This Sufi Business

Posted by sepoy on March 30, 2009 · 1 min read

Doug Feith, who is certainly prosecutable, had an op-ed in NYT yesterday. The most revealing thing about it was the title, Radio Free Swat. Vietnam is, after all, the proper framework.

This Sufi-fights-Taliban meme needs some serious pushback. Nicholas Schmidle and Will Dalrymple have also written recently along these lines. The argument is certainly a valid reading of Islamic traditions in South Asia and there is much to recommend in it. I agree with it in historical terms. But, the problem is that this conflates apples with grenades. The "Taliban" are not arguing on theological grounds and blowing up Rahman Baba's shrine is not a religious act. It is political violence. And as such, it is determined to intervene in the social fabric of the region. Going from this to arguing that Baba Rahman documentaries will turn the tide against armed militant is just freakin' loopy. The power of shutting down music stores and forcing artists to flee does not come from espousing some particular understanding of the role of music in Islam. It comes from the Klashnikovs and the warlords who distribute them. The civilian populations of Swat or Uch do not need convincing that Rahman Baba or Bhittai are tolerant and nice. They need a state that can protect them, and their monuments, from guns. So, let's not make this some Sufi vs Taliban romance.


Wajiha | March 30, 2009

I completely agree with you. Your analysis fits in well with Mamdani's framework: instead of viewing this conflict as a battle between 'Good' ('moderate' or sufi) Muslims vs 'Bad' ('extremist') Muslims, we should frame it in terms of terrorists versus innocent civilians.

Long Time Chapati Lover | March 30, 2009

So, adding to the list created by the Chapati on who gets to write op-eds about Pakistan in the New York Times -- the fucking stupidest guy on the face of the earth, and a 2002 graduate of Columbia U (BA, PoliSci) who sits on the board of Jehangir Karamat's consultancy (along with some UChicago MAs).

Jonathan Dresner | March 30, 2009

I'm a little confused about the "Radio Free Swat" comment: as Feith correctly notes (can you believe I'm writing that?) the "Radio Free" movement started with Europe and was most prominent in the Cold War in areas that were not active war zones.

sepoy | March 30, 2009

My bad, you are right and I was conflating two separate things. I guess, then, there is nothing revealing at all about the op-ed.

Qalandar | March 30, 2009

Sepoy: I do not disagree with your wider point about Taliban violence, the political nature of it, etc. However, I wouldn't completely disregard the theological aspect of it: I have heard multiple people (not affiliated with the Taliban, just bigots) refer to Shiites and Sufis as hereitics, inifidels, etc. In order for even such political violence to be executed and acquire legitimacy, surely the de-humanization and demonization implicit in a certain kind of theology is useful (i.e. useful for that political project)? Yes the violence is political, but theology does not exist in its own vacuum, and over time it may be coopted by this or that politics (in fact that has been so throughout history). [I of course can only react with dismay to the notion that "Sufism" is a good candidate for being the "authorized" good Islam category that we-in-the-West should plug. Leaving aside all other notions, what could be more destructive of this most local, most liminal of "-isms", not even a true "-ism"?]

Akbar | March 30, 2009

"The civilian populations of Swat or Uch do not need convincing that Rahman Baba or Bhittai are tolerant and nice. They need a state that can protect them, and their monuments, from guns. ...." May I add and Drones!!1

Jonathan Dresner | March 30, 2009

I guess, then, there is nothing revealing at all about the op-ed. Aside from, as Qalandar notes, the unmitigated, ham-fisted cynicism of idea of "using Sufism" in the service of neo-imperial control....

Qalandar | March 30, 2009

PS-- I certainly think the insights from the many SufismS of the sub-continent can help combat the rising tide of religious fanaticism and "orthodoxy" (the sad thing is that in the sub-continent, "sufism" is increasingly seen as the province of illiterates and the gullible -- no matter that the social classes condescended to seem to have done a far better job of preserving a tolerant, easy going ethic than the so-called "educated" middle classes who have succumbed in droves to the siren call of faux-Arabised "real" Islam), but this sort of engagement and religious ferment cannot be the product of a policy of "sponsoring" certain islams. Truly, we learn from history that we learn nothing from history...

Conrad Barwa | March 30, 2009

I don't know the history as well but isn't this a tired working of the Sufis as some sort of cuddly Muslims that the West can feel comfortable with? I would have thought that in this region it ignores the actual important role some Sufi orders had in mounting violent resistant to what they saw as unjust regimes - such as the Naqshbandis. I beleive at least one major Sufi cleric took part in 1857 (forget the name alas! I seem to recall an Eric Stokes article on this figure). There seems to be a sliding assumption that Sufism= pacifism, which wasn't really the case. Unproblematically anyway.

sepoy | March 30, 2009

Yes, there were many Sufis who were also warriors, starting with Salar Masood Ghazi.

Rohit Chopra | March 30, 2009

Hi Sepoy, Sepoy, Well noted. Someday, one day, if and when all this settles down, one should make a list of all those folks across the globe who leveraged careers and mileage out of analyzing terrorism, Islam, the Middle East, South Asia, nuclear threats, fundamentalism, fascism-- all the neocons, thinktankers, op-ed pundits, consultants for cable news networks, ex-defence dudes, contractors, security forces, parachute journalists, terrorism experts. The only comparable hustle I can think of is the lucrative business of solving global poverty, where, too, in similar vein, fortunes have been made and careers embellished. I am routinely amazed to discover things about South Asian culture from folks who have spent all of five minutes there. Friedman's metaphors about the Indian mindset, gleaned from women swimming in the Taj or his entrepreneur friends, being a case in point. This really is an exemplar of the mystery of ministry, the alchemic assumption of authority. On a related note, Dalrymple has arrogated for himself the position of deciding which South Asians writers are truly authentic representatives of South Asian experience. Thus in praising Daniyal Mueenuddin's recent collection of short stories, he deems it authentic while dismissing Amitav Ghosh for imagining Bihar from Brooklyn (Dalrymple does not name Ghosh but the reference is clear. Ever since Amitav Ghosh swatted his objections to The Sea of Poppies aside aside, Dalrymple has been smarting and, I suspect, itching to get his own back). Dalrymple, in this regard, is one with the other experts who assume that South Asian politics, culture, and history can be easily parsed, understood, and reprogrammed. The specific claims of various folks may be different, and some such commentators may be well intentioned. But the principle is the same. The colonialist legacy that motivates this approach is easily identified. The East is still a career it seems. Best

Qalandar | March 30, 2009

Certainly Sufis can hardly be equated with "the sort of Muslims 'we' like to see" -- firstly the label is hardly apt (i.e. "Sufi" is nowhere near as specific as "Sunni", and even the latter is certainly open to debate): one could probably find every sort of perspective -- pacifist, militarist, disgustingly intolerant, wonderfully accepting, ad infinitum -- subsumed under the rubric...

Conrad Barwa | March 31, 2009

Sepoy/Q - thanks, I am going to dig out my old copy of Stoke's works on 1857 - I haven't read it since being an undergrad but I remember that article on a Sufi figure who prominently resisted the British in 1857 impressed me, will need to pull the name out! Thus in praising Daniyal Mueenuddin's recent collection of short stories, he deems it authentic while dismissing Amitav Ghosh for imagining Bihar from Brooklyn (Dalrymple does not name Ghosh but the reference is clear. Ever since Amitav Ghosh swatted his objections to The Sea of Poppies aside aside, Dalrymple has been smarting and, I suspect, itching to get his own back). In the FT review of Mueenuddin's work he mentions Ghosh explictly by name as well as Sea of Poppies; so the reference is really explicit. It really sounds snarky by Dalrymple; and I was surprised since one can make many criticisms of Ghosh, but this isn't one of them. I haven't read Sea of Poppies but anyone who has read Glass Palace or In an Antique land will know that Ghosh is very well attuned to his subjects and has a strong gift for empathy. I would be surprised if Dalrymple's criticsm has any basis.

Qalandar | March 31, 2009

Since we have touched upon both Ghosh as well "liminal" identities, I highly recommend Ghosh's novel "The Hungry Tide", primarily set in the Sundarbans, among a community rationally classifiable as either "Hindu" or "Muslim", and (thus?) not easily subsumed under either rubric...

Andrew R. | March 31, 2009

Bourgeois white people sure love them their "mysticism." Of course, it's a love that's predicated on not knowing anything about, say, the the Dalai Lama's position on sexual morality, the track record of Sufis and violence, or any of the actual beliefs of folks like St. Theresa of Avila. This nonsense about Sufis being "the kind of Muslims we can support" is just par for the course. Sepoy, as long as your discussing violence as being political rather than religious, I have a question as an ignorant kaffir. Is there any kind of source out there on how various schools of Islamic fiqh treat the killing of civilians?

Andrew R. | March 31, 2009

Addendum: I meant "any source for a non-specialist who doesn't read Arabic."

Rohit Chopra | March 31, 2009

Conrad, Qalandar, thanks I should see the FT review. While on Ghosh, may I direct you to a wonderful conversation between Amitav Ghosh and Kwame Anthony Appiah, "Opium and Empire" Best Rohit

Spencer L. | April 01, 2009

As a bourgeois white guy who has made a career of the East, I will make two points. 1) Since when has theology not been political? Of course the Taliban advances its agenda through force, but the force is used to a particular purpose. The blowing up Rahman Baba's shrine is what Feith says it is, a deliberate attempt to delegitimize any but the Taliban's version of Islam. To my mind at least, it couldn't be clearer that shutting down music stores and forcing artists to flee certainly comes from a particular understanding of the role of music in Islam. The problem is that "the role of music" in Pakistan is allowed to be discussed with reference to Islam at all. As for Dalrymple, he has been shilling for islamist fascism and recycling complacent Pakistani opinion regarding it for some years now. As with his treatment of Bernard Henri-Levy's book "Who Killed Daniel Pearl?," Dalrymple is always ready to criticize anyone who objects to the Islamization of Afghanistani and Pakistani politics.

Nikolai | April 07, 2009

Good points sepoy. Sympathetic outsiders looking for heroes (or reporters who need to cut the length of their articles) paint sufis as heroes, disassociating them with the complexities that surround their traditions and their relations with Islam and the societies in which they exist. Painting sufis as heroes is a mistake. However, we should recognize that many of ideals in the sufi traditions can be used to combat the abuse of Islam by the taliban - oh wait, someone already said that. i agree with qalandar about the sufi traditions being helpful against fantaticism (duh!) But I disagree referring to those traditions as SufismS - i see where you're coming from, but c'mon - they still share enough in common to warrant a collective phrase, and though i know some people are against -isms, i think people educated on the topic know enough not to make the kinds of mistakes you allude to. People buying into some unhelpful version of it and becoming a druggie but trusting it because it's sufism is a problem - but i don't think changing the word would help Politizing sufism is crazy - even though it has been done before - and westerners looking for a 'good' Islam are missing the point: Islam is Islam, there is no bad or good version Islam's good far outweighs it's bad - 99% of the bad comes from the institutions created to interprut and control interpretation of the Qur'an institutions are lame. i feel like an idiot saying this, but outsiders with no knowledge of what goes on their need to understand: the taliban is not bad because it takes things from the qur'an which are bad. they're bad because they're a bunch of child-brainwashing warlords who dont give a damn about human life. as to the masses, the ones who are terrorized by the taliban, sepoy's right: they need protection, and ali akbar khan, while giving them art, won't be at their doors fighting off legions of insurgents with sufi magic

karachikhatmal | April 08, 2009

the practical problem with all this sufism-promotion is that it is seductive but ultimately already defeated in urban pakistan. i went to visit a shrine with my class - that of Baba Ganj-e-Shakar Farid in Pakpattan. A lot of my classmates were shocked, and even outraged at the 'biddat' on display. while it's easy to romanticize sufis, most of urban and middle class Pakistan has already decided that they are completely uncomfortable with any religious practice commonly, and perhaps stereotypically, associated with sufis. the reason being that such practices remind them too much of the practices they see in the indian movies they love so much, and anything whiffing of hinduism has no place in islam. if we are going to have any use of the sufis, it would be of the sort who roamed the country sides railing against those in power and creating dissent and sowing radicalism. but i have a feeling the ISI has already jailed them, and funded splinter factions of their movements whose purpose will soon run out.

Qalandar | April 08, 2009

karachikhatmal: I don't disagree with you on urban and middle class Pakistan (I alluded to that above), but why should this class' prejudices be privileged over others? One could argue that it is precisely because of a democracy deficit -- not necessarily at the level of electoral politics but also in terms of representations "in" popular culture, etc. -- that these prejudices are being accepted and advanced as givens. "anything whiffing of hinduism has no place in islam", according to who? i.e. this sort of statement simply begs the question, and suggests that one should critique the arrogation of the privilege to decide who gets to speak "for" Islam in the first place.

“Clash” Euphamisms IV: Sectarian “war inside Islam” « The Shape Of The World | May 09, 2009

[...] Manan Ahmed’s This Sufi Business: {{site.baseurl}}archives/homistan/this_sufi_business.html [...]

Salman | June 11, 2009

"Pakistan just announced the creation of a seven-member Sufi Advisory Council (SAC) that is meant to combat the Taliban insurgency by spreading Sufi "thoughts and teachings." " State-Sponsored Sufism -- By Ali Eteraz See Also: "Secularism, Hermeneutics, Empire: The Politics of Islamic Reformation," Public Culture 18(2): 323-247 by Saba Mahmood

Qalandar | June 12, 2009

Has anyone here seen this film "Kashf"? I came across this slideshow on the Dawn website:

Salman | July 07, 2009

"The fact is, both Pakistan and Somalia should realise that propping up Sufism as a counter to spreading militancy is a dangerous gamble. It breeds a culture of coercion, in which one interpretation of Islam is imposed on all citizens. Moreover, deepening the spiral of religious warfare will only result in years more of bloodshed and instability." The Somali example By Huma Yusuf

Salman | January 26, 2010

The bad Sufi: "Ziauddin Sardar, polymath writer and scholar of Islam, forced me to face the facts. He called Sufism “docile”, acting as an opiate for the masses, with most Pirs/Syeds/Sufis amounting to nothing short of “confidence tricksters”. " Rationalist/Modernists should get in touch with "Wahabis" and Taliban, and stand united in their reformist zeal

Salman | May 21, 2010

The Real Islam By WILLIAM DALRYMPLE A tale of two opposing visions of Islamic afterlife—one mystical, the other orthodox—in eternal conflict "Here, it seemed to me, lay some sort of crux—a clash of civilizations, not between East and West but within Islam itself. " "Sufism was not just something mystical, ethereal and otherworldly, I felt, but a balm on India's festering religious wounds. " "as they slowly attempt to undermine Islam's most tolerant and syncretic incarnation just when that face of Islam is most needed in healing the growing breach between Islam and other religions."