Bill Weinberg to speak in Oakland on sufism, jihad and imperialism

In New York's "Ground Zero Mosque" controversy, xenophobes are ironically protesting construction of a Sufi community center—even as Sufi mosques and shrines are getting blown up regularly in Pakistan by the same political forces that were behind 9-11. Imam Rauf of the planned center (the Cordoba Institute), meanwhile, is being paid by the State Department to go on good-will tours of the Islamic world.

The RAND Corp and various neocon pundits have openly called for grooming Sufis (with their tolerant, universalist and pacifist spirit) to oppose jihadism in Pakistan and elsewhere. The Russians are already doing this, pouring money into Sufi groups in Chechnya and the Caucasus. In Somalia, a Sufi order has actually taken up arms against the local jihadi outfit, the Shabaab, which is attempting to suppress them. They may have no choice but to do this, but it could make them ripe for CIA/Pentagon intrigues.

Sufi orders played a critical but little-recognized role in anti-colonial struggles (against France in West Africa, Britain in Somalia, Italy in Libya, etc.). Today, with the collapse of the left and secular nationalism in the Middle East, how do we respond to the rise of jihadism (lubricated as it was by CIA largesse in the '80s)? How do we offer solidarity to its targets without playing into new imperialist intrigues and strategies?

Discussion by Bill Weinberg, editor of World War 4 Report and producer for the Moorish Orthodox Radio Crusade on WBAI-NY.

Sunday October 31, 1:00 PM

At the Niebyl-Proctor Marxist Library, 6501 Telegraph Ave., Oakland, Calif.


sounds like quite an interesting talk you're about to give. just out of curiosity, will it be recorded, so that those of us nowhere near oakland can hear? i've known about what sufism is (roughly, there's a lot to it), and knew about some resistance to colonialism in north Africa stemming from it's more independent view of religion and culture, but was unaware of support by various intel agencies until i saw you reporting on it here, and i'd like to know more about the effects of sufism on the myriad political cultures it interacts with and possible hijacking of it by external forces (it does kind of sound like what ended up happening with 'political islam' all those years ago).

Tell your friends in the Bay Area... show up and record it. That's about the best I can offer. I'm flattered by your interest, but I have limited resources.

I do talk on this stuff fairly frequently on WBAI, where you can listen for free:

Problems with the Agenda Because Sufism is Diverse

Hi Bill,

I think you are onto something about the imperialist impulse to "co-opt" Sufis to be allies against "jihadists", but there are several problems with that tactic. Firstly, not all Sufis are non-violent, universalist, and tolerant of others. This is mainly a romanticized, westernized, sufiphilia vision of Sufis and Sufism. For some Sufis, this is certainly true, but not all. There are some Sufis who actively teach and try to implement the literal understanding of Shariah (or "Islamic Law.") There are some Sufis who engage in "jihad", which would make them "jihadists" in the "government's" eyes.

So if Sufis and Jihadists can both be "jihadists", then a third party would need to be "co-opted" to oppose the militant Sufis. Some Sufis believe Islam is the only true religion, and everything else is falsehood. This notion that mysticism = tolerance of other religions, is a dangerous one, because it relies on absolute values without room for deviation. A person can be a mystic, and still be hateful fanatic. Many people in the Third Reich were mystics. In some cases, mysticism can actually lead people to believe that God is literally on their side to help them fight their enemies, so in that aspect some Sufis could be used as anti-co-opt against the imperial agenda.

There is already a militant Sufi fringe group in Iraq called the Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order, who is fighting the U.S. presence there. They call themselves Sufis, and yet they are actively fighting against the U.S. The mainstream Naqshbandi Orders don't recognize them, but that's not the point. Just because a person says they oppose terrorism, that doesn't automatically mean that they accept liberalism, democracy, social liberty as core values. It's not as simple as "I like terrorism, so I believe in Shariah", or "I dislike terrorism, so I oppose Shariah law." A Sufi Shaykh in Afghanistan has expressed his dismay of "folk Sufism" which is universalistic and tolerant, and wants to implement the literal understanding of "Shariah law." To these kinds of Sufis, the Law and the Mysticism can not be separated. To them, the idea of chanting, dancing, and having a merry time with God - and then going home to do whatever one wants without restrictions, is not Sufism at all - but a deviation from it. And they speak forcefully against it.

So, I don't think this co-opting of Sufism is going to work out, unless they handpick a certain brand of Sufism, but then that will alienate Sufis against Sufis. They should just stay out of peoples' effing business.

Sufi resistance

Thank you for a thoughtful comment. We certainly hope the co-optation strategy will fail. We have already noted the Sufi resistance in Iraq, and we are not going to judge it. There is a big difference between anti-occupation resistance and sectarian war. The fundamentalist jihadis who grab the headlines by blowing up civilian Iraqis have predictably targeted Sufis for terror, of course.

For a more detailed historical perspective, see:

Paradoxical Legacies of the Militant Mystics
by Khaleb Khazari-El, World War 4 Report
World War 4 Report, July 2006

I also hope the strategy fails

I'm with you in hoping the co-opting strategy fails. I don't want something so beloved of mine to be used with that kind of agenda. A lot of Sufis are politically non-partisan and are trained to see things from a wider perspective, so it will be quite hard to pull a fast one on them. They are very good observers of the world. In fact, I have never been able to have a real political discussion with a Sufi because all of the ones I have known see the world's affairs in a much different light than many political activists do. They believe that if there is no inner change, an outer change will only be temporary, and things will return to the chaos and havoc of before. So while they would love an outer change of goodness, they believe that a permanent outer change will only occur when an inner change occurs. This doesn't mean that they think a temporary outer change shouldn't take place, however. Just as a breathing machine is used on someone who can not yet breathe on their own is sometimes necessary to revive a person, a temporary good change is still welcomed. But it just goes to show that their ideas are often of a non-political nature.

Even the political Sufis who actively oppose Wahabbism and Salafism, do so on different grounds than what neo-cons are thinking of. The Wahabbis accuse Sufis of "worshipping graves" and "polytheism" because some Sufis believe that visiting and praying at the graves of saints gives them blessings from God via the respected saint. But the kicker is that these Sufis don't do this because they "want" to, or because it's "about freedom", but because they believe these practices are derived from the Qur'an and the ways of the Prophet Muhammad. Hence they believe this is how one should practice Islam, thus it is a religious duty in their eyes. Thus, they don't engage in those practices in spite of or in rebellion to Islam, but because of Islam. In contrast, I feel the neo-cons are trying to paint Sufism as an "Islam Lite" which is (of course) "better" than "regular Islam" - because Islam (not just "Radical Islam", which is their phony "disclaimer") is the "problem." The more Islam can be "dilluted", the "safer" we all are - so goes their thinking.

Fortunately, most Sufis will be able to see this game for what it is and refuse to play along - and in the larger context, the entire premise of the neo-cons is wrong. People don't need to be "universalists" in order to be tolerant. It is also hypocritical of them to suggest that Muslims have to be universalists in order to be non-violent, while at the same time these neo-cons associate with radical rightwing Christian sects and movements who believe Obama is the antichrist, and other sinister things. They believe in liberalism for one group of people, but accept radicalism and extremism for their own group. By the way, I love your radio show.