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Sufism and the West

Usama Butt

30 June 2009

The government of Pakistan has of late come up with its love for Sufi Islam. It recently announced a plan to set up a “Sufi advisory council” to combat ever-growing extremism and fanaticism in the country.

It is a second attempt by the state to promote Sufi values, as under President Musharraf’s rule the “National Sufi Council” was established. It is yet unclear what the seven-member body will actually do to combat extremism in a fragile and sectarian ridden country, apart from giving few seminars or throwing a music festival.

However, a second consecutive attempt to rely on Sufism by the state, under both military and civilian rule, along with increased Western attempts to find a ‘moderate’ partner in Sufi Islam globally, deserves serious attention.

The question worth asking is whether the Sufi council in Pakistan was another duo stunt by Musharraf to appease the United States or was he really hopeful to bring about some change with the move? If the hypothesis that Pakistani Army at that point was ridden with Islamists and Jihadists is correct, than along with Musharraf’s presumed change of heart over Kashmir, this was another revolution in the making. But a closer look instantly reveals that Musharraf’s strategy was to chase foreign elements to demonstrate his loyalty on the “war on terror” and go easy on local militants — who may be needed later in the time of crisis.

It’s quite safe to say that the National Sufi Council was just another show card in the time of crisis, which brings us to the upcoming Sufi advisory council’s purpose of being — as the ongoing crisis is worse than before. It is thus another attempt to appease the US by the civilian government.

The role of few US think tanks, RAND in particular, is prominent in portraying Sufi Islam as a moderate and workable partner. It has successfully managed to convince both current and previous US administrations that Sufi Islam must be encouraged globally, and particularly in Muslim countries.

The idea is to fight the war on terror on ‘religious terms’ and by exploiting sectarian divisions.

Take a quick look and you will see a clear pattern emerging of promoting Sufism across the Muslim and the Western world. In Britain, government ministers are told to read the book of Ed Hussain, an ex-Islamist who’s formed Sufi Quilliam Foundation. So why does the West see in Sufism a partner for itself? Can Sufism secure Western interests in the Muslim world? Is Sufism really a moderate force in today’s Islamic civilisation? Why Sufism and not moderate Islamists, and why now?

A quick look at contemporary Sufi organisations around the world will reveal nothing moderate in them. Yes they are apolitical but some of them are highly controversial, narrow minded, rejectionists and regressive.

For example: Pakistan’s Gohar Shahi created frenzy by announcing himself as a ‘Messiah’ and by boasting that his face is embedded in the moon.

Mystical and apolitical qualities can surely not be the reasons why the West is so keen on Sufism. Make no comparison between contemporary regressive and rejectionist Sufism to the glorious past of the movement. It’s the present course of the movement that is 
under discussion.

The Western reliance on Sufism can easily be summed up as a divide and rule policy. Its intention is to create sectarian rift, silence credible opposition of moderate Islamists that are well rooted in Muslim societies and avert attention from real issues.

*Usama Butt is a London-based researcher

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