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Sufis Ethics and Democracy

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - SufisEthicsDemocracy (Sufis Ethics and Democracy)

Reporting period: 2017-09-15 to 2019-09-14

Sufism, one of the main expressions of Islamic spirituality, mysticism, and exotericism, has always played a major role in the history of Islam, influencing and negotiating with religious and political authorities, or even embodying them. The question of Sufi politics in contemporary societies is particularly relevant because of the period of renewal that Sufism is living through, with charismatic Sufi leaders attracting new disciples.
The academic literature on Sufism and politics in contemporary societies focuses mainly on Sufi orders that seem to embody Islamist politics, for example in Indonesia, Egypt, and Syria; or it describes the promotion of Sufism and/or Sufi narratives by nation states with a top-down approach.
Among some Sufi orders, a new political and theological tendency has been developing in the last decades. This has been called “Sufi counter reformism”, as an alternative politics in opposition to Islamic reformism, that is the array of political and theological positions and organisations, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Salafists, and Wahhabis.
On the other hand, some Sufi orders are not only opposing Islamism, but are pro-active in the public debate. Many Sufi disciples are engaged in democratic societies arguing that not only Islam is compatible with democracy, but that Islam can be of help to contemporary democracies. Following this perspective, the development of Sufi politics cannot be reduced to exogenous causes, such as the capitulation to “European” values, or the result of a process of secularization. On the contrary, the driving force behind this commitment is a particular interpretation of Islam and Sufism.
This research offers new insights about the role and contribution of Sufism in the public sphere, both in Europe and in North Africa. It offers new perspectives on the debates about ethics and democracy.
Objectives are: to understand the impact of Sufi politics in Belgian, French, Moroccan, and Algerian societies and in the everyday life and to contribute to the study of Islam and democracy by comparing the European and the Maghreb contexts, developing an understanding of how power relationships are challenged and re-created in Sufi politics.
During the MSCF, I studied the Sufi orders ʿAlāwiyya and Būdshīshiyya in France, Belgium, Morocco and Algeria. To collect data, I conducted participant observations of various events organized by these orders as well as of their regular weekly prayer meetings; furthermore, I conducted qualitative interviews with local Sufi leaders. In Algeria and Morocco, I focused also on the Sufi order Tijaniyya, rather important in these countries although almost absent from the European public sphere. Finally, I attended various editions of Sufi festivals in Morocco, such as the Festival of World Sacred Music and the Festival of Sufi Culture.
Concerning publications, I published the chapter “Who is the Infidel? Religious boundaries and social change in the Shadhiliyya Darqawiyya Alawiyya” describing the various doctrines that informIslamic humanism. This chapter is part of the book Global Sufism that I edited in collaboration with Mark Sedgwick.
I recently published the article “Les Politiques du Soufisme en France”, for the Journal Social Compass. This article deals with the politics of the Sufi order Būdshīshiyya.
I submitted the article “Sufism and Islamic Humanism: Cultural Politics, Power, and Secularism” to the Journal of Royal Anthropological Institute in October 2019. This article addresses the discussion on Sufi politics in a global perspective, discussing the categories of liberal progressive post-Islamism. It also shows the complex relationship between Islam and nation state powers.
I am currently finalizing an article on Sufi festivals to be submitted to the Journal of Social Movements Studies. I will show how Sufi cultural festivals organized since the 1990s are transforming in a social network of Sufi leaders and intellectuals with a specific religious and political agenda. Finally, I will describe how Sufism is staged, creating a “public Sufism”.
As regards the public engagement, I regularly published blog articles and photographic reportages on my website. Furthermore, I will inaugurate the photographic exhibition the 25th of October 2019, in Antwerp, Belgium in the spaces of the NGO Kifkif. During next Spring and Summer, this exhibition will take place in Venice at Ca’ Foscari University, and in France at the MMSH.
The doctrines and the activities of Sufi orders analyzed share common trends across Europe and in North Africa. How to label these trends is not an easy task. The label “liberal” would only fit partially, because, as I have showed, in these Sufi orders conservative and liberal positions coexist, and in any case, the word “liberal” is semantically overcharged. The label “progressive” used by Omid Safi would only describe a tiny portion of intellectuals. That is why I propose the concept of “Islamic humanism”.
Compared to the liberal and progressive categories, the concept of Islamic humanism is more malleable, capable of embracing different aspects of a heterogenous phenomenon. The main characteristics are: the centrality and intrinsic worth of every human being, beyond religious, ethnic, and gender differences; and a pluralistic conception of knowledge and epistemologies. The importance of the Other, stressed by these Sufis, resonates with the definition of humanism used by Edward Said that focuses on self-knowledge and self-critique.
How far the religious pluralism and universalism should be taken is an open debate among these Sufis. Should plurality concern also atheism, gender, and sexual orientation? As I showed, if the question of religious pluralism is central, many of these Sufis have enlarged the scope of pluralism, engaging also in debates about gender and some of them even in LGBTQ issues. In the Sufi orders described in this research the border between secular and religious narratives are blurred. For example, many Sufi intellectuals use social and human sciences in dialogue with Islamic and Sufi hermeneutics. Furthermore, there are several open and heated discussions about religious norms (on gender, family regulation, sexual orientation). The discussions on politics draw both on civil law and citizenship narratives and on classical interpretations of Maliki fiqh. What is fundamental to stress is that the antinomies crucial in the secular religion such as Islam/modernity, norm/freedom, tradition/reform, are not employed by these Sufis.
As regards the relation to power, these Sufi orders embody both hegemonic and subaltern narratives, according to each specific context. Sufism participates in hegemonic discourse when it is co-opted by nation state powers and invalidates protests against social injustices, reducing them to an issue of extremism. On the other hand, the promotion of gender equality in Algeria could be read as an anti-hegemonic narrative in opposition to a patriarchal society, characterized by violence and discrimination. Similarly, the political engagement in fighting Islamophobia in Europe could be understood as anti-hegemonic, as could the promotion of citizenship among Muslims in Parisian suburban. Similarly, secular narratives about religious freedom and the promotion of religious pluralism could be used to defend religious minorities in North Africa or Muslims in Europe, or to impose a secular normativity.