Iraq’s Sufi Militants

Iraqi Kalashnikov and flag. Australia, 2010.

“Sufi militarism” seems like a paradox to many regional observers. Iraq’s Naqshbandhi Army therefore seems like it has no firm ideological basis. This is essentially true: the group espouses Sufism more as a populist strategy than anything else. Naqsbhandi seeks to fuse the Ba’athist and Islamist tendency of Iraqi insurgent movements into a new militant tendency. It is part of an umbrella organization called the Supreme Command for Jihad and Liberation, which formed in October 2007.

Today, Naqshbandi is one of the groups that is actively seizing territory in northern and western Iraq, along with the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS). It is comprised mainly of former Ba’athists. Many of them are people who were thrown out by the ill-advised program of total “de-Ba’athification” that plunged Iraq into chaos. Understanding the limitations of their ideology, the group has repositioned itself. It now seeks to implement as much Ba’athism as possible, rather than “re-Ba’athification,” and has also adapted to the framework of Islamic militarism. The question is why they need to do this, and whether Sufi militarism is itself a paradox.

I think the answer to the first question is simple enough. Traditional leftist insurrectionists just aren’t that popular in the Muslim world anymore (and the jury is still out on whether or not they ever were.) There are a few reasons why, including aggressive state action, but the main one is that sometime in the late 1960s, Communism lost its appeal as an alternative ethical framework for contemporary society. This doesn’t necessarily mean that people became more right-wing. More often than not, they just took their outrage elsewhere. Politically, Islamism filled the void left by a variety of leftist ideologies, whether Maoist or Nasserist. Islamic militarism followed suit with more classical outfits like the Red Eagles Brigades.

The second question is more complicated. Is there such a thing as Sufi militarism? I have noticed that most Western analysts are confused at the idea because modern Sufism is considered to be wholly peaceful and apolitical. This is why it is often pointed towards as evidence of Islam’s compatibility with multicultural democracy. Everyone loves Sufis, whether they are hippies or conventional liberals. Unfortunately, their characterizations of Sufism are inaccurate (and pretty racist.) Sufism has political and violent currents the same as any other ideological force, and many Muslims only consider the latter to be controversial.

The idea that Sufism is inherently quietist is completely antiquated. Sure, the Medieval Sufis were basically just individually rebellious iconoclasts. They talked about viewing Islam through an esoteric lens and staining their janamazes with wine. It was their goal to be controversial and a bit unsettling as a way of getting closer to Allah. They distanced themselves from politics because “if you cannot change the Kings, then change yourself,” and their means for achieving that was deeply affected by religions like Tibetan Buddhism. However, Sufism started becoming fiercely political about a century and a half ago, in response to European imperialism. While it still included many apolitical and mystical sects, there were also Sufis like Muhammad Iqbal who had no patience for settling with their own spiritual needs and sought to transform an unjust world.

When Sufism started becoming a political platform, the disgust for violence also started to become reevaluated. This is mainly because people like Iqbal’s followers, who were exhausted with the British Raj, were desperate to realize social change by any means necessary. However, the relationship extends back further: for instance, many Ottoman janissaries had ties to the Bektashi Order. Many Muslims did not internalize this element of Sufism, though and are critical of it. After all, part of Sufism’s appeal was always the fact that it rose above petty conflict. Still though, no religion or ideology is immune from being twisted in the face of massive repression. Nouri al-Maliki‘s Iraq has more than enough features to corrupt even the most gentle Sufi. Naqshbandi didn’t rebrand itself out of nowhere: it had to spot fertile ground for the ideology before it made this pivot. I’m not sure why we are asking (and laughing at) a seemingly absurdist question about whether or not Sufi-Ba’athists militants can even exist. The real question is: how has Iraq reached the point that there are now Sufi-Ba’athist militants with any support at all?


Photograph courtesy of Stephen Mitchell. Published under a Creative Commons License.

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