Why Sufism is Not the Answer to the Radicalisation of Muslims

Political experience, not Sufism, is what distinguishes Indian Muslims from others.

In the latest bid to project soft power and to engage in the global “War on Terror”, India has brought together a group of Sufi leaders to showcase India’s ethos of pluralism at the World Sufi Forum to be held in New Delhi from March 17.

Sushma Swaraj, the minister of external affairs, has also portrayed the presence of India’s Sufi heritage as a bulwark against radicalisation. After all, India hosts 180 million Muslims, it has a vast diaspora, and yet almost none of its citizens have found themselves in global terrorist groups. Sufism seems to provide an explanation, and so Swaraj and the Indian government are clutching at it. Unfortunately, they are wrong.

Sufism is not unique to India, nor is there any evidence of it being uniquely peaceful. In December 1930, Dervish Mehmet Efendi, a Naqshbandi Sufi in the land of Sufis – Turkey – raised the banner of armed revolt against Mustafa Kemal’s policies of forced secularisation. In response, not only was the army and air force used to crush the uprising, a state of emergency was declared and Sufis from around the country were arrested, some executed, and many imprisoned. The Naqshbandi order is also dominant in Chechnya, and was the base around which resistance to Russia coalesced – first on a spiritual basis, and then later on a military basis. Over time, this resistance led to the replacement of the Sufi orders with more radical Islamists.

This is the second part of the Sufi story that glib assessments tend to ignore. In fact, Sufism has not provided any sort of bulwark against radicalisation. No other part of India is as dominated by Sufi Islam as the Kashmir Valley, so if Sufism was such a great bulwark, how did Kashmiris swing to militancy? The easy answer to this would be the introduction of Saudi money and ideas, and the growth of Wahhabi or Salafi Islam. But the most influential Salafi in India is Zakir Naik, a televangelist based out of Bombay, whose Peace TV channel has a viewer base of up to 100 million people across the region. Although the Indian government has banned Peace TV broadcasts in India since 2012, and Naik has often expressed ignorant, and even repugnant, views, there are no recorded incidents of him or any of his affiliates encouraging, or being linked to, any act of political violence. The Markazi Jamiat Ahle Hadith Hind proudly refers to a “directory of madarsas of Ahle Hadees…comprising of 650 pages”. These exist across the country, and yet their growth has not resulted in militancy.

Furthermore, the Sufi silsilas found in India are also found across the border, in Pakistan, and in Bangladesh, so why is it that Pakistan seems to breed so many Muslim militants, and India so few?

Since its foundation sometime in the late 1980s, al-Qaeda has had perhaps one leader of Indian origin. Asim Umar was announced as the head of the South Asia branch of al-Qaeda by Ayman al Zawahiri in September 2014. One news report claimed that he may be of Indian origin, although all the information on him in the public domain indicates that whatever training he received, or activity he may have undertaken, happened in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is said to have written four books, and made a few speeches. No record of any militant activity by him exists. ISIS has no Indian commanders that we know of. On the other hand countries as tiny as Ireland and Finland, with populations of around 5 million each, have contributed more fighters to ISIS than India. As Suhasini Haidar puts it, “According to government figures, 27 Indians are confirmed to have travelled to IS-held territories, 200 are under watch, and about 18 have been charged with attempting to join the IS …  The figures for Indians joining the IS are low enough to be statistically negligible (less than 0.00004%) compared to the rest of the world.”

Political experience trumps sectarian beliefs

Culture, and sects, both of which are shared by North India and much of Pakistan, do not explain this divergence, but political experience does. This is most clearly apparent in the fate of the Jamaat-e-Islaami. In South Asia it has four distinct organisations – one in Pakistan, one in India, one in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), and one in Bangladesh. The trajectories of the four organisations have all been very different. In Pakistan the Jamaat-e-Islami is a registered political party, which has often provided support to the military ruler of the day. In Bangladesh the Jamaat-e-Islami has been restricted since 2013, as its charter emphasises the laws of God above that of the Bangladeshi Constitution.

It is in India and the Indian state of J&K, though, where the paths of the JI are very illustrative. The most detailed study of the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind, the JI in India, has been done by Irfan Ahmad in his book, Islamism and Democracy in India: The Transformation of Jamaat-e-Islami. Ahmad illustrates how the Jamaat in India went from being an organisation that decried democratic politics and held God’s laws above everything, to becoming a (possibly reluctant) proponent of secular democratic politics, advising communities on tactical voting.

If anything, the Jamaat in J&K went through a more radical transformation. The separatist insurgency that broke out in Kashmir in the late 1980s was initially led by the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, but it was soon superseded by the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen. The Hizb, with its commander, Mohammed Yusuf who uses the nom de guerre Syed Salahuddin, has often been seen as an outgrowth of the Jamaat-e-Islami J&K (JIJK), so much so that the organisation has often been referred to as the JIJK’s “militant wing”. Part of the reason for this was because Syed Ali Shah Geelani, who has been one of the strongest proponents of J&K’s separation from India, and merger with Pakistan, was the head of JIJK’s political wing. Members of JIJK served on the Hizb’s Sharia Council, but in 1998 JIJK started to distance itself from the militancy and the Hizb, to the extent that in 2004 Geelani broke away from the Jamaat and formed his own organisation. In the last election in J&K, although Geelani called for a boycott of the elections, JIJK did not join him, implicitly acknowledging democratic politics.

It is striking that in the case of both JI and JIJK, a mobilising organisation which began with an ideology that dismissed democratic politics, dismissed secularism, and operated on the basis that God’s laws – and not Man’s laws – should rule, has ended up supporting almost all these principles. In Pakistan, although the transition has not been so complete, the Jamaat is part and parcel of the democratic process to the extent that when the prominent Pakistani-Canadian cleric, Tahir ul Qadri, tried to bypass the electoral system, the Jamaat rebuffed him in favour of elections.

There is a further aspect to the “Sufism versus radicalisation” narrative that it is important to flag. It is no surprise that the countries producing the most militants are also those which have experienced deep destabilisation due to war, and have not been able to deepen their democratic structures. The emphasis on Sufism also comes from a condescending view of Sufis as happy dancers and singers who are all obsessed with love, and who do not care about the politics. Focussing on sectarian differences allows the countries who are most deeply involved in the “War on Terror” to occlude their own role in proposing war, not stability and the promotion of democratic progress, as the answer to security issues. The promotion of “Sufi culture”, therefore, is a bread and circuses approach, distracting the populace with theatre while leaving the core issues of governance untouched. It did not work for the Roman Empire. It is unlikely to work for us either.