Sufism might have the power to deradicalize Muslim militants because the peaceful sect adheres to the basics of Islam without the tendency to violence.
On May 22, a young soldier named Lee Rigby of the 2nd Battalion, Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, was in a street in the Woolwich area of London, near the Royal Artillery Barracks, when he was hit by a car that crushed him against a lamp post. Two men emerged and attacked Rigby with knives and machetes, then left his mutilated corpse in the middle of the road while spouting radical Islamic justifications for the murder they had committed.
The first attacker, Michael Olumide Adebolajo, had been born and raised in London. His family is Christian, but he converted to Islam in 2003, became increasingly radicalized, and eventually traveled to Kenya, allegedly to train with the al-Qaeda-linked militant group Al-Shabaab, whose ideology is said to be rooted in Wahhabism. The second, Michael Oluwatobi Adebowale, had been born in Nigeria, but raised in the United Kingdom. His descent into radical Islam is not yet fully understood, but like millions of other young men around the world, he believes that the teachings of the Wahhabi sect of Islam (sometimes called Salafism) justified the murder of Rigby in revenge for British military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan. (There should be a distinction drawn between violent Salafi Islamists, sometimes called Jihadi Salafists, and the more peaceful, if ultraconservative, followers of traditional forms of Wahhabism.)
Wahhabism is a fundamentalist branch of Islam that gained prominence in the eighteenth century through a movement led by theologian Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab from Saudi Arabia, who sought a return to a more fundamentalist approach. Today, Wahhabism is strongest on the Arab peninsula, where its institutionalization, chiefly among the ruling family of Saudi Arabia, has allowed its adherents to control vast oil reserves and their resultant cash flow, with a portion of those funds going to spreading the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam across the world. The latest example of this is discussed in a recent article in AllAfrica.com, which notes that Wahhabism is taking root in West and North Africa as African students who study in Islamic universities in the Middle East return to their homes in Mali, Niger, and Senegal. This is leading to conflicts between those adherents and the native Sufis.
At a presentation in Washington, D.C., sponsored by the Inter-University Center for Legal Studies of the International Law Institute and the International Center for Terrorism Studies at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, Khawaja Farooq Renzu Shah, chair of the Kashmir Sufism Society, discussed how Wahhabism made inroads into the Indian province of Kashmir in the late 1980s, after the Mujahideen infiltrated the area by opening a pipeline of money to fund free schools that promoted Wahhabism over Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam that had been dominant in Kashmir for centuries. The school teaches Wahhabism’s conservative principles—often threatening violence for noncompliance. “Their strategy, in some cases, is to reduce a population to poverty and then introduce their extremist version of Islam, including hijacking the word ‘jihad’ and telling the young poor that they will go to heaven if they are suicide bombers,” Shah said.
Shah noted that the Sufi Muslims and Hindus had lived in Kashmir, side by side, with little religious unrest for hundreds of years. In fact, he asserted, their temples, mosques, and shrines to Sufi saints often sat right next to each other and were used interchangeably by people seeking healing or other divine benefit.
Shah said that Sufism’s devotees endeavor to receive divine love and wisdom through a personal experience with God. Sufis are ascetic, and they promote peace and tolerance not only between the sects of Islam but also with other religions, he said. Radical Islam has responded to Sufism in many areas of the Muslim world by attacking or destroying its shrines, assassinating its leaders, and branding its practitioners as idolaters.
Shah is among those who believe that Sufism—because it does include adherence to the basic tenets of Islam—can serve as an effective tool of deradicalization among Muslim militants like the killers of Lee Rigby and Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev—the radicalized brothers who carried out the Boston Marathon bombings in April.
Shah also discussed the tendency by many to group all Muslims into the extremist camp. It is important for non-Muslims to understand that the majority of followers of Islam are not radical or violent, he said. Shah, who is also chair of the Hazrat Bulbul Shah Trust, is working in Pakistan to bolster the gentler and more peaceful practices of Sufism in Kashmir by a campaign to rebuild or restore the shrines to Sufi saints that were damaged by militant Islamists or that have suffered from years of neglect.
Shah also laments how easy it is for a small minority to tarnish the entire religion and its precepts. “Three or four persons of hate come together, and they destroy a tower or a railway or a parliament and say ‘We do this in the name of our religion and in jihad.’ But jihad is not a bad word,” Shah stated. “For the Sufi, it means love, meditation, and purity.”