The current events of terrorism in France, Turkey and Belgium, and the recent wave of terrorist attacks in Lahore, Pakistan do invite some serious deliberations. Be it East or West, the veritable reality is: Fighting against terrorism remains a mammoth task. The war against violent extremism via the hard power doctrine is already under way; yet the world needs to adopt a soft power strategy to combat this radical ideology. And it is in this backdrop, that by implementing the tenants of Sufi Islam, we can expediently brave the challenges of curbing fanaticism, fundamentalism, radicalism, sectarianism and violent extremism all that harbour terrorism in the East & the West.
Sufist Interpretation of Islam
Islamic scholars and researchers unanimously agree on the fact that the tune of Sufism can cure the sick minds harbouring terrorism. Classical Sufis in the Islamic world include Rumi, Omar Khayyam, Fariduddin Attar – whose stories were later used by Chaucer – and the Spaniard Avërroes, the “great commentator” on Aristotle. Many of their ideas passed to Europe through contacts between the Islamic and Christian worlds in the crusader states, Norman Sicily and the Iberian Peninsula. From the outset, Sufism has been concerned with building bridges among communities whose contact can be of mutual benefit. In the West, people as diverse as Dag Hammarskjöld, St Francis of Assisi, Sir Richard Burton, Cervantes and Winston Churchill have all been influenced by Sufism.
The Sufist interpretation of Islam is considered to be moderate as compared to the political interpretation because it doesn’t focus on the state, but rather on the inner dimensions of Islam and purification of the soul. However, during the last few decades we saw that even the seminaries claiming to follow Sufism, have started teaching the political interpretation of Islam. Hence, this political interpretation has recently been dominating for few decades.
Political Islam & the Roots of Radicalism
All Islamist terrorist organizations, which are shaping up in today’s world have their foundations in this political interpretation of Islam. There is a cultural dimension of globalization, of which many Muslims are aware. They feel that the sort of values and ideas, notions of living – which are emanating from the West and beginning to penetrate their societies, influencing their youth in particular – are harmful. At least some of the more obvious aspects linked to music, dance forms and films etc. are seen as injurious to their own culture and identity.
They’re also conscious of the fact that the global political system is dominated by the United States to a great extent, and some other superpowers. And somehow there is, perhaps wittingly or unwittingly, an exclusion of Islam from global processes.
There have been two major trends: Dominant and subordinate.
The dominant trend, which is to a great extent negative means that Muslims have become very conscious of the fact of dominance, inward looking in some respects, very reactive and sometimes very aggressive. While one can understand the historical circumstances that may have given birth to some of these trends and tendencies, there appears no valid justification from an Islamic point of view, or from the point of view of the relations between cultures.
Now there is a subordinate trend, which unfortunately remains very weak at this point in time. These are Muslims who say that, in the midst of globalization, you have to reassert the essence of Islam. And that is its universalism, its inclusiveness, its accommodative attitude, its capacity to change and to adapt, while retaining the essence of faith. In other words, expressing faith as something that is truly ecumenical and universal. Now that is a trend, which has its adherents in almost every Muslim country, but it has remained on the margins.
Disarming the Bomb
We all speak of nuclear disarmament but what if someone tell us that there is a bomb stronger than the nuclear one and it is ticking away menacingly every second, and that is the bomb of human depravity. When a human being stoops to the lowest rung of her/his nature, she/he becomes more dangerous than the most dangerous animal. And when the virus of selfish contumacy infects her/his being then she/he is a greater detonating device than any other known. The mystic path invites us to talk about disarming humanity of this human bomb for it is only through tackling it we can defuse all other terrorist devices. Let us remember the wise words of Jimi Hendrix who said:
“When the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace.”
Some of us may wonder what a word like terror has to do with a mystic. Mystics are generally known to be people who undertake self-surrender as a path to directly experiencing gsage
od and ultimately finding divine union.
They are imagined to be sages with long white beards, staff in hand, in flowing robes, standing atop a mountain peak, presenting the very picture of enigma against the backdrop of a remote and rarefied atmosphere. If we choose to put aside this cinematic imagery that tries to fit a mystic into a description much like that of a biblical prophet, we can hope to find him/her right here in our midst, even inside this physical frame that holds our own being.
It is about time that the Muslims all over the world unite and take a strong step against political interpretations of Islam and reform themselves. Likewise, they need to rehash and overhaul religious education system since it is the breeding ground of all terrorist organizations. In reply to this Islamist ideology, Muslims need to put forward the peaceful and tolerant interpretation of Islam. Together with the international community Muslims have to fight against this political ideology, which has caused unprecedented harm to the Muslims themselves.
Curing Disease via Orient-Occident Discourse
The prevention of extremism is not something we will achieve overnight. We have to build a strategy that reaches across generations. Security is the first duty of all governments, but hard power alone has never and will never be the whole answer. In the on-going debates over how to respond to extremist Islamism, too little attention has gone to the vast and deep repertoire of Sufi philosophy, rituals and even artistic production, which accompanied the most enlightened centuries of “Muslim civilization”.
If anything, the initial efforts on the part of mainstream Muslim theologians to respond to literalist interpretations of scripture have implicitly accepted extremists’ insistence on reducing the religious tradition to a single set of texts. Laudable and necessary as these responses are, there is something disconcerting about the Grand Mufti of Egypt rejecting extremist interpretations of Quranic verses because they do not represent “true” Islam – as if there really is only one authentic way to be ‘truly’ Muslim. The potency of Sufism may lie in its ability to remind Muslims (and non-Muslims) that, more than the literal words of a holy text, Islam has for fifteen hundred years been a lived experience, with all the cultural and intellectual variation that implies. There are 15 million Sufis worldwide, with Damascus and its Grand Umayyad Mosque as their capital. They need to be promoted at schools and mosque pulpits, given prime access to television networks worldwide.
The Needed Synergies
On one hand, a western support of a forum of intercultural debate and philosophical discourse by welcoming the tenants of free speech and multiculturalism, accompanied with preventing Islamophobia & “clash of civilizations” theory, seems a very pressing demand. On the other hand, the Muslim community in general needs to adopt a liberal outlook towards the West.
The western world needs to exorcise the evils of Samuel Huntington’s clash of civilization theory. The European Council of religious leaders (ECRL) should play an instrumental role in enhancing the scope of Sufi Islam in Europe.
There are three important modalities badly needed to be achieved. First, we cannot avoid the fact that this is about ideas based on a perversion of religion. In this battle of ideas, the only lasting solution will be one that fully understands, addresses and uproots the ideas themselves. Second, in understanding that this is a generational challenge, we need to implement reform now so that the next generation has the understanding and skills necessary for building resilience to extremist ideas.
Finally, we cannot underestimate the need to fight this problem together.
The difficult but necessary decisions this volume highlights and the policy options it presents are not unrealistic, and take into consideration the full spectrum of challenges. We must recognise what works, and where there is positive impact we must seek to replicate it.
Strategic action is needed quickly to implement solutions that are long-term and have continuity and consensus. Terrorism has no religion. The western and eastern educational systems need be updated with the credo of “Sufi Islam” that advocates a universal preaching about humanity.
Governments of the East & the West will need to work hard to build coalitions for this work, not just within society, but also across government. The prevention of extremism is one of the greatest challenges facing this generation and the next. Unless we counter it, and urgently counter it together, we face a very difficult future as a global community.