The New York Times flubs basic facts about Islam

By Razib Khan | March 21, 2011 9:46 pm

Since 9/11, and even earlier back to the Iranian Revolution, Western journalists have served as oracles for the mass public, decrypting the ethnographic confusions of the Islamic world. There are many subtle shadings which no doubt can’t make into finite copy. But I get really exasperated when extremely basic factual misinformation makes it into the pages of The New York Times. I know, I shouldn’t, but it is the “paper of record.” It is made all the worse when the piece is an analysis which attempts to do more than report the straight facts, but rather place events in a broader context. A Libyan Fight for Democracy, or a Civil War?:

Even one religious leader associated with Sufism — a traditionally pacifist sect something like the Islamic equivalent of the Quakers — lamented his own tribe’s lack of guns for the fight.

Exactly what Sufi Islam is is a matter for doctoral theses. But I can assert with 100% surety that one could agree that in terms of how Sufi Islam is practiced in the real world it does not resemble a “pacifist sect” like the Quakers at all (there are similarities in terms of language used to describe Quaker and Sufi religious experience, but that sort of mysticism is very general, and not specific to just these two traditions). This is blatant misinformation, the kind of stuff you might hear in Sedona, but could be debunked with a very superficial understanding of the history of the Muslim world.

For example, the Safavid dynasty of Persia, which made Shia Islam synonymous with the Iranian nation in the 16th century, began as a militant Sufi order. King Idris of Libya was head of a an Islamic order which has been characterized as Sufi and engaged in violent rebellion against Italian colonialism. And here’s an article which explicitly addresses the question of Sufi Islam’s purported pacifism:

Mumtaz Qadri, the self-confessed killer of Salmaan Taseer, is said to be associated with the Dawat-e-Islami, a non-violent, non-political, Sufi-inspired group of the Barelvi school of thought. The Barelvis are mainly pacifists, having little or no militant tendencies, while most jihadists and militant groups, with few exceptions, believe in a more puritanical version of Islam where veneration of Sufi saints and rituals and devotional music and dances at their shrines, are considered apostasy.

In 1240, Baba Ilyas-i-Khorasani and Baba Ishaq, two popular Sufi sheikhs, mobilised nomadic Turkmen against the Seljuk rule in what is modern-day Turkey, demanding a revival of ‘pure’ Islam. And in the 15th and 16th centuries, several Sufi masters led armed uprisings in the Ottoman Empire against the ‘lax’ official Islam.

In modern times, most rebellions, led by Sufi masters, were targeted against the British, French and Italian colonialists. The Sanusiyya — a Sufi order widespread in Libya, Egypt, Sudan and the Sahara — fought against the Italian colonialists. And the Muridiyya order, founded by Amadu Baba, fought the French in Senegal. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Sufis from Naqshbandiyya and Qadiriyya orders fought jihad against ‘godless’ Russian tsars and the Soviets.

In the region now called Pakistan, Sufis, dervishes and mullahs pioneered several millenarian and revivalist movements directed against British colonialists. Mirza Ali Khan, better known as the ‘Faqir from Ipi,’ a hermit from the Waziristan region, led his disciples in a successful rebellion against the British. And the Hur movement of the late 19th century in Sindh was also mobilised by a saintly figure, Sibghtullah Shah Badshah.

Religious orders which have a militant side are pretty common across history, so this shouldn’t be a surprise. The Buddhist warrior monks of Japan and the Christian military orders are examples outside of Islam. Since 9/11 there has been a quest in the Western media to break Islam apart into “good” and “bad” dichotomies. So, Sufism = good. Salafism = bad. “Moderate Muslims” = good. “Fundamentalist Muslims” = bad. The necessity of this for the reading audience is obvious, but the reality is all too often all that occurs is that terms get invented, distorted, and reality bent out of shape to fit a particular narrative.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Culture, Religion

Comments (25)

  1. Ian

    Even if they were correct in their characterisation of Sufis, that phrase “even one religious leader associated with Sufism” brings to mind the man who is arguably the most famous Quaker.

  2. Ian

    Would it make these people’s heads explode if someone points out that Arafat or Saddam Hussein were “moderate Muslims”? Or would that just make them shed their veneer of liberalism and make them turn into Glenn Beck or Frank Gaffney?

  3. i think there’s a moderate probability that arafat may have been an atheist privately. his background was in leftist nationalism, and his personal life was certainly heterodox! in any case, the “moderate muslim” thing is useless. no one uses such a generic catchall term like “moderate christian,” you talk about protestants, or catholics, or evangelicals. way more specific stuff that actually represents their concrete expression in the real world.

    he is the most famous quaker btw 🙂

  4. TD

    :-/. I have enough trouble trying to understand Christianity/Christians…and I’m a white guy from the Midwest! I’m sorry, but religion makes me physically ill. I wish it had that effect on the majority of society.

  5. Richard Nixon, meh. How about Smedley Butler, “the fighting Quaker”?

  6. Jeff

    Eh, no news here. NY Times “flubs” facts about all sorts of stuff, all the time… especially science. This particular monolith of popular media is nothing but a propaganda machine.

  7. John Emerson

    If you want to read something bizarre about Sufis, here it is. The author claims that the Bektashi Sufis are Diogenean Cynics.

    Far from being pacifist, though, the Bektashis were strong among the Janissarie military corps.

  8. Joe

    God bless you (no pun intended) for pointing this out. I’m an atheist, and upon a lot of personal research, I’ve concluded that Islam is a distillation of all I fear and loathe about religion – Repressive, anti-science, arrogant, intolerant, and prone to incite violence.

    It strikes me odd that liberal pundits or mainstream tabloids, which are often vocal supporters of science (global warming, evolution) go to great lengths to obfuscate the truth and facts about Islam, while reserving their criticism for Christians. There’s plenty of criticism to go around, but if you’re liberal and feel compelled to serve as a religious apologist, Islam should be last on the list.

  9. Roger Bigod

    A reporter or editor at the NYT is likely to have encountered Sufiism via the inclusion of Rumi in a literature course or a discussion of mystical beliefs in different religious traditions. From this, it’s easy to assume that Sufi culture has been as consistent over the centuries as that of the Quakers. It’s ignorant but well-intentioned.

  10. marcel

    TD @ 4 wrote: I’m sorry, but religion makes me physically ill. I wish it had that effect on the majority of society.

    Yeah. Its most common effect is to make people mentally, rather than physically, ill.

  11. let’s keep it mature guys 🙂

  12. Leviticus

    Sufis have been everything Muslims have been: conformists, antinomians, elite, poor, egalitarians, social conservatives, intellectuals, anti-intellectuals, Shia, Sunni, ecumenical cosmopolitans and puritanical bigots. Sufis have disliked each other, there are accounts of feuding Sufi orders having brawls in the streets. It isn’t a sect, although some Sufi movements could be considered doctrinally distinct enough to be a sect. I don’t think we can consider Sufis analogous to Catholic orders,either.

    I blame well-meaning, but naive Western Gutmenschen for the common tendency to consider Sufis as harmless Muslim hippies. Them and Idris Shah. You are right to point out a few examples of Sufis as warrior movements, but the list could be expanded. Imam Shamil, of the Muridi movement in the Caucasus, is a perfect example of the strong connection between some strains of Sufism and the ghazi tradition. I should note, in this instance, Shamil did have a legitimate grievance against Russian invaders. But not all such Sufi inspired wars were defensive. For example, Ottoman expansion against the Byzantines was aided by forces of Sufi-inspired ghazis.

    This isn’t old history. A segment of the Turkish anti-secular Islamist movement are Naqshbandi Sufis. I would not try to imply a connection, but it is important to note that the Taliban and Pakistani Islamist movements like the Jamiatul Ulama-i Islam have distant connections to Sufism via the Deobandi movement and the Sirhindis (a puritanical movement). I’ve often thought that a worthwhile research project would be to determine if Sufi organizational structures have influenced the Taliban. Do they operate like a Sufi order?

  13. Ian

    @Joe – this is, I think, so much of what’s wrong with American views of Islam and Muslims. Religious societies, whether you believe in a god or not, are human constructs. It’s easy (and justifiable, IMO) to criticise the role of women in Islamic societies. And yet, the three largest Muslim countries (four, if you count India) have all been led by women, while the closest the US has come is Pelosi’s four years as Speaker. Now you can argue that all of them – Benazir, Khaleda Zia, Sheik Hasina, Megawati, Indira Gandhi – inherited their position as party leader from their father or husband. But it doesn’t change the fact that at least half of the world’s Muslims have been lead by a woman at some point within my lifetime. You can’t say anything of the sort about Christians, atheists or Buddhists.

    Now you can argue that this says nothing about Islam. But it says a lot about Muslims. And religions are not static entities, gifts from God(s).

    As for liberals defending Muslims – if you don’t understand that, then you don’t understand what makes liberals liberals. When the right wing vilifies people, it picks the worst examples it can find (or make up) and uses them to tar anyone associated with the group. Liberals, on the other hand (not the left as a whole, but specifically the ‘bleeding heart’ types) tend to stand up for those who are oppressed or vilified. At this point in time, Muslims are the people who American society has decided it is acceptable to hate. It has been the Irish, the Italians, the Poles, the Jews, Blacks, Chinese, Japanese…

    The horrible things done by the Japanese during WW II didn’t make the internment of Japanese Americans acceptable. Standing up for the rights of Japanese Americans at the same time as people were learning about the Bataan Death March would not have been very popular. But it would still have been brave, it would have been honourable, it would have been right.

  14. ian, honestly, it’s stupid to count indira gandhi as evidence for a trend in the “muslim world.” i see the logic, but it’s a debating trick best used on retards (who don’t know the difference between hindus and muslims anyway). india is not a muslim society, and most of gandhi’s votes were not from muslims (though i’m aware that muslims tend to support congress even today). that’s just my opinion. i also think the point about bhutto et al. being a point in arguing for women’s rights in the “muslim world” knocks down only strawman arguments. though it is an interesting “counter-intuitive” fact worth bringing up, ultimately it brings home the point that in lineage based hierarchical societies maintenance of kin-based power structures can trump sex bias (e.g., elizabethian england was no feminist paradise).

    At this point in time, Muslims are the people who American society has decided it is acceptable to hate. It has been the Irish, the Italians, the Poles, the Jews, Blacks, Chinese, Japanese…

    the problem i have with liberals is that you think it’s OK with analogize what’s going with muslims with what happened to blacks and japanese. there’s no analogy in terms of magnitude. the experiences of jews and irish were also qualitatively different from those of japanese during world war ii and blacks during jim crow, to the point where i think those should be bracketed out separately (several confederate senators were from jewish backgrounds, for example).

    you’re basically the inverse of the right-wing ‘islamophobes’ in your mode of rhetoric and complexity of realistic description. that might be what politics demands, but i feel at liberty to point out how dumb it is now and then. i also recently realized that i should at least be able to speak on this, since i think i “look muslim” and have a muslim name.

    * note, i think the comparison between muslims and jews is probably the best of the ones you’ve noted. the history outlined in jon sarna’s american judaism is why.

  15. Ian

    My point was (or was supposed to be…it got lost and I got sidetracked) was that this is counterintuitive if you use a simplistic view of the Muslim world. It’s far easier to make the case (if you substitute Sri Lanka for Indonesia) to make the case that it’s a South Asian thing. I never meant to suggest that this represented women’s rights, or to compare women’s rights in these countries with the West – it was just a comment on outcomes.

    With regards to Gandhi – while Muslims were an important element in the coalition that was Congress (and, I suspect, are an even more important element post-BJP) it was just a thought that slipped in while I was writing – that if you count India, you’re talking about something like half a billion Muslims.

  16. Dhruv

    I don’t want to sidetrack this too much. The election of Indira Gandhi and Benazir Bhutto was more about the nepotistic strain in the Indian and Pakistani society than open-mindedness to women. Both were daughters of very major political figures, Jawaharlal Nehru and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. These families remain influential in the politics of India and Pakistan to this day. More so in India than Pakistan, since Sonia Gandhi and her son are going strong, while Asif Zardari has become something of a bad joke in Pakistan.

    And splitting hairs here, the Indian Muslim population is ~150 million, less than 15 % of the total.

  17. simplistic view of the Muslim world.

    right, my point is that both “liberals” and “conservatives” use “simplistic” (to be charitable) models to characterize the “muslim world.” i tend to be of the opinion that most people are stupid and/or ignorant, and congenitally or happily so, so there’s only so far we can go with that. but in response to joe’s child-like comment i’d wish you’d pushed it even further in complexificaiton, cuz there’s a lot of juice there. for example, there is a huge difference across indonesia, with the minangkabau particularly interesting outliers.

  18. dhruv, why leave out of the bangladeshi begums? same dynamic of family connections. and chandrika kumaratunga of sri lanka was also from a political dynasty. there is some social science in this area actually why female dynasts seem relatively common in south and southeast asia. aung san suu kyi falls into that category as well!

  19. Ian

    With regards to the second part of the comment – I’m not describing my own view. I was merely responding to Joe’s comment:

    It strikes me odd that liberal pundits or mainstream tabloids… go to great lengths to obfuscate the truth and facts about Islam, while reserving their criticism for Christians

    It doesn’t strike me as odd at all. It isn’t odd for liberals (in the US) to defend Islam because they see Muslims as a group that’s getting beat up on. I’m not saying that Muslims in the US are the same as any of those other groups – I’m saying that it’s not surprising to see liberals in the US make that comparison.

    My own views are very different. To begin with, while it’s convenient to call myself a liberal in an American context, I’m not a liberal. I’m a moderate conservative pragmatist. My conservative pragmatism puts me well to the left of the mainstream in the US, but I’m no radical, no die-hard egalitarian. I have supported neo-liberal economic ideas and globalisation (in retrospect I think I was at least partly wrong, but it was the better of the two choices presented) and I have also supported strong environmental regulation.

    I may be wrong in my views about Islam and Muslims, but I try to be honest with myself as to why I feel the way I do. On one hand, there’s this person. One of the best human beings I have ever met.* On the other hand, there’s this, one of the great traumatic experiences of my life – done my Muslims, in the name of Islam, with backing from Libya and Sudan. The best person I have encountered was Muslim, and so was one of the worst. Both thought they were acting as their faith said they should. I don’t think I lack nuance in my view of Muslims.

    I grew up around Muslims, and I asked a lot of questions. As a potential proselyte, I got answers. And as a curious person, I followed up the answers with more questions. And no, I wasn’t getting a whitewashed view of Islam – much of the information I got was Wahhabi stuff aimed at Muslims, distributed by Saudi-backed organisations. (In fact, I saw enough of it that I was able to distinguish the more conservative propaganda, mostly produced in England, from the more moderate stuff coming out of South Africa.) Obviously I’m not Muslim, so it’s safe to say that the stuff didn’t work for me. I know enough to know that I just know a little. But I know enough to know that most of what Americans – of whatever stripe – say about Islam is largely ignorant.

    *Yes, I’m biased – he was a relative. I’ve tried to temper that bias by reading what others have written, listening to what others have said. I came away from that thinking that my assessment isn’t terribly biased.

  20. And as a curious person, I followed up the answers with more questions. And no, I wasn’t getting a whitewashed view of Islam – much of the information I got was Wahhabi stuff aimed at Muslims, distributed by Saudi-backed organisations.

    ok, let’s pin the issue on nuance. the fixation on wahhabis, salafis, deobandis, etc., is understandable. but i’ve come to the point where i think this is problematic. wahhabis are crazy on the face. some estimates suggest that even the majority of saudis may not be wahabbi (the hejaz has not traditionally had the same orientation as the nejd). the big problem is that the median muslim has some pretty illiberal views.* since it isn’t a normal distribution median might not be that informative…but the reality is that we’re often talking about the tails of the distribution. there is an official organization of islamic states. to my knowledge there hasn’t been anything similar for christians since the tacit alliance of christian european monarchs in the early 19th century. these deep substantive civilizational differences at this point in history are totally elided by all the stupid analogies you get in the media, and from politically correct liberals.

    * the problem from my perspective. if you hold those views, as my parents do, you think they’re the right and just views, just like i think sex between 10 year olds and adults should not be allowed.

  21. omar

    Keep in mind that people have to eat before they do anything else. Marxists were wrong about most things, but not too far off in thinking that material interests count for A LOT. But the urge to get food, shelter and sex only becomes naked when we are nearly naked and hungry. If we are lucky and happen to be in the midst of a functioning complex society, then our attempts to get food and sex work themselves out through cultural features developed over thousands of years and no longer have an obvious and direct relationship with food and sex. What that means is that we get to fight it out over ideologies and fantasies, but deep down, its still about the food and the sex. Muslims may want to have a Muslim caliphate or whatever, but if their food and sex is coming via American culture, most of them seem to have a very good handle on when to blow up and when to fold. The mainstream illiberal and supremacist ideology meets the reality of economic and cultural power in the world and bends every day of the week….Liberals give a pass to the ideology and entertain ignorant notions of peaceful quaker sufis because thats what helps them digest their overpriced arugula, but many conservatives can go to the opposite extreme and regard practically harmless, self-serving, compromising, deeply confused everyday Muslims as some sort of massive threat to life and liberty….that too is not healthy.

  22. Razib, didn’t you mean to write “should not be allowed”? I would be surprised otherwise.

  23. Ian

    Just to clarify a little – when I said Wahhabi, I was talking about the literature. And, of course, that’s just a guess, based on the source (the Saudi-funded Islamic Missionaries Guild). Until maybe the 1970s Islam in Trinidad was pretty ‘traditional’ – more Indian than anything. The 70s brought both Saudi-funded missionaries (both Pakistanis and Arabs) and American-inspired Black Muslims. That said, I knew only one family, among my friends and family, who didn’t celebrate Christmas.

    As far as illiberal views go – this gets back to my original point: how much of these views are religious versus societal? Obviously, sometimes it’s difficult to distinguish. Growing up, I found the Muslims and Pentecostals tended to be more illiberal than the average people. But in both cases, these were groups that were heavily influenced by foreign missionaries. That said, both groups appeared to be more tolerant of gays (if not homosexuality) than, say, the average Jamaican.

    Obviously, there’s more to the world than TT 🙂 Sure, Middle Eastern Muslims are a lot more illiberal than Americans or Europeans*, but how do they compare to, say, Kenyans on homosexuality? It’s all Hitchens’ fault – ever since I laid eyes on “God is not Great’, I find myself wondering about controls and effect sizes – if you control for other factors, how much of a ‘religion’ effect is there? And is it even possible to deal with the collinearity and confounding?

    *On some issues is it even valid to speak of ‘Europeans’, given the differences between say, England and Moldova?

  24. how much of these views are religious versus societal?

    on a fundamental level there’s no real distinction here. religious people can make the distinction because they think their beliefs describe something true independent of society, god, karma, etc. but irreligious people shouldn’t make the distinction, since they think religion is an outgrowth of psychology and sociology anyhow.

    if you control for other factors, how much of a ‘religion’ effect is there?

    i’m skeptical there is much of a ‘religion’ effect. if all muslims were swedes islam would be a far less barbaric religion. OTOH, if all muslims were swedes then the world would be very different. i’m not interested in the idea that a religion has some core essence or soul. i’m interested in describing how people are. and, i’m quibbling with some of the analogies you made.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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