Algerian wants reformist Sufi role in Arab Spring

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Sufi Muslims across North Africa must stand up for dignity and freedom so their mystical form of Islam can be heard in the lively debates over democracy in the Arab world, a leading Algerian Sufi master says.

The official Islam promoted by dictators who were swept away by Arab Spring revolts has failed and Muslims now need Sufi-style spirituality to promote brotherhood and unity, said Sheikh Khaled Bentounes, head of the Al’ Alawiya Sufi order.

Arab leaders who do not guarantee universal values such as dignity and freedom risked being swept from office by a “tsunami” of youth protests, he told Reuters at his order’s lodge in this coastal city 300 km (187 miles) west of Algiers, Reuters reports.
“We need to open the doors of debate in our countries,” said Bentounes, 62, whose order claims tens of thousands of followers in North Africa and Europe. “Let the Salafi, the Muslim Brother, the secularist, the agnostic and the Sufi speak freely and suggest solutions.”
“Spirituality commits us to take the path of the good, of unity and brotherhood,” he added.

SUFI-SALAFI TENSION

Although well-represented in the traditional Islam of North Africa, Sufis — whose teaching stresses mysticism and love of God — have been less visible in the Arab Spring uprisings than the conservative Muslim Brothers or the strict orthodox Salafis.

Sufis in Egypt have occasionally come under attack by Salafis, who consider them heretics for venerating saints and sometimes damage the shrines they maintain in their honour. Bentounes said Sufis should stand up to counter extremism.
“There are 13 million Sufis in Egypt and it’s time for them to show what they can do to help implement democracy,” he said.

Dressed in a traditional white gandoura robe, the sheikh said the young people driving the Arab Spring protests “can no longer live in a dictatorship.”
“The rulers in the Arab world have no choice now but to guarantee dignity and freedom for young people,” he said. “If they don’t, they will be swept away by a tsunami (of protest).”

Bentounes, who has written several books on Sufism, criticised the official Islam long promoted in North Africa.
“Like everything else, Islam has become a consumer item. The Friday sermons of the imams are consumer items. They’ve failed,” he said. “Conservative Sufism has also failed.
“What we need now is a Sufism in phase with universal values such as dignity and freedom for all,” he said.

INVEST IN YOUTH

Bentounes has angered Algerian Salafis with his latest book “Sufism, A Common Inheritance” because its cover has a picture of the Prophet Mohammad. But the book is still on sale here.

The sheikh said Algeria, which has not been hit by the Arab Spring protests rocking neighbouring countries but did see unrest early this year over pay and working conditions, should invest all its money on its youth.
“What is the most important resource in a country, its oil, its gas, its army — or its youth?” he asked.



Responding to the unrest, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, 74, has increased wages and offered free loans to millions of people in a strategy that is so far successful.
“The youth wants more space and hope. It is the duty of the government to meet these demands,” Bentounes said. “Algeria cannot solve its problems on its own. It must accept the idea to create a bigger space to include all countries of the region.”