With the Syrian civil war in its fourth year—and now with Russia’s direct intervention on behalf of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad—Washington is more keen than ever to push back the self-proclaimed Islamic State (also known as ISIS). And at least when it comes to that mission, the Assad government is looking to join in. Just over a year ago, Assad government spokesperson Mohamed Jihad al-Laham reached out to the U.S. Congress to ask for support in the fight against ISIS and to criticize the rebel forces that the United States supports as being just as radical as the larger group. In his letter, Laham also suggested promoting Sufism—a mystical branch of Islam—as a mechanism to alter the violent behavior of terrorist actors.
The inclusion of Sufism in Laham’s plea for military support might seem out of place. But since 9/11, such sentiments have become routine as the United States, the United Kingdom, and other Western countries have come up against hard-line Islamist groups. In most cases, the West has opted for a multipronged response, which usually includes increased counterterrorism surveillance, military intervention, and the sponsorship of “friendly” and “tolerant” interpretations of Islam both domestically and abroad. The logic is that messages of tolerance could thwart would-be jihadists from becoming indoctrinated by less tolerant religious strands.
In fact, the sponsoring of Sufism is a popular choice around the world, including in Algeria, Morocco, Pakistan, and Russia. In Algeria, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has invested resources in promoting Sufi education; the state has promoted Sufi leaders’ activities and also allows Sufi groups to disperse information and literature in the country. King Mohammed VI of Morocco continues to call upon Sufi symbolism in his speeches and has attempted to control and reshape religious education in the country by promoting a Sufi agenda. In Pakistan, political leaders often go to Sufi shrines in order to show the public their closeness to Sufi orders. Furthermore, they court Sufi leaders for political support. And in Russia, President Vladimir Putin has also promoted Sufism in Chechnya through the installation of Ramzan Kadyrov as head of the republic. A strong ally to the Kremlin, Kadyrov is a member of the Qadiriyya Sufi order and frequently uses Sufism to counter Islamists in the region. All this provides Putin with greater control over the region and the state with an opportunity to support a brand of Islam that challenges more literal interpretations of the faith.
Categorizations of "good" and "bad" Muslims do not rely not on sound judgments of behavior and actions, but, rather, on simple labels based on the way in which people practice their faith.
But the question remains of why Sufism is the brand of choice for many governments. Sufism is not a separate sect within Islam, but rather a specific approach within the religious tradition. Sufism does not ignore sharia (Islamic law) but is known for placing importance on a more direct relationship between an individual and the divine. For many Sufis, the objective of their spiritual journey is to reach a state where they are in the complete presence of God. Sufis attempt to achieve this by seeing others as a reflection of God and through service. Sufi teachings have thus paid great attention to notions of love between God and God’s creation. Because of that, many policymakers believe that Sufism is a bastion of moderate religious thought, universal love, and lesser attention to worldly issues such as politics. And Sufi tenets call for a lack of interest or belief in the positive power of violence. And while many Sufis do believe such ideas, one cannot generalize the beliefs of every Sufi or every Muslim; Sufis differ on interpreting Islam, as do non-Sufi Muslims.
But how does the promotion of Sufism work in practice? Some lessons can be gleaned from the United Kingdom. After the July 7, 2005, London bombings, the British government expressed its support for the creation of the Sufi Muslim Council (SMC), a political organization that was said to represent the voices of Sufi Muslims in the United Kingdom. Believing that supporting the SMC would aid the fight against terrorism, some politicians within the British government were openly supportive of backing the organization. British Secretary of State for Communities Ruth Kelly was quoted as saying, “Organizations such as the Sufi Muslim Council are an important part of that work. . . . I welcome the council’s core principles condemning terrorism in all its forms and its partnership approach to taking forward joint initiatives and activities.” Kelly was far from alone. In 2009, the British politician Maqsood Ahmed said of the SMC: “Until two years ago there was no voice, a voice of love and peace reaching us in the government.”
Despite the high hopes of many, however, the SMC was plagued by issues that prevented the groups from meeting its expectations. In fact, the SMC seemed to increase tensions among different Muslim organizations in the United Kingdom, since many saw the group as attempting a power grab. Others determined that Westminster had ignored other Muslim organizations in order to focus on cultivating the SMC. A number of Muslims also questioned why the British government was even getting involved in matters of religion and why the government was backing a Sufi organization as a result. Although the British government ultimately moved away from supporting the group, many in the country remember its earlier choice.
Across the pond, a 2003 meeting in Washington among think tanks and policy analysts yielded a 2004 report titled “Understanding Sufism and Its Potential Role in U.S. Policy.” The report provided detailed discussions from the conference, most of which centered on ways in which Sufism could be used in foreign-policy making. Some speeches included points about rebuilding Sufi shrines and creating financial funding for Sufi education centers. There was also a call to help protect historical Islamic documents that focused on religious inclusivity. By 2005, U.S. News & World Report was reporting that U.S. leaders, unable to themselves make the argument for Sufism, were looking for other ways to support the branch of Islam. According to the report, World Organization for Resource Development and Education President Hedieh Mirahmadi “has advised U.S. officials on how best to proceed: ‘The goal is to preserve things that are the ideological antithesis of radical Islam,’ she sa[id]. Among the tactics: using U.S. aid to restore Sufi shrines overseas, to preserve and translate its classic medieval manuscripts, and to push governments to encourage a Sufi renaissance in their own countries.”
The sentiment that Sufism is a more tolerant iteration of Islam still persists within the United States.
The sentiment that Sufism is a more tolerant iteration of Islam still persists within the United States. In 2010, when an Islamic cultural center was proposed in downtown Manhattan near the site of “Ground Zero,” opponents were outraged. In response to critics, then New York State Governor David Paterson attempted to justify the establishment of the center by saying that “this group who has put this mosque together, they are known as the Sufi Muslims. This is not like the Shiites. . . . They’re almost like a hybrid, almost westernized. They are not really what I would classify in the sort of mainland Muslim practice.” In other words, Paterson suggested, Sufis were acceptable, unlike Sunni or Shiites. In his attempt to legitimize Sufi Islam, Paterson ended up speaking ill of other forms of the religion.
Promoting Sufism, particularly at the expense of other Islamic traditions, is highly problematic. The perception of Sufism as a Western, moderate, or tolerant form of Islam cements a dichotomy between “good” and “bad” understandings of the religion. Within the context of counterterrorism, such divisions can be damning. Categorizations of good and bad Muslims rely not on sound judgments of behavior and actions but, rather, on simple labels based on the way in which people practice their faith. Groups that are seen as more political and willing to challenge government policies are criticized and are seen with skepticism. However, peaceful Muslims who are Westernized and minimize the role of their own faith (or at least present their religiosity in Western-approved ways), and take an impartial view of political affairs, are therefore viewed as good.
These categorizations are incorrect at best and harmful at worst. Leaders and policymakers cannot make sound decisions through rash judgments based on a religion or religious practices, nor can they base their decisions on what specific religious position a person follows. When this happens, all those who fall outside the state-sanctioned perceptions of Islam are viewed with hostility, even if they have done nothing to deserve the label. Governments should also not promote certain forms of religion, nor should they favor apolitical adherents versus those who are politically active. These practices only erode trust between governments and the so-called Muslim world. Many nations with Muslim majorities already express a great distrust of U.S. foreign policy; instead of promoting moderate forms of Islam, policymakers should work with Muslim communities who are committed to fighting terrorism, regardless of their religiosity or political leanings. They will find that many Sufi and non-Sufi Muslim groups are not only willing to help but have been taking up this cause for years.