Good Sufi, Bad Muslims by Omid Safi

One of the lower points in the Park51 Center controversy was the comment by New York Governor David Paterson: “This group who has put this mosque together, they are known as the Sufi Muslims

By Omid Safi|January 27, 2011

One of the lower points in the Park51 Center controversy was the comment by New York Governor David Paterson: “This group who has put this mosque together, they are known as the Sufi Muslims. This is not like the Shiites…They’re almost like a hybrid, almost westernized. They are not really what I would classify in the sort of mainland Muslim practice.”

In a few short sentences, the governor managed to offend Sufis, Shi’i Muslims, as well as westernized Muslims, non-westernized Muslims, and “mainland Muslims” (whoever they are). Paterson overlooked the fact that some Shi’i Muslims are mystically inclined, and that six million American citizens are Muslims, thus there is no question of “westernizing” or “almost westernizing” for them. There is a more disturbing implication hiding in his assertion: the ongoing way in which the general demonization of Muslims, of the kind now routine on Fox News, is accompanied by an equally pernicious game of Good Muslim, Bad Muslims.

There are many versions of this game, but the basic contour stays the same: The assertion that the general masses of Muslims are evil, terrorist-supporters, anti-western, patriarchal, misogynist, undemocratic, and anti-Semitic; and that these masses are set off and defined against either the solitary, lone Muslim good woman or man. The “Good Muslim” is often an individual, or a small circle, because to admit that the larger group of Muslims could be on the right side of the human-rights divide is to have the house of cards of the Muslim demonization game collapse on itself.

There are endless scenarios of this fictitious bifurcation: Reading Lolita In Tehran is “Good Muslim,” unspoken, nameless, faceless masses of Muslims are patriarchal, bad Muslims. Irshad Manji is an Israel-loving “good Muslim” who suggests that Muslims could be blamed for the holocaust, while the majority of Muslims are bad Muslims. Salman Rushdie and Orhan Pamuk are “good” secular or ex-Muslims, defined against the masses of Muslims. It is worth noting how easily and how frequently the “good Muslim” solitary figure ends up being prominently featured on the op-ed pages of the New York Times.

Sarah Palin famously addressed “Peace-seeking Muslims” on Twitter: “pls understand, Ground Zero mosque is UNNECESSARY provocation; it stabs hearts. Pls reject it in interest of healing.” In her inarticulate bifurcation, supporters of Park51 were defined as being outside the “peace-seeking” Muslim category.

The latest version of this bifurcation game of Good Muslim, Bad Muslims is that of pitting Muslim mystics (Sufis) as the “good Muslims” against the majority of Muslims cast as villains. Sufi tradition offers incredible reservoirs for mercy, love, and pluralism. Yet it is inaccurate, and politically appropriative, to present Sufism as disconnected from politics or wider social concerns at best, and as agents of the Empire at worst.

This type of a presentation was prominent in the discussion about Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the visionary American Muslim leader behind Park51. Time and again in the presentation of Imam Feisal and his wife Daisy Khan, we were reminded by the New York Times that they represented Sufi Islam, a gentle kind of Islam, nothing like the scary monster of political Islam: “He [Abdul Rauf] was asked to lead a Sufi mosque.” Daisy Khan is described as “looking for a gentler Islam than the politicized version she rejected after Iran's revolution.” Another New York Times article was even more explicit in marking the couple as worthy “good Muslims”: “They founded a Sufi organization advocating melding Islamic observance with women's rights and modernity.”

The suggestion that Sufi teachings are somehow immune to politics, that Sufis have been unconcerned with social issues and questions of justice and politics are problematic. Historically speaking, Sufis have been fully engaged in both challenging political powers and alternately legitimizing political power throughout their history. Prominent Sufis like Abu Sa’id Abi ‘l-Khayr’s legacy has been used in legitimizing political powers, and Sufis such as ‘Ayn al-Qudat Hamadani and Abd al-Qadir al-Jaza’iri have spoken truth to power. In both cases, Sufis have not remained aloof from politics.

The Park51 controversy exposes many underlying assumptions about religion in the public space and politics, particularly in the case of Muslims, who are given two options in this superficial bifurcation game: to be politically destructive in the manner of terrorists or “Islamists”, or to be politically quietist, acquiescing in the face of power. In this “Good Sufi/Bad Muslims” dichotomy, Sufis are asked to line up in the politically quietist camp, so that they can be validated.

This dichotomy ignores a third group of Muslims: Those who, whether mystically inclined or not, want to neither destroy the world nor acquiesce to the wishes of the Empire, but rather seek to redeem the world by speaking truth to power. This group speaks out of the love of God and cries out for the suffering of humanity, defiantly and prophetically standing up for justice and liberation,

And here is where the canard of “Moderate Muslims” comes to play: Ever since 9/11, we have been asked time and again where the “moderate Muslims” are, and why they are silent. No matter how often, and how loudly, Muslim organizations and individuals condemn terrorism, the likes of Thomas Friedman can still famously, and inaccurately, state: “The Muslim village has been derelict in condemning the madness of jihadist attacks… To this day--to this day--no major Muslim cleric or religious body has ever issued a fatwa condemning Osama bin Laden.” No presentation of factual data seems to persuade these critics that Muslims did, do, and will continue to speak out loudly and officially against terrorism. The reason their critics do not hear the moderate Muslims is because they are not listening.

Moving beyond the question of Muslims condemning terrorism, there is the larger question of what exactly makes someone a “moderate” Muslim? In its current usage, the term “moderate Muslim” is as meaningful as a purple polka dot unicorn. If the term moderate implies a balancing point between two extremes, it is a hopelessly vague term in the post-9/11 landscape. If one of the two extremes away from the “moderate Muslims” is easy to imagine (terrorism, Bin Laden, etc.), the other extreme is ill-defined. What are moderate Muslims moderating? If one extreme is terrorism, then what is the other extreme?

“Moderate Muslims” are often defined, and confined, to be supporters of US foreign policy, vis-à-vis some important issues, such as supporting US global military presence, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Palestinian-Israeli issue. To dare suggest that the United States is today the world’s only military Empire with hundreds of military bases in other countries, or that we have in fact become the Military-Industrial Complex that Eisenhower warned us about, or heaven forbid, that the Palestinians suffer from decades-long, unbearable occupation and violations of human rights, is to define one outside the safe (and lucrative) safe-zone of “moderate Muslim.” Sadly, even the safe-zone is not so safe. Imam Feisal has been sent on political missions abroad by the State Department, yet even he was not safe from being branded by Fox News as a terrorist sympathizer.

If our public discourse about religion and politics is to evolve to a more subtle, and accurate, space, it must get to the point where religious voices that speak from the depths and heights of all spiritual traditions can do more than simply acquiesce in the face of the Empire. They can, and should, speak for the weak, and give voice to the voiceless.




Fatemeh Keshavarz, Jasmine and Stars: Reading More than Lolita in Tehran (North Carolina: The University of North Carolina Press, 2008).

Mahmood Mamdani, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2005). 

Omid Safi, The Politics of Knowledge in Premodern Islam (North Carolina: The University of North Carolina Press, 2006).

CBS New York, “Paterson: ‘Mosque Developers Hybrid, Almost Westernized’ Muslims,” August 26, 2010. 

Sarah Palin, “Peace-seeking Muslims, pls understand, Ground Zero mosque is UNNECESSARY provocation; it stabs hearts. Pls reject it in interest of healing,” Twitter, July 18, 2010. 

Michael M. Grynbaum, “Daisy Khan, An Eloquent Face of Islam,” The New York Times, November 12, 2010.  

Thomas L. Freedman, “If It’s a Muslim Problem, It Needs a Muslim Solution,” The New York Times, July 8, 2005.

Dwight D. Eisenhower, “Military-Industrial Complex,” 1961 speech.

Islamic Statements Against Terrorism, compiled by Charles Kurzman, University of North Carolina.


Omid Safi is a Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina. He served as the Chair of the Study of Islam Section at the American Academy of Religion from 2002-2009. He is the author of Memories of Muhammad: Why the Prophet Matters (HarperOne, 2009).