Rising Fear

Ultraconservative Salafists Destroy Sufi Landmarks in Libya

Salafists are destroying Sufi shrines and warning women to cover up in Libya. By Jamie Dettmer.

STR / EPA / Landov

TRIPOLI—Salafists—ultraconservative Muslims—behind the recent wave of sectarian bombings and the destruction of historic mosques and shrines—say they aim to rid Libya of all Sufi landmarks by the end of the year. Now they are turning their attention to women, posting flyers at universities and private schools, insisting male and female students be segregated.

The flyers and Salafist websites—some headquartered in Saudi Arabia—chillingly warn female students on Libyan campuses to avoid tight-fitting clothes, insisting that they must cover up and wear the hijab. The surging attacks on Libya’s Sufi mosques and libraries—the most brazen came on Aug. 25 when a well-known Tripoli mosque was bulldozed—have been encouraged by a prominent Saudi imam. Sheik Muhammad Al-Madkhalee has issued a fatwa praising the desecration of Sufi graves and urging Libyan Salafists to do more to clear the North African country of any taint of Sufi worship.

Al-Madkhalee, who teaches at the Saudi-government-funded Islamic University of al-Madinah al-Munawarah in Medina, has a particular loathing about the mixing of men and women in educational establishments and, in early 2011, cautioned against men even teaching the Quran to women who are not members of their family. He counsels that a woman student whose head is covered can still seduce a devout teacher with “a single glance.”

The Libyan government has complained to Riyadh about Al-Madkhalee, pointing out to the Saudi government that he receives state funds. The complaint, passed on by Libya's grand mufti, Sheik Sadek al-Ghariani, warns that Al-Madkhalee’s anti-Sufi fatwa is viewed by Tripoli as meddling in the internal affairs of Libya. The Saudis so far have failed to respond, Libyan government officials tell The Daily Beast.

Salafis, who follow literalist and strict approaches to Islam, abhor the “heretical” trappings and less austere practices of Sufi Muslims. They claim worshipping at graves and shrines is un-Islamic and idolatrous and abhor the Sufi use of music and dance. Most Libyans follow a mainstream form of Sunni Islam, but the country has a significant number of adherents to mystical Sufi traditions, although exact numbers are not known, and Sufism has played a major part in the country’s history. Sufi brotherhoods were significant in the religious revival that swept North Africa during the 18th and 19th centuries, and Sufis were at the forefront of Libyan resistance in the 1930s to the Italian colonial regime.

The increase in brazen attacks on Sufi mosques, including the blatant broad daylight bulldozing of the well-known Sidi Sha'ab mosque in the center of Tripoli, have infuriated Libya’s new Parliament, the General National Congress, and comes only one month after the first elections in 50 years. In those elections in July, radical Islamists fared poorly. Alarmed government officials say the Salafists are getting stronger and admit that elements of the security forces may be colluding in the demolitions of mosques and the desecration of the graves of Sufi sages and scholars. There’s growing fear also that the government is powerless to fight well-armed groups of Salafists, whose influence has spread rapidly in Libya since the ouster of Muammar Gaddafi more than a year ago.

According to a tribal leader in the western desert, Salafists have recently recruited more than 300 young rebels in the town of Ubari. “They have become disillusioned since the revolution and have no jobs, and radical Islam channels their frustrations and grievances,” he says. He declined to be named for this article, fearing Salafist retribution. There have been reports also of Salafists recruiting strongly beyond their traditional strongholds of Benghazi and Derna in the towns of Al Kufrah, Sabha, and Ghat.

In the wake of the August bulldozing of the Sha’ab mosque, the interior minister, Fawzi Abdel-Al, said there was little his ministry could do to stop the attacks that began last January. The day before the Sha’ab mosque was flattened, Salafists razed the 500-year-old tomb of Sufi saint Sidi Abd As-Salam Al-Asmar and a mosque library in Zliten, a town 90 miles east of the Libyan capital.

Abdel-Al told journalists: "If we use the security option to deal with this, we would have to use weapons against these groups, and these people have weapons. We cannot be blind to this. They are a big force in Libya in terms of members and weapons. I will not enter a losing battle and get people killed over a grave. If all the shrines in Libya are wiped out and we don’t lose one martyr ... that is a price we are willing to pay.”

While Abdel-Al thinks it a price worth paying, many Libyan Sufis don’t; the continued assaults risk triggering widespread violence and undermining Libya’s shaky transition to democracy, which has been threatened already by ethnic and tribal clashes and firefights between rival rebel militias (khatibas). Sufis and liberals fear Salafists will grow stronger, if they aren’t confronted—as has happened in neighboring Tunisia, where the Muslim Brotherhood–linked government there has done little to stop puritanical Salafist mobs from ransacking media outlets and art galleries, firebombing bars and liquor stores, and intimidating women who refrain from wearing the hijab.

“Unless this is confronted, it is going to embolden the Salafists and get much worse,” says Mazin Ramadan, a former government adviser. He says Salafists have heavily infiltrated post-Gaddafi Libya’s struggling security organs, including the Interior and Justice ministries and the Supreme Security Committee, which is in charge of the country’s internal security. The SSC relies for its firepower on rebel militias, some of whom are Salafist, including the Benghazi-based “17th of February” khatiba and Al Nawasi militia based in the Tripoli district of Souq al Jumaa.

Ramadan says as SSC forces stood around watching the Sha'ab mosque being bulldozed, he argued with the one of the men overseeing the demolition. “He was an official in the Justice Ministry, a Salafist called Hassan Issa,” Ramadan said. “He said he had been instructed to carry out the destruction and that Sufis practiced black magic. ‘We cleansed the east and now we will cleanse Tripoli,’ he told me.”

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As the attacks on Sufi mosques have unfolded in recent weeks, it has become clear that there’s increasing coordination between Salafists. “These are not random attacks,” says Fowzi Omaar, an adviser to Dr. Mahmoud Jibril, a moderate contending to become Libya’s first postelection prime minister. “They are much more organized than before.” Omaar, a Sufi who traces his ancestry back to Sidi Abd As-Salam Al-Asmar, the saint whose tomb was destroyed in Zliten, warns that appearing helpless before the Salafists will only invite more trouble. “Only a strong security ministry is going to stop them. They don’t do dialogue; they just do violence and they will increase their demands. The Salafist call for the separation of the sexes in public places like universities is a dangerous development because it will garner support from Islamists and present an even greater challenge.”