Wednesday, August 23, 2006

New Sufis for New Labour

From another shore - New Sufis for New Labour

By Shehla Khan

The House of Commons seems increasingly ready to serve as the launch pad for new Muslim organisations. Not long ago, it staged the debut of an organisation calling itself Progressive Muslims. After a barely decent interval, on July 19, it opened its portals once again to the latest organisational aspirant, namely the Sufi Muslim Council (SMC). The SMC’s launch was celebrated with due fanfare, in the form of nods, smiles, handshakes, and laudatory speeches from the assembled guests who included representatives of the leading political parties, the media, the Church and even the Board of Jewish Deputies. Meanwhile, greetings also poured in from absentee well wishers, including Nato and George Bush. Some Muslims might feel intrigued at the choice of cheerleaders that the SMC has attracted; others, at the very usage of the generic term ‘sufi’ as designating a branded identity. Certainly, the sufi tradition in Islam is no stranger to organisation in the forms of guilds or tariqahs, many of which have a venerable history dating several centuries. In general, however, these orders professed a distinct identity acquired from their founder/shaykh or their place of origin. In contrast, there is anonymity about the SMC, which could be countered by the organisation’s renaming itself as House of Commons Sufis, Establishment Sufis or even Blairite Sufis. In the absence of clear identification, we are left with the impression that the ‘sufi’ logo functions here as at best as a garbled, and at worst as a disingenuous statement of political detachment. However, the confusion about the SMC’s credentials need not be long enduring. While the relationship between Sufism and political power remains a complex subject, we could highlight three dominant tendencies. There is, firstly, a rejectionist stance in which politics is seen as corrupt and degrading, an obstacle to a life of piety, contemplation and prayer. Secondly, there is an activist stance, in which the social and pedagogic role of the tariqah does not exclude participating in resistance struggles against foreign invaders. Imam Shamil’s battles against the Russian Romanovs, Imam Abdul Qadir’s against the French in Algeria, the Sanussi orders against European colonialism in Africa all belong to this genre. Thirdly, there is a collaborationist stance in which Sufism becomes an elite phenomenon that finds expression primarily in cultural production, but is strongly supportive of militantly secular or Islamophobic states and regimes. Examples of this tendency are found in present day Turkey among the Mevlevi and Cerrahi sufi orders. It is difficult to locate the SMC in the first two categories, far less so in the third. This becomes plausible if we turn briefly to the Council’s public statements. By its own admission, the SMC is the charmed organisation that we, the ‘silent majority’ have all been waiting for; here at last is a group protesting its apolitical stance, its promise to combat ‘extremism’, its disdain for the liberation struggles waged by Muslims around the world, its suspicion of Muslim charities reaching out to the most dispossessed amongst the ummah, its silent acquiescence in the wars of terror waged by the Bush-Blair clique. Here at last is an outfit which understands that the only language we, the majority of the silent, want to speak is Blair-speak with an Islamicate twist, Blair-speak being the local, Downing Street dialect of Bush-speak, the neo-conservative imperial language which seeks to become the lingua franca of the planet. This dialect, which answers to our deepest spiritual needs and aspirations, is the one that we are yearning to master as Afghanistan mourns, Lebanon wails, Baghdad screams, and Palestine howls. All we need to do to equip ourselves with the new lingo is to engage in a simple re-translation exercise: so the slaughter of innocents means collateral damage, collective punishment means security, occupation means liberation, wire cages mean justice, depleted uranium means democracy, ceasefire means Eretz Israel, and Geneva Convention means dead letter. Having grasped these elementary linguistic rules, we are ready to abandon our silence and speak in our new found voices as Blairite Sufis or perhaps as Sufi Blairites. So why do we hesitate? Could it be because we are troubled by a sense of irony, that we cannot reconcile the fact that an organisation purporting to be apolitical seeks to ingratiate itself with the country’s political elite, selecting a parliamentary chamber for its kick-off? Could it be because we see an unhealthily close fit between the latest twist in the Islamophobic discourse circulating around media, government, and academic circles and the rise to fame of our Sufi brethren? In this twist, any political consciousness amongst Muslims becomes suspect so that the term ‘Islamist’ comes to acquire the opprobrium formerly associated with ‘fundamentalist’ or ‘terrorist’ and yesterday’s ‘moderates’ become today’s ‘extremists’. This is eminently demonstrated in Martin Bright’s recent contention that the Government, in engaging with associations such as the Muslim Council of Britain, which has yet to applaud its foreign policy, has capitulated to ‘fundamentalists’. Simply put, to be moderate, you need to stop being Muslim except as a leisure pursuit. Could it be because we find precedents for the SMC in American sufi organisations that have been warmly endorsed by Bush, and by the likes of the Rand Corporation as active partners in the so-called ‘reformation of Islam’, a reformation in which Islam is stripped of its capacity to speak truth to power? Could it be because, the pressure that has been levied upon Muslims following 7/7 notwithstanding, we are still not ready to capitulate to the absurd Blairite claim that those tragic events had no link with British foreign policy? Above all, could it be that we are, after all, less than enthusiastic pupils for Blair-speke, that we are on the way to finding a different language to express our hopes and aspirations, our understanding of our history and our future, and this is the language of Islam as it speaks of Justice, of the duty to resist oppression, of the promise to live as Muslims in the fuller sense of the term? But then, this is not a language that is spoken in a House of Commons in thrall to Blair’s imperial delusions.

Shehla Khan, Researcher, University of Manchester


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