The Global War on Terrorism’s Strangest of Bedfellows

by Sarkis Pogossian, World War 4 Report

It was none other than neocon whiz kid and former undersecretary of defense Douglas J. Feith (along with Justin Polin, a sidekick from the Hudson Institute) who favorably invoked the Sufis in a New York Times op-ed about Pakistan this March 30. The attack on sufism by Pakistan’s neo-Taliban receives practically no coverage in the international media—until war propagandists seize on it for their own cynical purposes.

The piece, entitled “Radio-Free Swat Valley,” noted that earlier that month presumed Taliban forces bombed the shrine of revered Pashtun poet Rahman Baba (born c. 1650). The writers noted: “The bombers took aim at the poet’s shrine because it represented Sufism, the mystical form of Islam that has long been predominant in India and Pakistan. They praised Sufism’s legacy of “tolerance, devotion and love” that the “extremists are determined to destroy.” It closed with a verse of Rahman Baba’s “Sow Flowers”:

Sow flowers to make a garden bloom around you,

The thorns you sow will prick your own feet.

Arrows shot at others

Will return to hit you as they fall.

You yourself will come to teeter on the lip

Of a well dug to undermine another.

The writers called for the US to fund a Pashtun radio network akin to Radio Free Europe, to promote this kind of Islam as an alternative to Taliban orthodoxy.

Of course, the very last thing that Rahman Baba and his contemporary adherents need is for his voice to be co-opted as an instrument of US propaganda. Pakistan’s Sufis are doubtless astute enough to grasp the surreal irony of Feith—a key architect of the Iraq adventure, and advocate of spreading the war to Iran—quoting the pacifistic verse of an 18th century Sufi poet.

Nearly a year earlier, on February 16, 2008, the New York Times ran a guardedly optimistic op-ed, “In Pakistan, Islam Needs Democracy,” by Waleed Ziad of the Truman National Security Project, a think-tank that “unites Americans who believe equally in strong liberal values, and the need for strong national security.” He noted a ceremony commemorating of the death of a Sufi saint at Pakpattan village in the Punjab—”a feast of dance, poetry, music and prayer attended by more than a million people.”

This more indigenous Islam is standing up to the fundamentalist tyranny, we are told. Ziad takes heart that “in the tribal areas, many local village councils, called jirgas, have summoned the Pakistani Army or conducted independent operations against extremists. Virtually all effective negotiations between the army and militants have involved local councils; in 2006, a jirga in the town of Bara expelled two rival clerics who used their town as a battleground.”

Yet in his strategic prescriptions, Ziad finds: “Pakistan’s military will continue to manage the war against the Taliban and its Qaeda allies, while President Pervez Musharraf will remain America’s primary partner.”

And herein lies Ziad’s betrayal of those he invokes. Apologias for Musharraf and US imperialism will not serve the cause of decoupling the jirgas from the Taliban/al-Qaeda. Nothing will discredit the jirgas and Sufis faster than making them collaborators with the US and Musharraf’s brutal military—legitimizing the Wahhabi types as the “resistance.” But more and more neo-conservative are calling for this unlikely alliance.

Pakistan: Laboratory of the Sufi Strategy

Pakistan’s government announced this June that it is establishing a Sufi Advisory Council, with an aim of combating extremism by promoting Sufism and its pacifistic vision of Islam. Reuters’ coverage of the development noted that such stateside establishmentarian voices as RAND and the Heritage Foundation have recently advocated such a strategy.

The 2003 RAND report, Civil Democratic Islam: Partners, Resources, Strategies, includes the following policy recommendation: “Encourage the popularity and acceptance of Sufism.” The 2009 Heritage Foundation report, Reviving Pakistan’s Pluralist Traditions to Fight Extremism notes the growing schism between the the more indigenous and Sufi-tolerant Barelvi school with the orthodox Deobandi favored by the Pashtun Taliban.

“What these militants were doing was un-Islamic,” Reuters quoted Sahibzada Fazal Karim, a leader of the moderate Islamist party Jamiat-e-ulema-e-Pakistan, who organized anti-Taliban protests. Beheading innocent people and kidnapping are in no way condoned in Islam,” said

Also quoted was anti-Taliban cleric Sarfraz Ahmed Naeemi—who was killed by a suicide bomber at his Lahore mosque earlier in June. In May, he said of the Taliban: “They want people to fight one another, that’s why we have kept silent and endured their oppression. We don’t want civil war… But God forbid, if the government fails to stop them, then we will confront them ourselves.”

Naeemi was ultra-conservative by any standard short of the Taliban’s. He advocated sharia enforcement, and lost a government post and was briefly arrested after protesting Pakistani collaboration in the US War on Terror. He was arrested again for protesting the Danish cartoons of Prophet Mohammad.

He was killed five days after the government announced creation of the Sufi council.

Somalia: Imperialism and the Sufi Survival Struggle

Christian Science Monitor blogger David Montero found in June 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?”, quoted a Somali writer—identifying himself only as Muthuma—who writes on the Bartamaha news portal that 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 that 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 again 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.

US-backed Ethiopia began pulling its military forces out of Somalia at the beginning of the year, having pledged to withdraw from the country by the end of 2008. But the Ethiopians left behind chaos. The “official” Transitional Federal Government they were backing up controls little more than a few blocks of downtown Mogadishu. A peace deal that brought into the transitional government many conservative clerics who had been exiled to Eritrea during the Ethiopian occupaiton has failed to win peace. Al-Shabab (youth) militia is the foremost of several jihadi insurgent groups.

Factional violence has been reported between al-Shabab and Ahl A-Sunna wal-Jama’a, a Sufi militia that has armed to resist the jihadis. Heavy fighting erupted in central Somalia in the closing days of 2008. Two religious militias seeking control of the town of Guri El in Galgadud region, local Radio Garowe reported. Sufi gunmen reportedly took control of strategic locations inside Guri El, ousting al-Shabaab guerillas who had seized the town weeks earlier.

Sheikh Abdirahman Abu-Qadi, a spokesman for the sufi militia, told reporters that al-Shabaab was responsible for destroying the graves of revered sheikhs. “The bones of Sheikh Nur Hussein have been sold to Italians and Jews and we do not know why,” Abu-Qadi said. Al-Shabaab fighters last week reportedly destroyed graves in Jilib and Kismayo districts, in the Middle Jubba and Lower Jubba regions respectively.

The day before the fighting, Sheikh Abdulkadir Somow, a leader of the Sufi group, held a press conference in Mogadishu to protest the desecration of the graves by al-Shabaab fighters. “It is prohibited to bother a Muslim person, living or dead, in Islam,” Sheikh Somow said, adding that the graves of Sheikh Nur and his two sons were destroyed. He urged restraint on the part of Sufi followers, while appealing to al-Shabaab to “stop destroying graves and mosques.” He also asserted that foreign fighters were involved in the desecrations.

Radio Garowe quoted an unidentified Shabaab fighter who confirmed the report, adding: “We believe people were worshipping the dead…and so we destroyed the graves.” The veneration of the graves of saints is centuries-old local tradition, but is rejected as heresy by the fundamentalist al-Shabaab.

Islamist al-Shabaab insurgents seized two districts in central Somalia without violence Dec. 7, including the stronghold of a Sufi group that traditionally abjures violence. Residents in Galgadud region reported that fighters aboard armed trucks peacefully entered the provincial capital Dhusamareb. “The local clan militias withdrew before they came,” one resident told the independent Radio Garowe. Shabaab fighters also took control of Mataban district to the south, with clan militias similarly offering no resistance. The Shabaab faction already controls key regions in southern Somalia, including the port towns of Kismayo and Marka.

Speaking in Mogadishu, Sheikh Somow appealed for peace: “The fighting in Guri El [in Galgadud] was between brothers, and Ahlu Sunnah Wal Jamee’a was not involved.” He called on Somalis to “stop fighting each other,” and on feuding warlords to “resolve differences.” He praised Djibouti for supporting the peace process.

Despite Sufi appeals for peace, Somalia is starkly divided between indigenous Islamic traditions and jihadist orthodoxy. This June, sharia court in a Shabab-controlled section of Mogadishu sentenced four teenagers to each have a hand and a leg amputated as punishment for stealing cellphones. Last October, it made at least brief world headlines when a woman was stoned to death for adultery following a sentence by a sharia court in the insurgent-controlled southern town of Kismayo.

In a lesser known case in July 2008, militants loyal to the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) assaulted at “cultural boogie” at El-Ghelle village, Balad district, some 30 kilometers north of Mogadishu. The fighters reportedly opened fire on a circle where drummers, singers and musicians were playing for a traditional dance. A man and women were wounded, while other participants fled barefooted to bush. In their six months in power before being ousted by the US-backed Ethiopian intervention of December 2006, the ICU banned music and repeatedly raided wedding parties in Mogadishu.

Iran: Sufis Under the Aytaollahs

The Sufis have, needless to say, fared poorly under the Ayatollah regime that may now face destabilization. Long before Iran exploded into massive protests following the contested June elections, Sufis were—by no choice of their own—often on the frontlines of resisting the orthodox Shi’ite theocracy.

The harshest incident came in November 2007, in the town of Boroujerd, Luristan province, with the destruction of a hosseinieh or monastery belonging to the Gonabadi Sufi order by the police and Basij paramilitary forces. According to Mohsen Yahyavi, the conservative parliamentary representative for Boroujerd, the trouble began when Sufis abducted and beat several youths affiliated with a nearby mosque. The Sufis, however, tell a different story. One young female follower of the order told IPS: “Religious vigilantes had once before tried to bulldoze the hosseinieh and succeeded in destroying parts of its walls. This time on the night before the hosseinieh was completely destroyed, the Basij militia and the vigilantes staged a bogus attack on a nearby mosque where there was a gathering to criticize Sufi beliefs. The attack was then blamed on the Sufis to justify the attack on the hosseinieh.”

The militiamen then turned on the hosseinieh. The Sufis refused to evacuate the building, and called the police. But after midnight the police abandoned the scene and there was a blackout. More clashes followed at the hosseinieh. The Sufis trapped inside were left at the mercy of vigilantes armed with tear gas. They torched and then bulldozed the building. The next day, the remains of the building were razed to the ground by the “official” authorities. No trace was left of the hosseinieh.”

More than 180 followers of the order were arrested, and 80 people were wounded during the incident, the Fars news agency reported the deputy governor of Luristan province as saying.

Some wire reports said the Sufis “traded fire” with police and paramilitary forces. Local journalist Morteza Bourbour told AP the violence began when Sufis attacked a nearby mosque, injuring several Shi’ite clerics who had urged their followers to shut down the Sufi lodge because it was “illegitimate.” Iranian state radio briefly mentioned “clashes between people and Sufis ended in Boroujerd after police intervention.”

The independent AdvarNews said some 100 Sufis were injured and another 500 arrested “after an unidentified group captured the lodge, setting fire to it and flattening it by bulldozer.”

AP identified the Sufi order as “Nematollahi-Gonabadi,” and reported that conservative clerics such as Grand Ayatollahs Safi Golpaigani, Makarem Shirazi, Fazel Lankarani and Nouri Hamadani have issued fatwas against Sufis. The Sufis have been defended by other clerics who uphold their right to free worship—including Grand Ayatollah Montazeri, who issued a statement following the attack on the hosseinieh of the dervishes in Qom in February 2006.

Mehdi Karrubi, former parliament speaker and leader of the Etemad Melli reformist party, a Shiite cleric himself, has written letters to ayatollahs and state officials in defense of the Sufis’ right to free worship. 07

In November 2008, Iran’s judiciary sentenced a Sufi leader to five years in prison, flogging and exile on charges of spreading lies, the moderate Kargozaran newspaper reported. The report identified the man as Amir Ali Mohammad Labaf, of the Nematollahis or Gonabadi Dervishes order based in the northeastern province of Khorassan Razavi. Labaf was convicted by a court in Iran’s clerical center of Qom, finding that his holding of traditional Sufi prayers constituted “a case of spreading lies,” the report said, without elaborating. In addition to the five-year prison term, Labaf was sentenced to 74 lashes and internal exile to the southeastern town of Babak.

Followers of Iran’s indigenous Baha’i faith, which has roots in Shi’ite Sufism, have also faced persecution—and were especially targeted by the regime in the crackdown on dissidents that immediately preceded the contested 2009 elections. Seven Baha’is were arrested on highly dubious charges of spying for Israel in February. Jinous Sobhani, secretary of the independent Defenders of Human Rights Center in Tehran and a follower of the Baha’i faith, was detained by authorities in January. The Defenders of Human Rights Center, founded by prominent dissident and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi, was ordered closed by the authorities in December, and Ebadi’s private office was also raided, with computers and files confiscated.

Ebadi, to her great credit, has spoken out publicly against the exploitation of the issue of human rights in Iran in advance of imperial agendas. On February 8, 2005, she had an op-ed in the New Yor Times, co-authored with Hadi Ghaem of Human Rights Watch, entitled “The Human Rights Case Against Attacking Iran”. Ebadi and Ghaem wrote: “American policy toward the Middle East, and Iran in particular, is often couched in the language of human rights… But for human rights defenders in Iran, the possibility of a foreign military attack on their country represents an utter disaster for their cause.”

Iraq: Towards a Sufi Insurgency?

In August 2006, the Washington Post invoked an incipient Sufi insurgency in Iraq. British forces were abandoning Camp Abu Naji at Amarah, in southern Iraq, and not only Moktada al-Sadr but also the official Maysan provincial authorites proclaimed it as a victory against the occupier. The British commander Maj. Charlie Burbridge asserted Iraqi army forces maintained “full control” of the base—even as it was being sacked by looters armed with AK-47s! Burbridge crowed about how disciplined the Iraqi army maintaining (precarious) control of the base is—while a local brigade mutinies, apparently well-infiltrated by the Sadr forces! The British forces were evacuating the Amarah base to carry out “guerilla tactics” in the marshlands—an implicit acknowledgement that the insurgents are in control there! Finally, it was noted that even the pacifistic Sufis had declared a jihad against the Anglo-American occupation (and the fundamentalist Shi’ites like al-Sadr who would like to exterminate them):

In other developments, the head of a major Iraqi sect of Sufism, a mystical branch of Islam that had previously rejected violence against U.S.-led coalition forces, declared holy war on American troops. The leader, Sheik Mohammed al-Qadiri, said his sect would form a new group, the Battalions of Shikh Abdul Qadir al-Gaillani, and join the insurgency.

“We will not wait for the Mahdi Army and the Badr Brigade to enter our houses and kill us,” said Ahmed al-Soffi, a Sufi leader in the western city of Fallujah, referring to the country’s major Shiite militias. “We will fight the Americans and the Shiites who are against us.”

Now, as the US prepares to depart from Iraq’s cities, the sectarian war is escalating horribly—after a still-bloody “lull” of several months. Perhaps the Qadiri Sufis will re-appear in the news. For their sake—hopefully not.

Kosova: Sufis in the West’s “Model Muslim” State

Neocons have frankly pinned their hopes on newly independent Kosova—now recognized by some 60 countries around the world, and still under a thousands-strong US/NATO occupation. The Serb minority and largely Muslim Albanian majority are as divided as ever—with a rebel Serb council refusing to recognize the declaration of independence.

Michael Totten wrote in a March 2008 piece for Commentary: “Kosovo doesn’t belong to the Iranian-Syrian-Hezbollah-Hamas axis. On the contrary, Kosovo has thrown in its lot with the West, and especially with the United States. Serbia’s breakaway province is perhaps the most pro-American country in all of Europe. Bill Clinton is lionized there as a liberator—a main boulevard through the capital Prishtina is named after him—just as George H. W. Bush and his son George W. Bush are hailed as saviors in Iraqi Kurdistan….”

In other words, the Kosovars are domesticated good Muslims, who view the US as protector rather than hegemon. Someone forgot to tell the folks at the pro-Serbian American Council on Kosovo and the GWOT hardliner Jihad Watch websites. Bent on portraying Kosova as al-Qaeda’s new European beachhead, these sites are awash with such lurid titles as “Wahhabism Tightening Grip Over Kosovo” and “The Clinton-Bush-Islamic Axis in Israel and Kosovo.”

The reality may be more complicated—and interesting—than either side will acknowledge. A March 2008 article in the Tehran Times mentions some deep-rooted elements in the region which appear to exist outside the spectacularized jihad-vs-GWOT duality. It notes that the Albania-based Sadi Cultural Foundation is establishing libraries and tekiyas—sufi gathering places— in Kosova and Macedonia “with the assistance of the Bektashi Order and is planning to set up more in the future.”

The story renders tekiya with the less orthodox spelling of tekyeh—and defines it as a “place where ritual Shia Islamic ceremonies are practiced.” But this may be a ploy to get past Tehran’s censors. Tekiyas—especially in the Balkans—are generally associated with sufi orders which, even when Shi’ite, fall well outside the mainstream of Shia Islam. In fact, the Balkans appear to have been a refuge for heretical traditions which were persecuted in Turkey when the Ottoman Empire was shaken by paroxysms of orthodoxy or—with Sultan Mahmud II’s modernization drive in 1826—militant secularism.

Writes historian Anthony Weir on the website of the Bektashi Order of Sufi Dervishes:

Many early leaders of Albanian nationalism were Bektashi, and the Order formed the “left” end of the Islamic spectrum in the Balkans. Following the destruction of the Janissary Corps and the banning of the tariqat [sufi orders] in 1826, many Bektashi babas and dervishes fled to the remote areas of the Balkans far from the reach of the Ottoman government. During this period (especially after the order outlawing of the Bektashis was rescinded in the 1860s), the tariqat had gained a sizeable presence in southern Albania. Their toleration and ability to absorb local custom provided the population with a “folk” Islam that they could easily relate to—and this allowed Bektashism to spread throughout Greece and modern Macedonia

He notes that among those who established colonies in the Balkans at this time (especially Bulgaria) were the Kizilbashi, a sufi military caste from central Anatolia—where they are generally associated with the (nominally Shi’ite) Alevi Order.

The Alevis of central Anatolia are said to harbor indigenous Turkic traditions (including traces of shamanism) purged from the Arabized culture of the Ottoman court. Balkan sufism similarly seems to harbor traces of indigenous pre-Islamic and even pre-Christian traditions. In “A Glimpse at Sufism in the Balkans,” scholar Huseyin Abiva writes on the Alevi-Bektashi website:

In rural areas…the orders that were the widest spread tended to have had heterodox and syncretistic teachings. Here, in order to facilitate an easy transition from Christianity to Islam, the people often kept elements of their old ways (which were often of pre-Christian in origin themselves). For instance, the Hamzevis found considerable appeal along the…Drina River valley [Bosnia] in the 16th century… The 14th century religio-political movement of Shaykh Beddruddin Simavi (if it can be defined as a Sufi tariqat) was confined to the wilds of the Bulgarian backcountry. Both of these movements were crushed by the Ottoman government, but many of their ideas are believed to have filtered into the Bektashi Order…

An April 4, 2006 AFP report picked up by the website Sufi News & World Report noted (in an account not for the squeamish):

At the end of March the 5,000 Dervishes of Prizen in southern Kosovo celebrate the Spring equinox festival of “Sultan Nevruz,” the moment when the sun begins to favor the Northern Hemisphere and day become longer than night… “La-illaha-illallah” (“There is no god but God”) the Dervishes intone in a subdued prayer… “Allah Hu” (he is God), they chant in perfect unison.

That is when the skewers and knives appear.

The Shejh [Adrihusejn, leader of the order] leads the way, coating 15-centimetre (six inch) long needles with his saliva and then piercing his two young sons. He does the same to three other children.

Miraculously, there is no blood, and the children show no sign of fear or pain, swaying silently as they hold the needles pierced through one side of their mouths.

Next come the blades: Shejh slowly eases 40-centimetre ( 1.3-foot) knives with rounded, pearl-coated stems through both cheeks of the Dervishes, one-by-one.

Driven by the rhythm of kettledrums and tambourines, the entranced worshipers sway in a semi-conscious state, repeating their calls to “Allah” over and over.

Next they begin piercing their necks with knives, proudly displaying the wounds. “The knives symbolize the healing of all wounds. This is the blessing of God and the power of the order,” says an elderly, high-ranking Dervish after the ceremony.

This is clearly Nowruz, the Persian new year festival—perhaps brought to the Balkans in the 1820s by the Kizilbashi, or perhaps by Zoroastrian-influenced Gnostics 2,000 years ago.

It is practically axiomatic that these cultures are threatened. In a 2000 study, “Destruction of cultural heritage in Kosovo: a postwar report,” undertaken by Harvard scholars Andrew Herscher and Andras J. Riedlmayer for the prosecution at The Hague tribunal for the ex-Yugoslavia:

Another category of historical architecture in urgent need of protection in Kosovo is Muslim houses of worship. This part of Europe is home to an indigenous Islamic tradition going back more than 600 years, with its own rich architectural heritage—mosques, tekkes (lodges of the Sufi lay brotherhoods), medreses (theological schools), Islamic libraries, hamams (Turkish baths), and bazaars built to support charitable foundations. This heritage suffered massive destruction during the recent conflict… mosques burned out from within… minarets that had been blown up with explosives… visible signs of vandalism (Koran manuscripts…burned or defaced with human excrement…)… [T]his destruction was not the result of military activities. These were not buildings that had been caught in the crossfire as Serbian forces fought Albanian rebels, or hit by NATO’s bombs and missiles.

Of course, if you want to be regaled by the corresponding accounts of Albanian vandalism of Serbian Orthodox churches, monasteries and artifacts, just go to the American Council on Kosovo. The point is that maybe—just maybe—there are autochthonous forces that have not been drawn into the pathological polarization, if only due to their own endemic weirdness.

The Bektashi do pop up in the Turkish press from time to time. They have weighed in publicly in favor of the lifting of Turkey’s head-scarf ban:

The leader of the Hasandede Turkmen-Bektashi Association, Ă–zdemir Ă–zdemir…claimed that the greater part of society is against the headscarf ban and argued that the ban has nothing to do with secularism. “People with and without veils are living together in peace. We should respect individual preferences. We should always act hand in hand for the development of our country,” said Ă–zdemir.

Secularists might disagree with this position—but it is still a very far cry from Wahhabism. And, despite the dreams of the neocons, the dervish ceremony described above is also (thank goodness) a very far cry from American globalism…

Tellingly both Totten and left-wing Israeli dissident Uri Avnery have noted Israeli reluctance to recognize Kosova lest it give some ideas to the Palestinians (and, worse yet, Israeli Arabs)

With Friends Like These…

Sufis are already in the cross-hairs of the jihadis.

At least two people were killed and nearly 20 injured when a bomb exploded inside the revered Sufi shrine of Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti at Ajmer in India’s western state of Rajasthan in October 2007. The attack came when the shrine was packed with hundreds of worshipers during evening Eid al-Fitr prayers. A day after the attack, a second explosive device was found in the shrine and defused by police. Six people were detained for interrogation, including two pilgrims of Bangladeshi origin. No group claimed responsibility for the blast.

The bombing was the third in a series of attacks on Muslim religious institutions after the 2006 bombing of a Sufi shrine in Malegaon and this summer’s strike at the Mecca Masjid in Hyderabad. A revealing commentary was provided by Praveen Swami for The Hindu, entitled “The War Against Popular Islam.” Swami recalls that Chishti wrote that the highest form of worship is “to redress the misery of those in distress, to fulfil the needs of the helpless and to feed the hungry.” Note ironic use of the term “neoconservative” to describe the Salafists:

The bombings…have been characterised as attempts to provoke a pan-India communal war. But the bombings also reflect another less-understood project: the war of Islamist neoconservatives against the syncretic traditions and beliefs that characterise popular Islam in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti is, almost without dispute, the most venerated Sufi saint of South Asia. Born in 1141 CE, Chishti is believed to have studied at the great seminaries of Samarkand and Bukhara before travelling to India. Ajmer emerged as an important centre of pilgrimage during the sixteenth century, after Emperor Akbar undertook a pilgrimage on foot to the saint’s grave…

Islamist critics of Sufism have made no secret of their loathing for shrines like that at Ajmer, which they claim propagate the heresy of “shirk”—an Arabic term commonly translated to mean polytheism, but which is also used to refer to the veneration of saints and even atheism.

South Asian terror groups associated with recent attacks on Muslim shrines—notably the Lashkar-e-Taiba—draw theological inspiration from the Salafi sect, a neoconservative tradition also sometimes referred to as Wahabbism. Salafi theologians are intensely hostile to Sufi orders like that founded by Chishti, characterising them as apostasy.

In The General Precepts of the Ahlus-Sunnah wal-Jamaah, a pamphlet which propounds the Salafi doctrine, theologian Shaykh Naasir al’Aql, sharply criticises religious practices “where the dead are taken as intermediaries between a person and Allah, supplicating them and seeking the fulfilment of one’s needs through them, seeking their assistance and other similar acts.”

This is an obvious reference to the revered tombs of Sufi saints,

It is theoretically possible that Hindu militants rather than Salafists were behind this attack. But in June 2007, assailants tossed a grenade at the house of a holy man in Sopore, in India-controlled Kashmir, killing two of his devotees and injuring 15, even as the saint escaped unhurt.

This was the second attack on the darvaish Abdul Ahad, alias Ahad Bab. The Times of India wrote: “The ascetic lives a simple life and sits in an iron cage, clad in rags, while his devotees, who belong to different faiths, sit around him.”

The Hindu reported witnesses had identified the attacker as local Lashkar-e-Taiba militant. The report also noted widespread attacks on Sufi targets in Kashmir:

Islamists here have long opposed the influence of Ahad Sa’ab Sopore, a one-time policeman who left his job and became a mystic after undergoing what he describes as a spiritual experience three decades ago. As early as 1991, the Hizb ul-Mujahideen carried out a near-successful assassination attempt on the mystic. However, he escaped unhurt.

While mystics like Ahad Sa’ab Sopore have enormous religious and temporal power—their followers include several prominent politicians, bureaucrats and police and military officers—Islamists have repeatedly attacked their authority. Ahad Sa’ab Sopore, notably, has been criticised for appearing naked in public, a practice the mystic defends by asserting that the world, not he, needs to feel ashamed for its behaviour.

As early as June 1994, Lashkar stormed the historic Baba Reshi shrine at Tangmarg and fired on pilgrims. Dozens of similar attacks took place through the Kashmir valley as part of an Islamist campaign to stamp out folk Islam. The most prominent attack was the October 1995 siege of the Hazratbal shrine in Srinagar, which houses a relic claimed to be a hair of Prophet Mohammad. The terrorists threatened to blow up the shrine unless besieging troops were withdrawn. A similar siege at Chrar-e-Sharif in May 1996 led to the destruction of the town’s famous 700-year-old shrine.

Attacks continue, if less spectacularly. In 2000, Lashkar terrorists destroyed sacramental tapestries Bafliaz residents had offered at the shrine of Sayyed Noor. In June 2007, a Lashkar operative threw a grenade at a Sufi congregation in Bijbehara, injuring several. Lashkar is also thought responsible for a May 2005 arson that led to the destruction of the 14th century shrine of saint Zainuddin Wali at Ashmuqam. Earlier Ashmuqam was subjected to several grenade attacks, leading to disruption of festive days there for several years.

The neocons face a grave moral responsibility in their Sufi strategy. 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. It will also make them more of a target—or at least give a propaganda boost to those who target them. Even Sufis who feel the need to take allies where they can find them are doubtless 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.


Sarkis Pogossian is an impoverished World War 4 Report researcher.

From our Daily Report:

Pakistan: Sufis make NYT op-ed page
World War 4 Report, Feb. 17, 2008

Neocons exploit Sufis on NYT op-ed page —again!
World War 4 Report, March 30, 2009

Pakistan plays Sufi card against jihadis
World War 4 Report, June 27, 2009

Somalia: West to groom Sufis as proxies?
World War 4 Report, June 24, 2009

Somalia: insurgent sharia court sentences youth to amputation
World War 4 Report, June 24, 2009

Ethiopia begins Somalia withdrawal —chaos or peace next?
World War 4 Report, Jan. 3, 2009

Somalia: Sufis resist al-Shabaab insurgents
World War 4 Report, Dec. 28, 2008

Somalia: insurgency spreads, Sufis appeal for peace
World War 4 Report, Dec. 9, 2008

Somalia: rape victim stoned to death
World War 4 Report, Oct. 30, 2008

Somalia: Islamists attack traditional dance ceremony
World War 4 Report, July 1, 2008

Marabout wars in West Africa?
World War 4 Report, Jan. 5, 2008

Senegal: million pilgrims honor Sufi saint
World War 4 Report, March 9, 2007

Iran condemns Sufi to prison, flogging, exile
World War 4 Report, Nov. 16, 2008

Iran: paramilitaries destroy Sufi monastery after clash
World War 4 Report, Nov. 23, 2007

Iran: Baha’is targeted in espionage trial
World War 4 Report, Feb. 14, 2009

Iran: human rights worker arrested in sweep of Baha’is
World War 4 Report, Jan. 16, 2009

Iran: police shut independent human rights office
World War 4 Report, Dec. 23, 2008

Iranian Nobel Laureate dissident blasts US intervention
World War 4 Report, Feb. 9, 2005

Brits go “guerilla” in Iraq marshlands; Sufis declare jihad
World War 4 Report, Aug. 26, 2006

Missing on Kosova: the sufi voice?
World War 4 Report, March 25, 2007

India: terror blast at Sufi shrine
World War 4 Report, Oct. 13, 2007

Sufis under attack in Kashmir
World War 4 Report, July 22, 2007

See also:

Indigenous North Africa Between Jihad and Imperialism
by Toufik Amayas Mostefaou
World War 4 Report, March 2007


Special to World War 4 Report, July 1, 2009
Reprinting permissible with attribution