward and therefore politically dangerous. The Algerian president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, is certainly interested in Sufism because he hopes that the people will accept a depoliticization of Islam," adds Ulla Holm.
In her view it is naive to think that Algeria get rid of the rebel groups because of the spread of Sufis.
"This idea does not change one bit of the big cities' social problems. It does not resolve the fundamental conflicts about who should get the most benefit from Algeria's oil revenues," Ulla Holm says.
The assumption that it is possible to combat terrorism by promoting more moderate forms of Islam, not least Sufism, has been spread in the West for several years, led by the independent U.S. think tanks, the RAND Corporation and the Heritage Foundation. Supporters of the Sufi theory argue that it has advantages over more economically or politically-based approaches that offer believers an Islamic answer.
"The usual Western policy advisors have tried to promote the idea. This was in, among other places, Iraq, where the U.S. Department of Defense wrote a memo about how Sufism could play a role. It is also conceivable that the United States has called on Pakistan to test the idea," says Nadeem Irani, a terrorism expert who currently works for the Danish Ministry of Integration.
Pakistan in particular ought to keep well away from further attempts to mix religion and politics, said Ali Eteraz, a former researcher at the U.S. Department of Justice who is now promoting a book about Islam and Pakistan. He warns in an analysis on the website of Foreign Policy magazine against making the spread of Sufism a state-sponsored project. The problem in Pakistan is that Islam has been used – and abused – to legitimize government policy for too long.
"Minimizing the role of all religion in government would be a better idea. The SAC will undoubtedly embolden extremists by giving them ideological motivation: They now have evidence to provide young recruits and foot soldiers that the 'war' they are fighting is, in fact, about the integrity of Islam," he wrote.
Philip Jenkins, a senior researcher with honors at the Department of Religion at Baylor University in the U.S. is much more optimistic. He believes "Sufis are much more than tactical allies for the West: they are, potentially, the greatest hope for pluralism and democracy within Muslim nations. The Sufi religious outlook has little of the uncompromising intolerance that characterizes the fundamentalists. They have no fear of music, poetry, and other artistic forms – these are central to their sense of the faith's beauty… The West's best hope for global peace is not a decline or secularization of Islam, but rather a renewal and strengthening of that faith, and above all of its spiritual and mystical dimensions," he wrote earlier this year in the American newspaper, The Boston Globe.
The Executive Director of the Center for Islamic Pluralism in Washington, Stephen Schwartz, who is Muslim, last year published the book The Other Islam: Sufism and the Road to Global Harmony. He is quick to recognize positive elements in Sufism, but finds it problematic for governments to engage directly in promoting Sufism.
"Sufism has always thrived because of its autonomy and its independence, and we can't compromise its spiritual autonomy in the name of a short-term or even long-term political advantage," he said in an interview with the American magazine U.S. News & World Report.
(Translation by Center for Islamic Pluralism)
Related Topics: Sufism
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