A four-day World Sufi Forum took place from March 17- 20 in New Delhi. The forum was inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. According to the website of the Sufi Forum, there were 200 scholars from 20 countries attending the conference. This was not a usual Sufi gathering in the traditional sense though – private, spiritual and outside the media’s gaze. This forum was a deliberate attempt by the Indian government to subversively fight against what they define as global “extremism” and “radicalism” in Islam.
In a recent study – “Sponsoring Islam: How Governments Promote ‘Mystical Islam’ in Their Domestic and Foreign Policies,” by Fait Muedini asks why governments- both authoritarian and liberal democratic governments – whether in Morocco, Algeria , Chechnya, Uzbekistan, USA or Britain – are interested in one form of Islam over another form of Islam. What is the interest of the Indian government in promoting “Sufi” Islam over another form of Islam? Is it to contain the political criticism of government? Does Modi’s government want to curb the voices of Muslims who may not agree with his government’s public policies? These are critical, important questions that need to be asked. Especially in the context of a freshly inaugurated anti-Muslim hunt by the Modi government, which we have seen expressed in the case of Jawaharlal Nehru university student Umar Khalid and Delhi University professor SAR Geelani. From the streets to the Parliament, this recent Muslim hunt only adds on to the greater context of anti-Muslim hate and violence spread by political groups affiliated with the ruling party BJP.
Good Sufis, Bad Muslims after 9/11
Historically, there have been various interpretations of Islam for centuries. This is not a new phenomenon considering Islam has had a plurality of interpretations throughout its 1,400-year-old history. Muslims all over the world, in one form or the other, take part in debates on the “proper” or “truer” interpretation of Islam. Scholars such as Salman Sayyid describe it as “the battle of the interpretation of the interpretation of Islam”. However, this battle over the interpretation of Islam turns into another type of debate when powerful governments try to control and manipulate what form of Islam is palatable to its vested social, economic or geopolitical interests. Even though there are attempts by various pre-modern emperors and modern governments to use particular forms of Islam over others, the political condition post-9/11 has shifted the terrain of the manipulation of interpretations of Islam to another level.
The attempt of the Modi government in sponsoring this World Sufi Forum is to create a false binary between good and bad Muslims. It is an attempt to silence Modi’s critics by claiming that he is on the side of the good, peace-loving mystical Islam and not on the side of the bad, politicized Muslims.
Public intellectuals such as Mahmood Mamdani argue that the post-9/11 context is one in which the US political establishment has categorized and reduced the Muslim experience to a rigid political binary of the so called “good Muslim” and “bad Muslim.” The categorization of religious experiences of Muslims after 9/11 by governments across the world is not a simple one that objectively explores the mosaic nature of various interpretations of Islam; for example, personal vs. social interpretations of Islam, or gendered interpretations of Islam. Mamdani states that the category made by the US government, and thereafter governments across the world (including so called “Islamic” governments),is one between a good peace-loving Muslim and a bad fanatical or “political” Muslim. This rigid political binary and construction has had profound effects on geopolitical conflicts in the US and globally, especially in the wake of the War on Terror. During the controversy over the Park 51 mosque in New York in 2009, Omid Safi wrote about the hierarchical notion of the good Sufi and bad “political” Muslim binary established by US authorities. Safi quotes New York Governor David Patterson’s response to the Park 51 mosque to demonstrate how those in power understand the categorization of “Sufi” Islam, “[T]his group who has put this mosque together, they are known as the Sufi Muslims. This is not like the Shiites..They’re almost like a hybrid, almost westernized. They are not really what I would classify in the sort of mainland Muslim practice.”
Narendra Modi and Sufi Islam
There is a growing tendency by the Narendra Modi government to move in the direction of creating a similar binary of Sufi Islam vs. other forms of Islam, good vs. bad Muslims. On August 30th, 2015 Modi met with 40 Sufi scholars from across India and said that the “ideology propounded by Sufi saints was integral to Indian ethos but forces of extremism are trying to weaken it.” He added that, “Perhaps, it has become the foremost need for the world to know the true picture of Islam..I am confident that Sufi culture, which is associated with love, generosity will spread this message far and wide. It will benefit Islam as well as humankind.”
This was not a usual Sufi gathering in the traditional sense though – private, spiritual and outside the media’s gaze. This forum was a deliberate attempt by the Indian government to subversively fight against what they define as global “extremism” and “radicalism” in Islam
In the later part of his speech, Modi explains why he choose this specific interpretation of Sufism as opposed to other interpretations of Islam. He said it was to reject the ” forces of the terrorism and extremism.” This argument was developed using a narrative about the rich legacy of Sufism in India. Sufism, Modi claimed, contributed to Indian “pluralism”, “an Indian ethos”, “heritage” , “spiritual tradition”, ” art”, ” architecture”, ” culture” , “love” and ” poetry”. These are the values that defines Indian Muslim’s contribution to the Indian nation. Then, suddenly, he stops beating around the bush and draws a sharp conclusion about which Sufism he is claiming, “It is this spirit of Sufism, the love for their country and the pride in their nation that define the Muslims in India.[..]. It upholds the highest ideals of Islam and has always rejected the forces of terrorism and extremism”. The leap from the good Sufi Indian Islam to the so called forces of terrorism and violence is remarkable. Modi reveal throughout the style and arrangement of his speech that his real purpose was to equate Sufism with a good and peaceful Islam in order to polish it against the “forces of terrorism and extremism”. Does this binary not seem familiar? The binary of good Muslim vs. bad Muslim that is developed in many other parts of the world is now being used by Modi to develop a pretext for marshalling forward a government sponsored Sufi Islam in India.
The decision of the World Sufi Forum to invite Narendra Modi is going to be a new episode in the political plan of the BJP government. By doing so, the right-wing government continues the otherisation and exclusion of Muslims by supporting one Islam over another Islam – if only one interpretation of Islam (i.e. peace-loving Sufi Islam) is palatable to Modi, then what happens to Muslims who might be critical of the systems of power, oppression and exploitation that Modi’s government perpetuates? Are these “bad” and “political” Muslims no longer able to be peace-loving, Sufi or considered acceptable by the Indian state? The attempt of the Modi government in sponsoring this World Sufi Forum is to create a false binary between good and bad Muslims. It is an attempt to silence Modi’s critics by claiming that he is on the side of the good, peace-loving mystical Islam and not on the side of the bad, politicized Muslims.
Fait Muedini. 2015. Sponsoring Islam: How Governments Promote ‘Mystical Islam’ in Their Domestic and Foreign Policies. New York : Palgrave MacMillan.
Mahmood Mamdani. 2002. Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: A Political Perspective on Culture and Terrorism. American Anthropologist , Vol. 104, No. 3, pp. 766–775.
Omid Safi. 2011. Good Sufi, Bad Muslims . Accessed on March 22, 2016. Available from: http://divinity.uchicago.edu/martycenter /publications/sightings/archive_2011/0127.shtml.
Salman Sayyid. 2014. Recalling Caliphate : Decolonization and World Order. London : Hurst Publication.