The Struggle Between Sufism, Evangelicals and Radical Islam

The Arab world’s new revolutionaries, cynosures of the western media since the Tunisian dictator Zine el-Abdine Ben Ali was ousted on 14 January 2011 after a campaign of popular demonstrations, seem almost to have achieved independence from physical reality. These courageous young men and women have displayed an ability to organise and mobilise themselves as citizens, first in Tunisia, then in Egypt and in other countries, that depends in essence on technologies that exist in cyberspace rather than in the material world. However, the power of virtual networks such as Twitter and Facebook should not be exaggerated, despite their role in enabling a very real and surprising mobilisation. In reality, the action taken on the ground by the young men and women who stood up to the dictatorships was in the end very concrete, and its effectiveness owed much to the backing they drew from the liberal middle classes and from civil society. They were in addition helped by existing democratic forces: the trades unions, the professional associations, NGOs, secular political parties, and, crucially, the Islamic movements.

It is this Islamic contribution that has been the reason for western concern that extremist and violent Salafist movements, understood in the West as Islamic fundamentalists, could seize the initiative. Salafists, as the word is understood today, aim to shrug off what they see as accretions to Islam and to return to the practice of what they see as the pure and original faith. Western democrats, as well as some in the Muslim countries themselves, are beginning to show their apprehension over the future of what is being called the “Arab Spring”. They fear that the movement may be appropriated by such fundamentalist Islamists and could be diverted in the direction of rigid theocracy and intolerance. Though such fears are to some extent justified, there should, on the other hand, be no misunderstanding: the Salafists have by a series of propaganda coups succeeded in presenting themselves to the West as the face of Islam, to a degree not substantiated by the facts. The Salafists, whether of the violent tendency or those whose Salafism is intellectual, are in reality extremists whose philosophy has little attraction for the mass of the Sunni Muslim population to whom they make their appeal. For the vast majority of Muslims, Islam is a matter of a personal belief system, a family background, and regular worship, which mesh with the daily life of family, friends and employment in a way that leaves little room for extremism. Salafism, on the other hand, is a minority phenomenon, typified by groups in which young and principally male enthusiasts follow the lead of rigid ideologues. Characteristically, and against the grain of Islam, Salafists prioritise rectitude at the expense of kindness and mercy.

On the ground, however, Islam is primarily a social rather than a political phenomenon whose salient quality is its moderation. It is very much a religion of the family and of life in the community. There is within it a variety of movements and tendencies most of which are moderate in nature. There are also intellectual modernist movements; and those who seek to further the philosophy of liberalism within Islam. But crucially, there are also the Sufi brotherhoods, which are ancient in origin but are currently undergoing a process of renewal, and which make a broad appeal to Muslims.[1] Their adepts are versed in mysticism, but for the ordinary Muslim they offer a way to practice dhikr (remembrance of God) within a structure that offers social cohesion. Their relevance to the current situation is that they also offer a resource on which a new society may be constructed. The Sufi brotherhoods stress the importance of human values and are concerned with relationships and mutual support. Their existence, were it to be better recognised in the West, would reassure policy makers that it is not inevitable that social and political change in the Muslim world should play into the hands of extremists.

Meanwhile, as disturbances in the Arab world have spread from Tunisia and Egypt, where President Mubarak in due course followed the Tunisian dictator into oblivion, into Yemen, Syria, Bahrain and Libya, with each country’s uprising taking on its local character and direction, social and political change now seem virtually inevitable. There is no doubt that a new wind of expectation has begun to blow in these countries, where, under pressure from the street, the first step on the road to democratic reform has been taken. The leading protagonists have been young men and women who, though for the most part educated, have hitherto been condemned to unemployment and a meagre existence, but are at last finding a way to express their thirst for liberty and democracy. The new generation has not been the only one to suffer from these social ills. Henceforth, all Arabs and Muslims, the young and the old,  men and women of all social classes, will adhere to the belief that they have a right no longer to be brutalised by fear of despotic governments. They will act to throw off the obsolete values of the old regimes, whether liberal mercantilism, the philosophy of the extreme left, Nasserism or Islamism. This new mentality has been conjured into being by a psychological revolution of a novel type. The new revolutionaries, as can be seen with the Algerian Hirak, appear to be uninterested in the classic ideological slogans associated with Islamism, capitalism, or socialism, or even of those who see the state as a secular institution independent of divine power. Instead, they have begun to search for a consensus, on issues such as liberty and the transition to democracy, together with social justice and the rejection of oppression. It appears that the revolutionaries no longer accept that the traditional political parties, as the result of some miraculous transformation, will resolve their problems. Their energy is now directed towards a new objective, that of the construction of social networks which have already become in themselves virtual political organisations that even the repressive forces at the disposal of Husni Mubarak, Zine el-Abdine Ben Ali, and now Ali Abdulah Saleh, Bashar al-Assad and Abdelaziz Bouteflika, have failed to stop.

As to what the potential of Sufism might be, in this new situation, the Islamic model of the AKP in Turkey, the ruling party led by Tayyip Erdogan, before its separation from Fethullah Gülen and the Sufi Movements, could have been pointed to as an example of practice that could serve as a democratic example for the regimes of the East. The AKP was priviously a Muslim political party that was strongly linked to the Sufi tradition rooted in the Naqshbandiyya brotherhood. The Naqshbandiyya is in practice well versed in the ways of politics and economic life. In practice, by voting for the AKP, with its popular base in the Naqshbandiyya, the Turks had espoused a philosophy that runs counter to religious extremism and coexists comfortably with western democratic values. Having risen in rebellion against its rulers in the interests of democratic change and the recovery of its dignity, will the Muslim world now be willing to reap the benefit of a Sufi and humanist tradition on the lines of the earliest “Turkish model”? There seems little question that a Muslim faith that inclines towards Sufi values would assist the Muslim world to live at peace within itself and will conduce to the coexistence of the Muslim world and the West.

The circumstances seem propitious for such an outcome. As has been pointed out, adherence to Sufi beliefs and values appears to be on the increase in the Muslim world, and the excesses of Salafism are perceived by many as an irrelevance to their lives. It is to these issues that this essay will be addressed. We shall examine the various Sufi currents which are widespread in virtually all Muslim countries, placing the emphasis on those Sufi brotherhoods (tariqa; plural turuq) which have opted to play a social, political and economic role. These movements would offer a role for Islam in a reformed Muslim world that will be democratic, egalitarian and respectful of human rights. This could be the moment for assistance to be offered to these brotherhoods to enable them the better to participate in the new democratic movements that are emerging in the Islamic world. The world should also grasp the necessity for a “Marshall Plan” for the Muslim countries of the South, on the model of that by which the United States helped to restore Europe after the disaster of the Second World War, given the material poverty of much of the Muslim world.

We shall also examine whether democratic change is on the horizon. In the new circumstances are certain features of the Muslim world in its immemorial shape truly in the process of disappearance? Or, on the other hand, will Islam continue, despite all the apparent change that is under way, to be essentially patriarchal, autocratic and inflexible? Despite the “Arab Spring”, and the rebellion of the young against authoritarianism and despotism, it is conceivable that the result may simply be that the structure of Muslim society may continue to be predicated on the authority of a despotic ruling “father figure”, whose power over families, clans and social groups of all kinds will be as immune to challenge as before. In other words, when future governments take shape in the aftermath of the “Arab Spring”, their relationship with the populations of the Arab countries may continue to be shaped by the preconceptions of the patriarchal educational system that has left its mark deeply imprinted on all Arab citizens, including, despite themselves, those who have taken an active part in the rebellions of 2011?

[1] Martin van Bruinessen and Julia Day Howell (eds), Sufism and the Modern in Islam London: I.B.Tauris, 2007