Posts Tagged ‘ Tehran ’

How Many Sufis Are There in Islam?

By Stephen Schwartz for The Huffington Post

Devotees of Sufism, the spiritual interpretation of Islam, face problems wherever they are found. In the West, many self-styled Sufis have never become Muslim, know little of the religious background of the Sufi way, and give Sufism a reputation as simply another flavor of New-Age, “weekend” mysticism. In Muslim lands, especially in the Arab core countries, classic Sufi authors may be praised while living Sufi teachers are derided as un-Islamic charlatans. And in some places, Sufis are imprisoned and murdered.

As a Muslim Sufi adherent, however, I am troubled especially by another expression of contempt very widely cast against Sufism by Islam-hating amateur experts in the West. That is the claim of Sufi irrelevance. Since the horror of Sept. 11, now almost a decade past, the identification of a moderate and contemplative form of Islam, which can oppose radical and fundamentalist doctrines, has seemed of considerable importance both for the moral health of Muslim believers and for the security of non-Muslims and Muslims alike. But the Sufi alternative to Islamist extremism is neglected or even disparaged, typically, by Muslim and non-Muslim commentators.

Western misperception of the importance of Sufis in Islamic life is complicated by lack of clarity as to who and what Sufis are. Sufis often enjoy great prestige with the mass of Muslims, based on Sufi examples of personal humility in fervor for God and Sufi preaching of love for humanity. But Sufis are not, mainly, other-worldly, exotic individuals or groups that spend all their time absorbed in semah (ecstatic turning on one foot and other forms of dance).

Some Sufis withdraw from the daily affairs of society, but others pursue satisfaction of the Creator by seeking social justice through improvement of popular education and services to the needy, such as housing of the homeless and free distribution of food. Rather than disappearing in a misty aura of meditation, numerous Sufis around the Muslim world contribute actively to defense of the victims of oppression.

Sufis may also take on the risky challenge of overt political engagement. This has been seen most strikingly in Turkish developments over the past two decades. Turkish Sufis were suppressed by the secularist regime established in the 1920s, but flourished in clandestinity, and have now emerged to lead Islamist parties and to assume positions in government. How the relations between Turkish Islamist politicians and Turkish and Kurdish Sufis will evolve remains to be seen.

Essential principles shared by most Muslim Sufis include emphasis on commonalities with other faiths and traditions, which has contributed to improved relations between Muslims and Jews, Christians, Buddhists and other non-Islamic believers. Commentators concerned to denigrate Islam altogether have asserted that Sufis, even if they embody moderation and mutual respect among people of religion, comprise no more than 5 percent of the world’s Muslims. Since the importance of Sufism stands, in the minds of many Westerners, on demographic measurement, let us therefore ask: How many Sufis are found in the Muslim world?

I would first observe that Sufis are present, persistently, in every Muslim population, including those where they were persecuted the longest: Saudi Arabia. Although the Saudi kingdom prohibited and punished possession of Sufi books and the practice of Sufi observances, the country always possessed a thriving Sufi underground with access to the heights of power. Before his elevation to the throne in 2005, then-Saudi Crown Prince, and now King Abdullah, who favored Sufis, gained them the right to hold zikr (remembrance of God by vocal or silent chanting, singing and bodily movements) in their homes.

In some countries Sufism is praised as an item of a proud heritage while it is repressed in daily life. The most obvious such example is that of Iran. The clerical regime established by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini could not act easily against Sufis, since so many famous Sufis — such as Jalaladdin Rumi, the 13th century author believed by many to be, currently, the most widely read poet in the West — wrote in Persian, and Sufi texts became the national literature of the Iranians.

But while the Tehran clerics honor the Sufis of the past, they repress Sufis in the present. Sufis have most often functioned as an alternative to clerical authority in Islam, and widely represented Iranian Sufi bodies like the Nimatullahi-Gonabadi dervish order and the “hidden,” Kurdish-speaking Ahl-e Haqq or “people of truth” have sustained a difficult challenge to the Iranian authorities. Iranian Sufis have been arrested and disappeared into the obscurity of the prisons, with some doubtless dealt a fatal destiny.

As certain Islamic countries are ambivalent about Sufism, in other Muslim societies we see variations in the intensity of Sufi “activism.” Analyzing Islamic Sufism, I have generally divided Muslim territories between those in which Sufism has a deep but informal influence in local Islam, in contrast with those where it has a well-established institutional presence.

In the great Eurasian expanses, Islam is widely permeated by Sufi teachings and customs. From my travels, observation and participation in Muslim life, I have seen and experienced that Sufi-oriented Islam is prevalent among Slavic and Russian Turkic Muslims, dominant in Central Asia, and widely-represented in South Asia and in Southeast Asia. Across this heartland, Sufi authors are studied and throngs of pilgrims visit Sufi shrines or otherwise commemorate the lives of Sufi saints.

Elsewhere the spiritual heritage is maintained by powerful, organized orders, sometimes called “brotherhoods” although they typically include female disciples. These are prominent in North Africa, French-speaking West Africa, East Africa, the Albanian lands, plus Syria, Iraq, Kurdistan and Iran.

In Turkey, most Muslims are Sufi either by identification with the normative Sunnism subsidized by the state, which exalted Sufis and places the works of Rumi in all Turkish mosques, or by participation in Sufi orders as well as widespread, part-time study circles and other voluntary communities that teach an esoteric Islam. Others are involved in more singular phenomena like the Turkish-Kurdish, Shia-Sufi-shamanist Alevi movement. As a different variant in the Sufi continuum, Indonesia possesses a Sufi civic movement of national scope — the Nahdatul Ulama (NU) organization. Returning to South Asia, organized Sufism there is enacted with a backdrop of a broader, “cultural” Sufism and is under bloody attack by radicals.

Aggregating Sufi-influenced Muslims with active Muslim Sufis from Senegal to Singapore, I believe it is realistic to claim a large plurality, at least, of the world’s 1.3-plus billion Muslims. This should be a source of optimism for those who seek conciliation, rather than confrontation, between the world’s religions, affecting positively both the direction of Islam and the image of Islam among non-Muslims. For these reasons, more concentrated attention on the Sufis by social-science investigators and other experts would be welcome.

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Iran Calls Saudi Troops in Bahrain ‘Unacceptable’

By Ethan Bronner and Michael Slackman for The New York Times

A day after Saudi Arabia’s military rolled into Bahrain, the Iranian government branded the move “unacceptable” on Tuesday, threatening to escalate a local political conflict into a regional showdown with Iran.

“The presence of foreign forces and interference in Bahrain’s internal affairs is unacceptable and will further complicate the issue,” Ramin Mehmanparast, the Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman told a news conference in Tehran, according to state-run media.

Even as predominantly Shiite Muslim Iran pursues a determined crackdown against dissent at home, Tehran has supported the protests led by the Shiite majority in Bahrain.

“People have some legitimate demands and they are expressing them peacefully,” Mr. Memanparast said. “It should not be responded to violently.”

“We expect their demands be fulfilled through correct means,” Mr. Mehmanparast added. Iran’s response — while anticipated — showed the depth of rivalry across the Persian Gulf in a contest that has far-reaching consequences in many parts of the Middle East.

On Monday, Iranian state-run media went so far as to call the troop movement an invasion. Saudi Arabia has been watching uneasily as Bahrain’s Shiite majority has staged weeks of protests against a Sunni monarchy, fearing that if the protesters prevailed, Iran, Saudi Arabia’s bitter regional rival, could expand its influence and inspire unrest elsewhere.

The Saudi decision to send in troops on Monday could further inflame the conflict and transform this teardrop of a nation in the Persian Gulf into the Middle East’s next proxy battlefield between regional and global powers. On Tuesday, there was no immediate indication that the Saudi forces were confronting protesters in the central Pearl Square — the emblem of the Bahrain protest much as Cairo’s Tahrir Square assumed symbolic significance in the Egyptian uprising.

Several hundred protesters camped out there on what seemed initially to be a quiet day with little traffic on the streets as the details of the deployment by Bahrain’s neighbors — and their mission — remained ill-defined.

On Monday, about 2,000 troops — 1,200 from Saudi Arabia and 800 from the United Arab Emirates — entered Bahrain as part of a force operating under the aegis of the Gulf Cooperation Council, a six-nation regional coalition of Sunni rulers that has grown increasingly anxious over the sustained challenge to Bahrain’s king, Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa. “This is the initial phase,” a Saudi official said. “Bahrain will get whatever assistance it needs. It’s open-ended.”

The decision is the first time the council has used collective military action to help suppress a popular revolt — in this case a Shiite popular revolt. It was rejected by the opposition, and by Iran, as an “occupation.” Iran has long claimed that Bahrain is historically part of Iran.

The troops entered Bahrain at an especially combustible moment in the standoff between protesters and the monarchy. In recent days protesters have begun to move from the encampment in Pearl Square, the symbolic center of the nation, to the actual seat of power and influence, the Royal Court and the financial district. As the troops moved in, protesters controlled the main highway and said they were determined not to leave.

“We don’t know what is going to happen,” Jassim Hussein Ali, a member of the opposition Wefaq party and a former member of Parliament, said in a phone interview. “Bahrain is heading toward major problems, anarchy. This is an occupation, and this is not welcome.”

Rasool Nafisi, an academic and Iran expert based in Virginia, said: “Now that the Saudis have gone in, they may spur a similar reaction from Iran, and Bahrain becomes a battleground between Saudi and Iran. This may prolong the conflict rather than put an end to it, and make it an international event rather than a local uprising.”

An adviser to the United States government, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the press, agreed. “Iran’s preference was not to get engaged because the flow of events was in their direction,” he said. “If the Saudi intervention changes the calculus, they will be more aggressive.”

Though Bahrain said it had invited the force, the Saudi presence highlights the degree to which the kingdom has become concerned over Iran’s growing regional influence, and demonstrates that the Saudi monarchy has drawn the line at its back door. Oil-rich Saudi Arabia, a close ally of Washington, has traditionally preferred to operate in the shadows through checkbook diplomacy. It has long provided an economic lifeline to Bahrain.

But it now finds itself largely standing alone to face Iran since its most important ally in that fight, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, has been ousted in a popular uprising. Iran’s ally, Hezbollah, recently toppled the Saudi-backed government of Lebanon — a symbol of its regional might and Saudi Arabia’s diminishing clout.

But Bahrain is right at Saudi Arabia’s eastern border, where the kingdoms are connected by a causeway.

The Gulf Cooperation Council was clearly alarmed at the prospect of a Shiite political victory in Bahrain, fearing that it would inspire restive Shiite populations in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait to protest as well. The majority of the population in Saudi Arabia’s eastern provinces, where the oil is found, is Shiite, and there have already been small protests there.

“If the opposition in Bahrain wins, then Saudi loses,” said Mustafa el-Labbad, director of Al Sharq Center for Regional and Strategic Studies in Cairo. “In this regional context, the decision to move troops into Bahrain is not to help the monarchy of Bahrain, but to help Saudi Arabia itself .”

The Bahrain government said that it had invited the force in to help restore and preserve public order. The United States — which has continued to back the monarchy — said Monday that the move was not an occupation. The United States has long been allied with Bahrain’s royal family and has based the Navy’s Fifth Fleet in Bahrain for many years.

Though the United States eventually sided with the demonstrators in Egypt, in Bahrain it has instead supported the leadership while calling for restraint and democratic change. The Saudi official said the United States was informed Sunday that the Saudi troops would enter Bahrain on Monday.

Saudi and council officials said the military forces would not engage with the demonstrators, but would protect infrastructure, government offices and industries, even though the protests had largely been peaceful. The mobilization would allow Bahrain to free up its own police and military forces to deal with the demonstrators, the officials said.

The Gulf Cooperation Council “forces are not there to kill people,” said a Saudi official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the press. “This is a G.C.C. decision; we do not violate international law.”

But the officials also acknowledged that it was a message to Iran. “There is no doubt Iran is involved,” said the official, though no proof has been offered that Iran has had anything to do with the political unrest.

Political analysts said that it was likely that the United States did not object to the deployment in part because it, too, saw a weakened monarchy as a net benefit to Iran at a time when the United States wants to move troops out of Iraq, where Iran has already established an influence.

The military force is one part of a Gulf Cooperation Council effort to try to contain the crisis in Bahrain that broke out Feb. 14, when young people called for a Day of Rage, fashioned after events in Egypt and Tunisia. The police and then the army killed seven demonstrators, leading Washington to press Bahrain to remove its forces from the street.

The royal family allowed thousands of demonstrators to camp at Pearl Square. It freed some political prisoners, allowed an exiled opposition leader to return and reshuffled the cabinet. And it called for a national dialogue.

But the concessions — after the killings — seemed to embolden a movement that went from calling for a true constitutional monarchy to demanding the downfall of the monarchy. The monarchy has said it will consider instituting a fairly elected Parliament, but it insisted that the first step would be opening a national dialogue — a position the opposition has rejected, though it was unclear whether the protesters were speaking with one voice.

The council moved troops in after deciding earlier to help prop up the king with a contribution of $10 billion over 10 years, and said that it might increase that figure. But if the goal was to intimidate Iran, or the protesters, that clearly was not the first response.

Bahrain’s opposition groups issued a statement: “We consider the entry of any soldier or military machinery into the Kingdom of Bahrain’s air, sea or land territories a blatant occupation.”

Analysis: Turkey Looks East, Snarling Key US Goals

By Steven R Hurst for The Associated Press                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    President Barack Obama scored two key foreign policy victories this week _ a new round of U.N. sanctions on Iran even as he kept Israeli-Palestinian talks on life support after the Israeli attack on Turkish ship carrying aid to Gaza.  The unintended costs may be heavy.

Both issues threaten key alliances with Muslim Turkey. And both test the ability of the U.S. and Israeli to cope with Ankara’s move out of the Western and NATO orbit toward largely Islamic regions of the Middle East and Central Asia. That matters because the United States is losing sway with its longtime NATO anchor, a democracy that bridges Europe to Asia and the Middle East.

Israel too is struggling to avoid Turkey’s threatened estrangement _ a break that would cost the Jewish state its only Muslim military ally. Turkey was one of the first countries to recognize Israel after its establishment more than six decades ago. The widening fissures in both alliances likely carry heavier psychological than strategic implications for the time being, particularly for Israel.

Here’s why. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan “suddenly is the most popular politician in the Arab world and he doesn’t speak a word of Arabic,” asserts Henri Barkey of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Erdogan’s popularity grew exponentially after the Israeli commando raid on a Turkish-sanction flotilla of aid ships bound for Gaza. Muslims across the Middle East are holding him up as a hero for his tough talk against the Jewish state in their midst. That’s a stunning reversal. Turks, who migrated into modern day Turkey from Central Asia centuries ago, had always been seen in the Arab world as heirs to the Ottoman empire that had oppressed Arabs for 400 years.

Erdogan received a thunderous reception from fellow Muslim leaders Thursday at the Turkish-Arab Economic Forum that opened with calls for an international investigation of the May 31 Israeli raid that killed eight Turkish activists and a Turkish-American teenager. Erdogan’s Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party came to power in 2002 in a landslide victory, a clear shift away from Turkey’s secular traditions that were established in the modern state, the post World War I and shrunken remnant of the Ottoman Empire.

The political shift was a clear precursor of Turkey’s move toward a more comfortable and powerful place in the Muslim world, despite continued efforts for membership in the European Union. Erdogan has since taken to championing the Palestinians’ cause, often more loudly than their fellow Arabs. That had badly strained Israeli-Turkish relations even before the crisis that blew up around the Gaza aid flotilla.

Then there was Turkey’s insertion of itself into the effort to move Iran away from uranium enrichment and its alleged program to build a nuclear weapon. After Iran rejected a deal to swap nuclear fuel last fall, the United States was determined to impose a fourth round of U.N. sanctions on Tehran. Washington had the backing of fellow U.N. Security Council members France and Britain all along and was on the verge of announcing that Russia and China also were on board.

Turkey, with help from Brazil, suddenly announced that it had revived the swap deal and that Iran had agreed. That agreement, more than a half year after initially rejected by Iran, was deeply flawed.

And the next day the United States said a new sanctions package had unanimous support from all five permanent Security Council members. It thanked Turkey for its efforts but said the train had already left the station. When the council voted earlier this week, only Turkey and Brazil cast no votes. Those did little but register protest since neither country holds a veto.

In spite of its rhetoric and obstructionism, Turkey does not appear ready any time soon the break fully from the West. It has vast interests intricately woven into NATO and the European Union. Turkey has a customs union agreement with its top trading partner, Europe, and wants to become part of the EU. But there is no doubt that the tone in Turkey’s foreign policy is changing.

Although the United States has been its chief ally since the Cold War, Turkey opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq through Turkish soil, triggering tensions with Washington. Until the late 1990s, Turkish relations with Iran were tense, with its secular, westernized government accusing Tehran of trying to export its radical Islamic regime to this predominantly Muslim but secular country. Today, Turkey wants to build deeper trade ties with Iran.

Erdogan also is building support for next year’s election by playing the Islam card _ one that appeals heavily to traditionalist, rural and Muslim voters who make up the vast majority of the electorate. “This is not being driven by foreign affairs,” said Jonathan Adelman, professor at the University of Denver. “Erdogan is winning points at home _ going back to the country’s Muslim roots.”

Iran paying for freedom with Blood

Iran Protest Tehran, Iran- Iranians are protesting the results of the recent election they believe was unfairly rigged for the incumbent candidate in President Ahmadinejad and paying for it in blood. At least 17 people have died at the hands of the government forces who are cracking down on the protesters with increasing violence.

A particularly chilling death of a protester happened on Saturday in Tehran when a young girl was shot in the chest by a single sniper shot from a member of the government militia. Her last few seconds of her life were captured on a mobile phone video and then posted on the internet where it has gone viral getting millions of hits on various websites around the world. Her name was Neda, meaning Voice in Farsi, and she has indeed become the voice of this movement of the Iranian people as a symbol for Iran’s pro-democracy movement.

We at Pakistanis for Peace support the men and women of Iran in their quest for real democracy and freedom in their country from the oppresive regime of Ahmadinejad and the ruling Supreme Council and Ayatollah Ali Khameni. The government should realize that Iran will prosper and become stronger only with a more open and fair society that is a real democracy rather than a front for an authoritarian regime. Iran and virtually the rest of the Muslim world needs to realize that although democracy is not the only form of government, it is the best form and one that needs to be embraced across the Muslim world as only it will lead these countries out of the political darkness that they are in with their monarchies, dictatorships, and theocracies.

The citizens of the Muslim world from Morocco to Malaysia are yearning for a true democratic form of government that gives them more rights to participate in their government without fear of reprecussions and real freedom of speech that is missing in far too many of these countries. For the brave people of Iran to stand up and speak out against one of the most oppressive and authoritative regimes in the world is a great sign of hopefully more things to come across the Muslim world!

Reporting by Manzer Munir for www.PakistanisforPeace.com

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