Seminar Summary: “The Power of Sufism to Resist Radical Thoughts in Islam” with Keynote Speaker Khawaja Farooq Renzu Shah and moderated by Prof. Yonah Alexander
9 May 2013 at the International Law Institute
Professor Yonah Alexander, Director, Inter-University Center for Terrorism Studies, who moderated the seminar, made brief introductory remarks. He mentioned that the event was organized in memory of Professor Edgar H. Brenner, who served with Professor Alexander as Co-Director of the Inter-University Center for Legal Studies, whose mission is to develop academic programs on critical war and peace issues.
Kim Phan, Executive Director of the International Law Institute that co-sponsored the seminar, stated in order to achieve economic growth in developing countries, the rule of law and security need to be in place.
Khawaja Farooq Renzu Shah, the keynote speaker, then made his formal presentation on “The Power of Sufism to Resist Radical Thoughts in Islam.” Recently retired from India’s Jammu and Kashmir government service, he spoke primarily about Sufism and the role it has historically played in promoting peace and religious tolerance, as well as how it can reclaim that role from the more extreme brands of Islam that have recently begun to take hold across the world.
Mr. Renzu Shah pointed out that events such as September 11 and the April 2013 bombings in Boston have created the impression for many people that Islam is at war with non-believers. Mr. Renzu Shah emphasized that Islam’s sine qua non is not violence, but rather forgiveness and tolerance. To Mr. Renzu Shah, jihad means love, meditation, and purity, not the maiming and massacring of innocents. The other focus of Mr. Renzu Shah’s speech was poverty, and, specifically, the role it plays in fostering radicalization in Kashmir. In Mr. Renzu Shah’s view, this poverty is nurtured by outside forces that benefit from keeping the population poor, such as China and Wahhabi radicals. He pointed out China’s recent successful lobbying in Kashmir in promoting laws that protected its own wool industry at the expense of Kashmir’s people. He then discussed the well-funded, Saudi-supported Wahhabis, whose presence in Kashmir has greatly expanded over the past few decades. Mr. Renzu Shah argued that this Wahhabi presence has played a huge role in the expansion of radical ideology in Kashmir. For example, the Wahhabis wield enormous amounts of influence with Kashmir’s politicians, which helps them open schools and universities all over the region that provide students with free room and board – a very enticing offer in an area of the world that is rife with poverty and unemployment. Mr. Renzu Shah warned that, as a result of these schools, large segments of the youth population are being indoctrinated in Wahhabism’s particularly virulent brand of Islam. Ultimately, Mr. Renzu Shah is extremely concerned by the spread of Wahhabi ideology, which he compared to the spread of Marxism in Europe during the 20th century.
Mr. Renzu Shah was followed by Dr. Vijay Sazawal, the International Coordinator of the Indo-American Kashmir Forum. A Hindu, Dr. Sazawal discussed how the Hindu community’s experience in Kashmir has changed for the worse in the past century, and also touched on the issues caused by religious intolerance and the growing Wahhabi presence in the region. Dr. Sazawal noted that, although Kashmir has been a Muslim-majority region since the 13th century, the Hindu minority has avoided large-scale persecution until relatively recently. The catalyst for this change was the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, which ended with many former mujahideen settling in Kashmir. Dr. Sazawal explained that this was, in many ways, the beginning of radical Islamist ideology taking root in the region, as the ideology is now openly spread and encouraged – to the detriment of Kashmir’s people – by the Wahhabis.
Dr. Sazawal’s remarks were followed by several members of the audience contributing their own thoughts and expertise to the seminar. The first audience member to speak was Samantha Stein, an American who spent several years in Morocco and focused on the Sufi community in Morocco and the way it has impacted society. She observed that Moroccan women have been beneficiaries of the Sufi community, which has empowered and united women and has enabled them to be part of the Moroccan economy. Spain’s former ambassador to the United States Javier Rupérez then spoke on his country’s experience with religious extremism. Ambassador Rupérez briefly discussed the positive role the Spanish Muslim community played in the aftermath of the Madrid train bombings on March 11, 2004, while also emphasizing the need for dialogue with countries and groups like the Wahhabis regarding how they can work together to make religion a tool of peace, rather than an instrument of and justification for violence. State Department official Richard Prosen then spoke on the potential soft-power roles that both NATO and the OSCE could develop in an effort to improve their counterterrorism operations. He was followed by Dr. Idil Izmirli of George Mason’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, who highlighted the need for dialogue within the Muslim community, particularly since intra-Muslim cleavages can complicate inter-religious dialogue.
Mr. Renzu Shah then provided final remarks that returned to the theme of religious common ground. He reiterated his denunciation of ideologies such as Wahhabism that insist on narrow interpretations of religious truth, and called Wahhabism a challenge to democracy all over the world – not just in Kashmir and Pakistan – and recommended that people of all backgrounds work to promote ideologies like Sufism, which preach tolerance, kindness and peace.
In his closing remarks, Prof. Alexander observed the following: First, the international community is engaged in an intellectual battle between the culture of death and the culture of life. Second, religious radicalization, ethnic hatred and racial prejudices contribute to national, regional and global violence. Third, if the quantity and quality of tolerance and ecumenical reconciliation can be raised, then the chances for a more peaceful resolution of the Kashmiri crisis as well as other political conflicts around the world will be considerably enhanced.