I have previously written that the war in Afghanistan has gone on for far too long. I still feel like that’s true — but I don’t think the reason that Americans are only half-heartedly supporting this war is the absence of a truly evil enemy. The problem, I think, is actually too much moral ambiguity — an unnecessary amount. Everything I’ve ever read about the situation in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region confirms for me that the Taliban are mini-Hitlers, suicide bombing Sufi shrines and throwing acid in the faces of schoolgirls. The Taliban are not “just the way people are over there,” as I think many Americans secretly — or not so secretly — believe. They’re a malign and viral presence.
At any rate, even if we withdraw from Afghanistan this year, our involvement in the region will inevitably continue since Pakistan is a nuclear power now overrun with nihilistic reactionaries. But I have at least one suggestion for improving the way we perceive this conflict — learning more about the division between Sufis and ultra-reactionary literalists in Islamic society.
As a recent article in The New York Times explains (“The Islam that Hardliners Hate,” Jan. 6, 2011), a huge number of people in Pakistan are practicing Sufis — they believe in the mystical branch of Islam — and they’re increasingly finding themselves murdered and blown to pieces as they attempt to attend festivals and worship at their shrines.
It would benefit us to try to understand Sufism and raise awareness about its progressive, peaceful beliefs and practices. If we can clear up the misguided notion that the Taliban are representative of attitudes common to that part of the world and realize that they’re actually deformed products of a reaction against modernity, not of traditional interpretations of Islam, all the better. The conflict in the region doesn’t need to be as ambiguous as we make it out to be.
Sufism, at least in some parts of the world, is in precarious situation. Yet, you won’t hear many people talking about the group. It’s almost been effectively shut out of the conversation. There are some significant spokespeople for Sufism — like Sheikh Hisham Kabbani, a prominent Turkish-American Muslim — but they don’t get as much press as they deserve. This is partly due to the media’s apathy but can also be attributed to the fact that a great number of the mosques in the United States are funded by Saudis, who tend to support a strict form of Islam called Wahhabism that looks down on Sufism.
To take sides in this conflict — as odd as it may seem to prefer one interpretation of someone else’s religion over another—would be a good thing. The first step is just to learn about Sufism and do things like invite Sufi speakers to talk at college campuses. I’m not saying that the Sufis need to aggressively define themselves against the stricter forms of Islam — since strict forms are fairly widespread and sometimes tolerant enough. But the more that is said about Sufism, the more strength it will gain as a viable alternative. The Sufis, as far as I can tell, are unambiguously the good guys in Pakistan, whereas the Taliban have a pretty unrelentingly horrible vision of the relationship between God and humanity.
I’ll admit that I take this issue pretty personally. I actually come from a religious tradition closely connected to Sufism — my father’s religious teacher (a Sikh by birth) was born in Peshawar, Pakistan, now one of the main centers of reactionary Taliban activity. As I see it, Sufism is a form of spiritual humanism — Sufis believe God exists both within and outside of human beings. Thus, if a woman were to dance at a Sufi festival, she wouldn’t be killed per the Taliban’s philosophy — she would simply be seen as expressing the God within her. Her dancing is a holy act.