Back in the early '70s I spent a week at a Sufi-inspired music camp in Marin County, California. It was a typical New Age celebration of the inner spirit, in a setting inspired by the musical and whirling dance traditions of Sufism, the so-called mystical branch of Islam. Back then, the militant form of Islam was hardly a ripple on the water.
More than 30 years have since passed, but it was all brought back this week by images in the New York Times showing Somali Sufis gathered around a campfire singing and chanting, much as we did in the Marin Woods back in the day, only at their feet lie a pile of Kalashnikovs which they use to fight the ultra-orthodox Shabab militias.
On top of everything else that has befallen the people of Somalia, we are witnessing a new conflict that pits groups of Sufi worshippers who believe that cultivation of the heart is the true path to God, against men who recently cut off the heads of two young women who were caught outside their homes selling tea. According to the Times, the Sufis had pretty much stayed on the sidelines during the 20 years of clan in-fighting, but now that the Shabab have taken to killing their imams and burning their mosques, they feel they have no choice but to retaliate.
Can it be long before there is a Sufi desk at the CIA looking for ways to militarize the whirling dervishes in the fight against Wahabiism and its militant offshoots? This is an internecine fight within Islam that stretches from the Caucasus to Southeast Asia, and while the Wahabi adherents seem to have a centralized support structure emanating from Saudi Arabia, the Sufic resistance seems to be a grassroots effort led by people determined to fight against the excesses of ultra-orthodox Islam.
So are the Sufis the solution to the puzzle on how to roll back militant Islam? Unlikely.
Given their history and the structure of their organizations, the most that outsiders can hope for is that they will fight until they are allowed to carry on with their mystical ways. They are hardly going to sweep across the Sunni and Shiite world to impose Islamic mystical practices on their co-religionists.
At best, Sufi music camps, like the one I attended in California, will be allowed to exist throughout the Muslim world, and people can experience for themselves that there are other paths to their God besides adherence to Sharia and the barrel of a gun.
(First published June 3rd in World Politics Review)