What We Still Don’t Know About Islam

Cathy Lynn Grossman, at USA Today’s Faith and Reason blog, writes about how most Americans know very little about Islam. Intentionally or not, she actually models this ignorance of Muslim traditions. Like William Dalrymple in the New York Times, she pulls out this word “sufism,” as though it is the silver bullet that will bring peace to the world. To say that Feisal Abdul-Rauf is a sufi is technically true and about as useful as saying he is male.

Sufism is theological orientation amongst Muslims that covers a wide variety of beliefs and practices. There are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of sufi orders. They range from politically quiet to very politically engaged. In many contexts they have served as the conscience of the community, speaking truth to power, whether that power was political or religious. Feisal Abdul-Rauf is not apolitical. He speaks from what we would consider to be a politically liberal perspective, and in service to the government of the United States.

Both Grossman and Dalrymple want to create a simple notion of Islam, where there are good Muslims and there are bad Muslims. In their construction, sufis are by definition “good.” This view denies the complexity of the Muslim experience and the reality of our past constructions of the “good” Muslim that have backfired. Ronald Reagan once hailed the Afghan mujahidin, the precursors to the Taliban, as the greatest freedom fighters since the American Revolution. Donald Rumsfeld has his infamous photo with Saddam Hussein.

Now New York Gov. Paterson is using the same simple constructions, comparing sufis and Shi’ah Muslims, as thought they are mutually exclusive categories. One can be sufi and Shi’ah or sufi and Sunni. For example, Khomeini, leader of the Iranian Revolution, had sufi leanings. Paterson’s ignorance conflates current concerns about Iran with the Park51 issue, and shows no understanding of the Sunni nature of Al-Qaida.

The simple categories of Muslims, without any real understanding of what they mean, does a disservice to the tradition and does not actually improve the conversation. Paterson’s comments will confuse the the conversation in New York, even if people recognize that he is simply floundering for legitimacy in the discussion. Grossman and Dalrymple’s gross generalizations tell us nothing about the drivers behind Park51 or the supporters of the center. It’s a shame that instead of focusing on battling the ignorance of Muslims, they are contributing to it.