The tragic events which occurred this weekend in a Sufi Muslim mosque in the Northern Sinai desert clearly makes no sense to modern Western norms. ISIS forces slaughtering hundreds of Muslims at prayer boggles the mind. While religious wars were historically always part of the ugliness of Western civilization, theological disputes for the most part are no longer decided by the sword. In the Muslim world—especially in the Middle East–it still remains very much part of how differences are resolved. Religious rivalries within Islam have been present throughout history, but have been especially apparent to the West over the past 40-60 years. There have incidents in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Iran, Egypt, Yemen, throughout North Africa and the entire Middle East. It has grown especially violent since the evolution of Al Qaeda in the late 1980’s and then the creation of ISIS in 1999.
The current conflict which erupted last weekend is far more complicated than the differences between Shiite and Sunni Muslims. In fact, there are Sufi’s in both sects. Fights between these groups have been on-going for ages. The battle within Islam, however, transcends geographic borders and political arguments. In this instance it involved radical Muslims refusing to accept a more mystical form of practice of the Sufis; a form which is also more open and tolerant.
Some of the conflicts cut to the essence of the faith. They are not only in conflict with modernity, but also involve recognition or rejection of Muslim saints as well as forms and places of worship. ISIS accepts a more brutal form of attack against Sufis believers themselves and not merely against Sufi sites or holy places.
There is a clear problem among Muslims with which it has struggled for centuries. Sufis indeed are a serious threat to the politics of radical Islam. Both in their practice and their beliefs Sufis largely reject the intolerance of Al Qaeda and ISIS. As such these radical Muslim groups feel a need to destroy them—as they do all religious beliefs except their own.
Western supporters of the challengers to religious Islamic fundamentalism believe that they can facilitate the exporting liberal democratic values to opponents of radical Islam. Western values are only acceptable when they are advanced by Muslim believers and not when presented by Western infidels. Similarly, the so-called Arab Fall now developing in Saudi Arabia will also only succeed if support emerges from within the House of Saud; not because the Crown Prince is garnering support from the West for his effort at reform.
It is extremely important for the West not to assume that it can solve these issues for Islam. No progress or any good will emerge if Western governments seek to involve themselves in these fights. The West may believe as they did in Egypt and elsewhere during the Arab Spring that they know what is best for all Muslims. Such interference will not only fail but in fact will undermine any Western credibility in the Islamic world. There are genuine political, economic, and security implications for the intra-Muslim conflicts; but the U.S. and the West must be exceedingly cautious not to step too deeply into Islam’s internal conflicts. Usually advice or assistance from the West is not desired or constructive. In fact, the consequences of such actions could be exceedingly negative.