The MSM’s new “Jihadism vs. McSufism” narrative

The MSM’s new “Jihadism vs. McSufism” narrative July 23, 2009

Br. Yahya Birtfrom across the pond was so kind as to inform me of a much better and more thought-provoking link regarding the place of Sufism in the GWOT than the article in Time magazine that I shared earlier, so I'm passing it on.

I explained  in the post's comments (reproduced below) why, despite my agreement with some of the Times article's underlying premises, I didn't like the piece much. As usual in MSM discussions of Sufism, the article reduces this extremely complex, multi-faceted and incredibly intellectually rich tradition to New Age clichés about  religious syncretism and personal freedom that obscure what Sufism is about and what gives it its formidable power over Muslims' hearts and minds  around the globe.

For a better discussion of the geopolitical role of Sufism in the War on Terror, take a look at these 3 pieces from World War 4 Report, an intriguingly eclectic blog on international affairs I am just discovering now. [HT: Yahya Birt]

I have not yet had the time to read these articles closely, so I'm not necessarily endorsing everything they say. In any case,  I like their mix of sharp progressive geopolitical analysis with religious insight.

 I might as well include my comments, since they develop the point I'm making.

Comment #1:

Well, I don't mind people talking about Sufism, so long as they stop doing it in the singular.

I also wish they wouldn't play up these antinomian aspects of certain, atypical strands of Sufi tradition quite so much.
Take, for example, the example of the naked faqir cited the closing paragraph. It certainly does illustrate an unruly side of Sufism that appears from time to tim, but such socially transgressive behavior is highly exceptional. 99.9% of Sufis, past and present, would be equally scandalized by that behavior, and quite understandably.

Comment #2

AA. Yeah, when I posted I didn't have time to comment on the piece's superficiality (like most MSM discussions of Sufism). Hence the noncommittal report.

My other pet peeve is this use of syncretism as shorthand for progress. Admittedly, I happen to be closer to that perspective than many Muslims, but the idea that Sufis are just "laid back" about theology is hopelessly wrongheaded, of course. And when Sufis arrive at a universalistic position, it is the result of a deep engagement with Quran, Hadith and tradition, not some apriori commitment to secular principles. The commitment to the Sacred remains, even if one concedes that the Sacred can be found in more than one place. And, critically, without renouncing traditional norms of piety and practice (to the contrary, some of the most iconic Sufis are proverbial for herculean self-denial, and almost all Sufis of any renown are known for the strictest observance of Islamic law in their daily lives).

You make an interesting and very important criticism about the uncritical view of dunya. Part of the problem, I think, is that individualism and materialism are so ingrained into modern life–especially in Western societies–that the priorities and principles at the core of Sufism are incomprehensible to many otherwise thoughtful and well intentioned observers. Sometimes you can get through to people by framing Tazkiyya an-Nafs in terms of personal freedom (i.e., escaping the tyranny of various "foreign" influences and base impulses), but even this is paradoxical since it remains rooted in individualism.

At the same time, this is the MSM and popular discussions of Sufism are always beset by misunderstandings, even among Muslims. (Or perhaps even more so. 😉 )

AA. Thanks for that far superior link, and your succinct analysis. Perhaps we should dub this fallacy "Jihadism vs. McSufism"!

Speaking of Sufism and the War on Terror or current affairs in general, please share your suggestions for additional and/or better overviews. I think I've bookmarked some other good ones, but I don't have time or energy to dig through my sprawling, inconsistently-categorized database at the moment. (Will I ever, I wonder?)

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