Once certain ideas go mainstream, it often takes a pretty big flop to disprove them. The United States was supposed to be hailed as the liberator of Iraq, just as it was going to be easy to turn Afghanistan into a democracy. Well now, according to commentators from the BBC to the Economist to the Boston Globe, Sufism, being defined as Islam’s moderate or mystical side, is apparently just the thing we need to deal with violent Muslim extremists. Sufis are the best allies to the West, these authors say; support them, and countries as diverse as Pakistan and Somalia could turn around.
The Sufi theory has a lot of variations, but at its core, it’s pretty simple: Violent Muslim extremism, rather than having material and political bases, is caused by certain belligerent readings of Islam usually associated with Salafism, a movement that attempts to resurrect the Islam of the prophet Mohammed’s time, and Wahhabism, a similarly conservative branch. If Muslims can be indoctrinated with another, softer, interpretation of Islam, then the militants, insurgents, and guerrilla fighters will melt away.
Well, these pundits have gotten their wish. Pakistan just announced the creation of a seven-member Sufi Advisory Council (SAC) that is meant to combat the Taliban insurgency by spreading Sufi “thoughts and teachings.” The SAC’s predecessor was a Musharraf-era PR stunt called the National Sufi Council that was headed by a rather feudal Punjabi politician — the group did little more than print a few calendars and hold a musical gala in Lahore. It is not yet clear whether the seven-member SAC, which met for the first time June 9, will be independent of the country’s Council of Islamic Ideology, a body outlined in Pakistan’s 1973 Constitution that advises whether laws are consistent with sharia. But if the SAC does become an official organ, it will add yet another layer of religious governance to a country wracked by religious conflict.
The creation of the SAC is not good news. It signals an increase in the politicization of Islam in Pakistan — if a higher level is even possible. Now, even the pietist and welfare-oriented groups that have traditionally abstained from overindulging in government affairs will be tempted to become mouthpieces for corrupt political actors. For evidence, look no further than the SAC’s new head, a former minister from the regime of ultra-Wahhabi dictator Zia ul-Haq, whose promotion probably has nothing to do with mysticism and more to do with the fact that he has called for Sufi Mohammed of Swat to be tried on charges of mutiny. It is exactly the sort of politicization of religion that has led to so many problems in Pakistan since independence in 1947.
The usual response by supporters of the Sufi solution is that thanks to the extremists, Islam has already been politicized, and therefore propagandist measures promoting Sufism are the only way to fight back. But that’s precisely the problem: Propaganda is inherently discrediting. Besides, state-sponsored Sufism (which the SAC is) gets everything backward: In an environment where demagogues are using religion to conceal their true political and material ambitions, establishing another official, “preferred” theological ideology won’t roll back their influence. Minimizing the role of all religion in government would be a better idea. Only then could people begin to speak about rights and liberty.
The opposite is now happening in Pakistan, fomenting an ongoing religious civil war. 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. Far from reducing extremists’ influence, the SAC is doing them a favor.
It’s not that Sufism in and of itself can’t help. In the private sphere, it is welcome, laudable, and indeed quite beautiful to behold. But the SAC did not spring out of an internal debate among religious scholars in Pakistan. It came instead from American think tanks — like Rand and Heritage Foundation — intent on exploiting sectarian divisions in various Muslim countries, because they insist on addressing the war on terror in religious terms.
Interestingly enough, another early advocate of this approach was none other than Benazir Bhutto. Despite having a Shiite heritage, she became a member of a traditionally Sufi — and Sunni — Pakistani organization called Minhaj ul-Quran (check out this YouTube video of her meeting with Minhaj leaders, in which she doesn’t have enough cash on her to cover the fees). I believe that her reasons for joining Minhaj were part of a larger plan — laid out in her book, Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy, and the West — to use religious forces to her political advantage. After all, that impulse is precisely what led Bhutto to give the stamp of approval to the Taliban in the mid-1990s — and led her father to declare Islam the state religion of Pakistan in 1973. Today is no different. As Ayesha Siddiqa, a leading Pakistani commentator, has presciently noted, beginning a “faith war” between Sufi and Salafi in Pakistan would simply drive more youth toward fundamentalism.
In short, after years of bemoaning official Saudi sponsorship of Wahhabism, and condemning official Iranian sponsorship of milleniarian Islam, we are now being asked to celebrate a state-sponsored brand of Islam in Pakistan. We are asked to believe this is “different” from those other cases solely because it’s a version of the religion that looks benign. But not only is this unprincipled — it is going to backfire, leaving Sufism discredited and more religious resentment among the numerous peaceful Salafis in the world.
(Photo: Olaf Kellerhoff)
Ali Eteraz was an outstanding scholar at the U.S. Department of Justice and later worked in corporate litigation in Manhattan. He is the author of a forthcoming book about Pakistan and Islam titled Children of Dust. This article was previously published in Foreign Policy and is reprinted with permission of the author.