This second interview in the series of Meet The Team with DRIVE members features Dr. Mark Sedgwick, who is the Principle Investigator at Aarhus University.
"Nowadays, there are rather more Muslims around, and some of those who have grown up in the West engage in a very similar spiritual search, and many find their way to Sufism."
As a Principal Investigator for the DRIVE Project, what perspectives are you bringing to the project?
I originally trained as a historian, and I think this still has a lot of impact on my perspectives. I like to look at the long term and the big picture. This is one reason why I am so keen on looking at the whole issue of social exclusion, which DRIVE does: it is precisely the sort of big factor that historians like, and that I feel has been missing from much recent work on radicalisation in the West. I also bring perspectives related to my earlier work on Islam, which is the main focus of my research. Radicalisation is absolutely not all about Islam, but Islam does have something important to do with it, and I know Islam from many perspectives, not just its relationship with radicalisation. I have also worked on the history of terrorism, and most recently published a chapter about anti-colonial terrorism in Egypt. I am probably best known for my work on definitional and conceptual issues related to radicalisation, and I think these issues are really important, even though they are also really difficult. Finally, I have worked on the ideology of the radical right, and I recently edited an anthology on this. So, for the DRIVE project, I have perspectives on both sides, so to speak.
In your book Western Sufism: From the Abbasids to the New Age (2016), you provide a dense historical examination of the many manifestations of Sufism in Western cultures since the seventeenth century. What is the state of Western Sufism today?
That is a very good question, even though it has very little to do with radicalisation or DRIVE – except, perhaps, to remind us that Muslims in the West do many things that have nothing to do with radicalisation or terrorism. Although I must admit that there was actually a Sufi group in London in the 1970s that was almost as radical as it was possible to be. Nowadays they would probably all have been arrested, but in those days the world was very different, and so far, as we know nobody got at all worried about them. And in fact, they never got anywhere much towards launching the jihad had that they hoped for, and ended up doing high-quality translations of scholarly texts instead. In a way, they ended up fighting “the jihad of the pen”. That is something that is important for Western Sufism today: a lot of work towards explaining Islamic theology in Western languages and in terms that appeal to Westerners is done by Sufis. Sufism in the West started off appealing to non-Muslim Westerners who were engaged in the spiritual search, at a time when there were very, very few Muslims in the West. Nowadays, there are rather more Muslims around, and some of those who have grown up in the West engage in a very similar spiritual search, and many find their way to Sufism. So Western Sufism today is doing quite well, and is increasingly Islamic as well as distinctively Western.
Could Sufism be considered as a “positive branding of Islam”, providing a counter-narrative to Salafist-inspired religious extremism?
Certainly, many people see it that way. If the jihadis are the “bad Muslims”, people want to find the “good Muslims”, and Sufis seem to fit that role quite nicely. In fact, though, engagement in Sufism and attitudes towards jihad have very little to do with each other. It is true that most jihadis nowadays are Salafis, and one of the few things that different types of Salafis all agree on is that they disapprove of Sufis, but that is about it. In the nineteenth century, when there were very few Salafis, most jihadis were actually Sufis, and there is nothing about being a Sufi that means that you can’t be a jihadi as well. It is not about theology, but about politics, identity, and social conditions. Among other things! Theology matters, because jihad is an action that is understood to bring religious rewards, but there is no particular disagreement about this. Sufis, Salafis, and nearly everyone else agree that engaging in jihad is a good thing – so long as it is a proper jihad. That is what there is disagreement about, and the question of whether something is a proper jihad or just murder or criminal activity is more of a political question than a theological one.