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Can Sufis Bring Peace to Afghanistan?

Sufis pray at the Khaja Abdullah Ansari shrine in the western Afghan city of Herat.
Sufis pray at the Khaja Abdullah Ansari shrine in the western Afghan city of Herat.
Sufi leaders in Afghanistan claim that at least 60 percent of the country's population are followers of Sufism, or at least support and respect Sufi values.

"Ziyarats," believed to be the burial places of prominent Sufi figures, have become popular pilgrimage sites all over the country. Sufi religious leaders enjoy respect and influence among the local population.

Now, some experts suggest that Sufis can use their influence over the faithful to help bring peace to their war-ravaged country.

Sayed Ishaq Gilani, a prominent Afghan politician and a Sufi himself, says that armed force has so far failed to defeat the Taliban. He says it's time to explore other avenues to put an end to their insurgency.

Most Sufis in Afghanistan and Pakistan are followers of the Qadiriya and Naqshbandiya movements, respectively led by the Gilani and Mojaddedi dynasties.

"Sufis can be instrumental in persuading Taliban leaders to give up violence," says the politician, who is a member of Gilani family.

"If Sufi followers are supported, there is a 99.9 percent chance that Sufis could help prevent all kinds of fallacies being used by various groups in the name of Islam," Gilani adds.

Gilani says that the Sufis are "extremely willing to bring peace" to the country. He also notes that "a majority of the Taliban" are Sufis, mostly followers of the Qadiriya and Naqshbandiya movements.

In fact, Gilani says that Taliban leader Mullah Omar was himself raised as a Sufi before later embracing the more severe Wahhabi-inspired Islam followed by the Taliban. However, some experts dispute that claim.

Bulwark Against Extremism

Despite their image as being peaceful mystics, Sufis in Afghanistan have been actively involved in politics and military conflicts.

In recent Afghan history, many Sufis took up arms in the 1980s and joined the anti-Soviet jihad. Nor do they advocate a Western-style secular government in Afghanistan.

Sufism is also widespread in neighboring Pakistan.
Nevertheless, compared to other Islamic sects such as Wahhabism, Sufism is seen as much more moderate, tolerant, and peaceful. Masud Naqshband, a Sufi scholar and former mujahed or holy warrior, says Sufi Islam does not support violence, while some other religious groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan "have opted for extremism in every sense of the word."

Naqshband says that the Taliban's interpretation of Islamic laws is "exaggerated," and "goes beyond what we say; it goes beyond what the Koran has said."

In recent months, some Western experts -- most notably at the Rand Corporation, a U.S. think tank -- have suggested that Sufis should be supported as a defense against radical and extremist groups.

Gilani says that while Afghan and Pakistani followers of Wahhabism enjoy support and funding from Arab countries, Sufis do not get any backing from the outside world.

However, Gilani believes that any open support from Western countries would make Sufis subject to suspicion and mistrust in the region. "Any potential Western support to Sufis has to be discreet and nonpolitical," he says.

So, if Sufis try to persuade the Taliban to lay down their arms, will the militants accept their message of peace?

One prominent Taliban figure, Abdul Hakim Mujahed, a former Taliban representative in New York, says it's worth trying. He says that the Taliban "consists of people from various backgrounds," and that while some "oppose" Sufis, others have "great respect" for them and are even followers.

"If influential and knowledgeable people were given a chance to get involved, they could help the peace process in Afghanistan," Mujahed says.

Naqshband, the Sufi scholar, advocates exploring all avenues for peace and the end of the insurgency. However, he is not optimistic.

"The war in Afghanistan has never been about religion," Naqshband says. "Religion has been dragged into this war, which has always been about politics and geopolitics."

Naqshband says that unless a political solution were found to the conflict, the role Sufis could play in bringing peace to Afghanistan would be limited.

But political solutions require political will -- something so far lacking in Taliban ranks.

If Sufis can help bring the Taliban into talks on a political solution, their influence will have proven to be significant indeed.
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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

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