Sponsoring Sufism

And Its Problems as a Counterterrorism Strategy

Foreign Affairs, By Fait Muedini, November 3

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.

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