Somalia: West to groom Sufis as proxies?

David Montero blogs for the Christian Science Monitor June 24 that “as in Pakistan, many are looking to armed tribes in Somalia who adhere to Sufism—a mystical, moderate interpretation of Islam—as the best chance for peace.” The post, entitled “Is promoting Sufi Islam the best chance for peace in Somalia?”, quotes a Somali writer—identifying himself only as Muthuma—who writes on the Bartamaha news portal that (as we’ve noted) a “new axis” of conflict is emerging in Somalia, in which fighters are battling one another along religious lines:

Moderate Sufi scholars, whose tolerant beliefs have come under attack, have decided to fight back against al-Shabaab for destroying their shrines and murdering their imams….

It is an Islamist versus Islamist war, and the Sufi scholars are part of a broader moderate movement that Western nations are counting on to repel Somalia’s increasingly powerful extremists.

Whether Somalia becomes a terrorist haven and a genuine regional threat – which is already beginning to happen, with hundreds of heavily armed foreign jihadists flocking here to fight for Al Shabab – or whether this country steadies itself and ends the years of bloodshed, may hinge on who wins these ideological, sectarian battles.

But caveats are raised by Ali Eteraz, writing in Foreign Policy this month:

The usual response by supporters of the Sufi solution is that thanks to the extremists, Islam has already been politicized, and therefore propagandist measures promoting Sufism are the only way to fight back. But that’s precisely the problem: Propaganda is inherently discrediting. Besides, state-sponsored Sufism … gets everything backward: In an environment where demagogues are using religion to conceal their true political and material ambitions, establishing another official, “preferred” theological ideology won’t roll back their influence. Minimizing the role of all religion in government would be a better idea. Only then could people begin to speak about rights and liberty.

Eteraz also notes that calls the West to play a Sufi card have been raised in The Economist (Dec. 18) and the BBC (Feb. 24—check out the amazing photo!)

Eteraz overlooks the most obvious reason an imperialist Sufi strategy could backfire—making Sufis the pawns and proxies of the West will delegitimize them in the eyes of precisely those the strategists would seek to win over. We think most of the Sufis are shrewd and worldly enough to realize this. Besieged Sufis (and other religious and ethnic minorities in the Muslim world) do indeed need solidarity from the West. But only those who oppose the interventions, drone strikes and torture policies of the Global War on Terrorism have got the moral credibility to offer this solidarity. It is necessary to oppose both of the two poles of terrorism assaulting the Muslim world—political Islam and imperialism.

See our last posts on the Sufis and Somalia and the struggle within Islam.

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