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Sponsoring Sufism: How Governments Promote “Mystical Islam” in their Domestic and Foreign Policies

  • Book Title:
 Sponsoring Sufism
  • Book Author:
Fait Muedini
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Government leaders who have previously shown little interest in religion as it relates to policy are now using Islam for the advancement of their own political objectives. While Islam has

been applied in the domestic and foreign policies of government leaders for quite some time (Esposito, 1998), the issue of Islam in domestic and international politics has received greater attention as of late, and in particular since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon (Philpott, 2002).

Since these attacks, the teachings of Islam have become a major point of examination, toward which significant media and policy attention have been directed not only to understand Islam but also to discuss how individuals aim to use religion for achieving political goals. And within this specific debate, governments and other actors have aimed to address how to stop the spread of puritanical Islamic interpretations, in the name of preventing future attacks.

Because of the worry over radical interpretations and the effect that such interpretations may have on individual actions, many individuals have been quick to try to find other approaches to Islam, or specifically, other groups of Muslims that promote what these individuals perceive as a different, more tolerant message of the faith.

But while such interpretations of Islam have been promoted by governments in hopes of preventing future terrorist acts, Mahmood Mamdani (2002: 766) argues that within these actions, the emphasis by policymakers has not been on “distinguishing terrorists from civilians . . . [,]” but rather, the “talk has turned religious experience into a political category . . . ”

He argues that in order to understand why individuals commit specific actions, a person’s religion should not be the only issue examined, nor should religion be viewed in a vacuum. But rather, a detailed under- standing of a range of factors is needed. Yet, he argues that some people are quick to believe that whether one interprets religion “literally” as compared to “metaphoric or figurative” is the difference in distinguishing whether or not a person will commit acts of terror (Mamdani, 2002: 767).

Applying this distinction specifically to the case of Islam, what he says is happening is that “we are now told to distinguish between good Muslims and bad Muslims. Mind you, not between good and bad per-sons, nor between criminals and civil citizens, who both happen to be Muslims, but between good Muslims and bad Muslims” (767).

This last point is important to understand, and should be extended to include other specific approaches within Islam, because with the intention of governments to pigeonhole different interpretations of Islam, we have seen as of late a move toward promoting one specific form of Islam, namely Sufism, in the effort to fight religious extremism. Sufism itself is understood as the mystical branch of Islam, although the term Sufism is much more complex than just Muslim mysticism (Heck, 2007b).

And while it is obviously necessary for people to speak out against extremism, within this discussion about attempting to categorize and preempt individuals’ actions (and even intentions) based solely on religion, not only has this approach inaccurately stereotyped Muslims who do not adhere to the Sufi teachings of Islam, but within the discussion some have also promoted a common misconception suggesting that Sufis themselves are not concerned with politics, and thus they are dismissed as any sort of political (violent or nonviolent) challenge to a government.

Regarding the categorization of Sufism as a separate (and nonthreatening) entity in domestic and international affairs, this dichotomy of “Sufi” and “non-Sufi” Muslim has even played out in the United States with the debate surrounding the construction of the “Park 51 Mosque” in New York City.

What is interesting about this case is that here the “good Muslim” has been seen as “good” specifically because of an affiliation with Sufism (Safi, 2011). Omid Safi (2011) explains that in attempts to show that those individuals—including Imam Feisal Rauf, the leader of the proposed mosque—were not a threat, news sources, among others, pointed out that he was a Sufi Muslim.

Safi (2011) argues that the statements by New York leaders such as those of Governor David Paterson fit within this framework of categorizing Islam. Specifically, he quotes Paterson, who when speaking on the mosque construction issue, stated that “[t]his 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” (Safi, 2011). His including the “Sufi” in this false dichotomous categorization presumes that Sufis are not concerned with politics, as well as portrays an inaccurate picture that Muslim individuals can either be a “Sufi” (and thus the “good” Muslim), or an “Islamist” (Safi, 2011). As we shall see, this picture is often much less clearly defined.

But while this is a recent case of the referencing of Sufism in politics, this is far from the only time that Sufism has been advocated by governments. In fact, many examples exist in which government leaders—and in a number of cases dictatorial regimes—often highlight Sufism and Sufi groups in order that they may offset any political threat to their control of the political system.

In fact, as I shall argue, many governments seem quite eager to promote Sufism, not necessarily just because of a positive message that Sufism may provide1 but also because Sufism and Sufis in such cases are often seen as a minimal “political threat” to the current system, and in other instances provide religious legitimacy for a political leader.

This book will lay out the different reasons why governments are promoting Sufi Islam as an official (and sometimes unofficial) government policy, as well as the benefits that those specific Sufi orders (which work with governments) receive in this relationship.

 I will focus primarily on the cases of Algeria, Morocco, Pakistan, Russia, Uzbekistan, Britain, and on think tanks in the United States to illustrate exactly how and why leaders and other actors are sponsoring (and supporting) Sufism. In many (but not all) of the cases, leaders seem to be devoting time and government resources to promoting Sufism with the intent not only to combat extremism but also out of a perception that Sufism is not concerned with politics, and thus is not a legitimate political concern to the respective political leaders.

This becomes quite prevalent in the many cases in which leaders worry about the challenge of Islamist parties to their governments. As I will argue, in such instances, these governments have been rather unwilling to provide genuine political and civil reforms within the state.

 Yet, as is commonly observed in the literature on authoritarianism, such leaders attempt to find ways to maintain power. This issue has received increased attention recently with the Arab uprisings, with many scholars examining government responses as to whether these states would actually provide genuine reform, limited reform, or provide no reform and risk revolution.

Moreover, I will also examine the role of patronage networks between the government and religious organizations, and the manifestation of various Sufi-state relations. As I will argue, Sufism and Sufi groups are not just being “used” by the state.

 They also benefit from relation-ships with the state. As I will point out, having ties to the government can increase their reputation in society, while driving up membership numbers. This is all the more important in attempting to understand the role of the sheikh, and the importance of a sustained reputation and a religious following for such orders (Villalon, 1994).

Furthermore, as they are attached to the state (in some capacity), Sufi groups also often gain political and financial benefits, as well as religious benefits such as the space to operate openly, something often restricted to other religious organizations depending on the government’s position.

As we shall see, in a number of these cases, the Sufi organizations are clearly receiving some sort of benefit by working with the state. And while the cases may differ in terms of the exact benefits received, similarities do exist across the board.

Authoritarian Leaders and Theories on Power

Much of this book will analyze the actions of authoritarian leaders in relation to the promotion of religion generally, and Sufism in particular. However, a quick point must be made that, in no way does this argument necessarily need to be limited to authoritarian leaders.

 As I will argue in the last chapter on Britain and the United States, even those individuals in liberal democracies have at times argued for promoting specific religious orders or organizations as a political policy. Furthermore, one does not need to look far to find nonauthoritarian leaders still courting religious groups (whether they are Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, etc.) for political reasons.

 But while this is the case in even liberal political systems, I argue that in the cases of authoritarian leaders who have large Muslim populations under their control, there seems to be very specific attention paid to Sufism, particularly when considered in the context of rising Islamist challengers in those states. Therefore, observing how such leaders approach the Sufis will lead to a better understanding of the state’s attempt at holding onto political power, while the Sufis at the same time increase their religious legitimacy.

This last point is crucial in a number of the cases in which Sufism is quite popular in the society, but also in which the Islamists themselves are becoming more influential religiously and politically, often due to their strong social services and continued critique of the state.

In many of these cases (but not limited to instances of an Islamist presence), there are leaders who claim to be heading a democracy, but in reality, who are not overseeing what we would call a “constitutional liberalism,” but rather, what falls under the category of an “illiberal democracy” (Zakaria, 1997). As Fareed Zakaria explains, a liberal or constitutional democracy is “a political system marked not only by free

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