The enemy of my enemy...
With his knockoff designer handbags, hats, and gloves, Manhattan street vendor Omar Thiem hardly seems like a guy out on the front lines in the war on terrorism. Like many of the city's itinerant traders, Thiem is a devout Sufi from West Africa, and a portion of his earnings goes to support the Tijani order, a vibrant, tolerant sect of Islam. Increasingly, U.S. strategists believe, Thiem and his fellow Sufis may be among the world's best weapons against al Qaeda and other radical Islamists.
From the dancers of Turkey's whirling dervishes to the seductive Afropop of Senegal's Youssou N'Dour, Sufis and their mystical ways strike a marked contrast to such fundamentalist sects as Wahhabism, whose strictest imams ban music, dancing, and even romantic love. Long at odds with fundamentalists, the Sufis have seen their shrines destroyed and been forced underground in countries like Saudi Arabia, where their mysticism and worship of saints are branded apostate. But Sufism is staging a comeback, with tens of millions of faithful in Central Asia, Southeast Asia, and West Africa, plus hundreds of millions more who follow Sufi traditions. Sufi activists say they're up against billions of dollars spent by state-sponsored Saudi missionaries intent on spreading Wahhabism. "It would be foolish to ignore this confrontation," says anthropologist Robert Dannin, who has studied African Sufis and likens their clash with fundamentalists to "a guerrilla war."
The conflict has caught the attention of U.S. policymakers, who, while they can't endorse Sufism directly, are pushing to strengthen those associated with it. "The moderates don't have a chance unless America steps in," says Hedieh Mirahmadi, director of WORDE, a Washington, D.C.-based group that seeks to foster greater Muslim-western understanding. A practicing Sufi, Mirahmadi has advised U.S. officials on how best to proceed. "The goal is to preserve things that are the ideological antithesis of radical Islam," she says. Among the tactics: using U.S. aid to restore Sufi shrines overseas, to preserve and translate its classic medieval manuscripts, and to push governments to encourage a Sufi renaissance in their own countries. The idea has already caught on with King Mohammed VI of Morocco, who has quietly brought together local Sufi leaders there and offered millions of dollars in aid to use as a bulwark against radical fundamentalism.
This story appears in the April 25, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.