Many paths have been tried to counter the appeal of violent religious extremism in East Africa. In the Muslim community, traditional Sufism is being increasingly viewed as an important new way. But it should be followed with caution, since official embrace of just one religious custom can never be the only road.
A new engagement emerged from a meeting of Sufi clerics and activists from East and Central Africa who organised a three-day conference in Mackinnon, a small trading centre on the Mombasa-Nairobi Highway in late August to discuss ways of countering violent extremism (known as CVE). Some 300 delegates representing Sufi orders (tariqas) from Kenya, Somalia, Tanzania, Uganda, Ethiopia and DR Congo attended the meeting dubbed “The International Sufi Conference for East Africa”.
Among the keynote speakers were the Grand Mufti of Ethiopia, Abdullahi Sharif Ali, and Sheikh Abdulkadir al-Ahdi, a Sufi scholar from the coastal town of Lamu, considered by many the seat of the purest Sufi culture in East Africa. Participants agreed on the need for Sufis in East Africa to step up efforts to tackle youth radicalism in East and Central Africa in cooperation with regional states.
This was a historic event, signaling the intention of an important Muslim constituency to join the struggle against violent extremism. In the battle of ideas against violent extremism, Sufism offers great potential. Its ecumenical and pluralistic vision of Islam offers the perfect antidote to Salafi exclusivism, puritanism and intolerance. With its deep repository of spiritual and philosophical teachings and moderate traditions, it offers an alternative vision to that of extremists.