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Meet the Sufis in a Surprising Place

3:02 PM, May 2, 2006 • By DANIEL MCKIVERGAN
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"A new atmosphere of increased religious tolerance has spurred a resurgence of Sufism and brought the once-underground Sufis and their rituals out in the open," today's Washington Post reports. Where has this happened? Of all places: Saudi Arabia. Over a year ago, Stephen Schwartz wrote an interesting piece in the Weekly Standard on an underreported sect of Islam known as Sufism. Schwartz described the stark difference between Wahhabism, the dominant religious force in the Saudi kingdom, and Sufism this way:

The Muslim world comprises a spectrum of religious interpretations. If, at one end of the continuum, we find the fanatical creed of Wahhabism, cruel and arbitrary, more an Arab-supremacist state ideology than a religious sect, at the other end we find the enlightened traditions of Sufism. These stress not only intra-Islamic dialogue, separation of spiritual from clerical authority, and teaching in the vernacular, but also respect for all believers, whether Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, or other. Sufis emphasize, above all, their commitment to mutual civility, interaction, and cooperation among believers, regardless of sect.

Schwartz continued:

At the same time, on human rights grounds, the United States must speak up for Sufis against those who repress them, often violently, especially in Saudi Arabia. To repeat, in the Wahhabi-dominated kingdom, an independent, spiritual Sufi oppositional culture is emerging, with special attraction for young people. Against the backdrop of Saudi fanaticism, including the open support for radical Islam coming from some of Riyadh's richest and most powerful personalities, Sufism exemplifies the Islamic pluralism that, if restored to Saudi Arabia, could shut off the money flow to al Qaeda and its allies worldwide. These are opportunities in the war against terror that the United States would be foolish to miss.

But is the "new atmosphere of increased religious tolerance" real or, as one Middle East scholar told me, just "window dressing" by the Saudi Wahhabi establishment to keep the Americans quiet? Regardless, the resurgence of Sufism in other nations is something to watch closely and encourage in the face of Islamic radicalism.