The Sufi and the Jihadi: The Dangerous Good Muslim/Bad Muslim Trope

In a recent op-ed from New York Times (“Muslims in the Middle,”August 16th) contributor William Dalrymple writes that “many of our leaders have a tendency to see the Islamic world as a single, terrifying monolith,” unable to discern between the varying“complexities and nuances” rampant within a community of faith that envelops some 1.4 billion of this world’s inhabitants, spanning across each continent. He ties this brief discussion of the collective failure to distinguish between extremist Muslims and moderate Muslims to the recent debates and discourse pertaining to the controversy around Park51 – or, as it was erroneously and grotesquely labeled by opponents: the Ground Zero Mosque. In this ellision, he actually ends up masking as much diversity in the Islamic tradition as he hopes to reveal.

Dalrymple begins on the right note; he is most certainly right that our leaders are “dangerously” unequipped to understand the variations which exist within the global Muslim community, both in belief and practice. And certainly this has dire effects on policy and ways to engagement with the Muslim community, abroad and at home. Yet Dalrymple contributes to a dangerous trope that is increasingly overtaking the larger discussion of Muslims and Islam in the United States.

Dalrymple points to Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf role as one of “America’s leading thinkers of Sufism” which he defines as a “mystical form of Islam […that] couldn’t be farther from the violent Wahhabism of the jihadists.”  Pointing to instances of violence against them in South and Central Asia, he argues that is the Sufis who are at the “forefront” of the war against violent Islamism, risking “their lives for their tolerant beliefs,” to which he then draws a comparison to U.S soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. He continues that Sufism is the “pluralistic incarnation of Islam” and the form which will ultimately mend the relationship between the East and West and is seen as a real threat by the violent jihadists who, especially in recent months, have shown their hatred for the “infidel-loving, grave-worshiping [apostates]” by targeting, for instance, holy shrines. Dalrymple concludes that to fight Islamic extremism, the West must recognize and encourage the pluralist version of Islam.

Like many others, Dalrymple is quick to make the “Good Muslim/Bad Muslim” distinction: there are certain Muslims out there that we cannot trust, who despise us; these are bad Muslims. At the same time, however, there are certain Muslims who we can work with, who will help us fight the bad Muslims.

The Jihadists are the bad Muslims; the Sufis are the good Muslims.

All of a sudden the “complexities and nuances” Dalrymple seemed so keen on stressing early in his piece become completely lost on the writer as he makes a black and white distinction on whom to trust and who not to trust. The complexities and nuances of the global Muslim community are designated two categories and the West has to pick one because the ultimate goal is to not actually build any bridges but to, rather, win the fight against extremism. Dalrymple further commits the subject of his own critique by looking at Sufism as a monolith, completely overlooking its various forms, some of which are not exactly thrilled about all things Western and “modern,” such as the Darul Ifta Deoband who are prominent in South Asia.

To designate the monopoly over pluralism and dialogue to the generic label “Sufis,” Dalrymple not only picks a “right” Islam for Westerners to get behind, completely watering down the meaning and history of Sufism as an intellectual, spiritual and ascetic movement with roots pre-dating Islam, he also puts Muslims who do not adhere to “Sufism” as part of a camp with which dialogue and the so-called ‘fight against extremism’ is not possible. If one is a Sufi, then one must automatically be tolerant. If one is a Salafi, then one must automatically be intolerant and an extremist. No complexity. No nuance.

The categorization of good Muslim/bad Muslim ultimately marginalizes all Muslims, polarizing believer against believer andlessens any understanding the West and its leaders can ever have of Islam and its adherents. This categorization, additionally, completely ignores the very real socio-cultural, political and economic realities that play into the actions and ideologies of both so-called Sufis and Jihadists alike. Islam does not dictate the actions – good or bad- of those we are told see as our foes and those we are told to see as our friends. At least not always and even then it is not necessarily at the forefront.

Sufism, without complexities and nuances, is the Islam, without complexities and nuances, that the West needs to support. Unfortunately for the West, and Dalrymple, such an Islam and such a community of believers fail to exist.

2 comments

  1. Gayrab

    SPOT ON! :D

  2. Sara S

    hmm, I definitely see your point, but it seems like Dalwryple is simplifying in order to get his message out to a fairly ignorant, mainstream audience — for example, likening Sufi resisters to soldiers in Iraq and Afganistan is clearly meant to appeal to those who don’t oppose the war as clearly as he does (from his other statement about the stupidity of the Iraq war). I come back to the perpetual question over whether it is better to simplify and reach a wider audience, or is it better to tell it how it is, in all of its complexity, at the risk of only preaching to the choir and not even getting access to a spot in a widespread media like NYTimes…?

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