Since the ouster of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi in October 2011 and in the chaos that has gripped Libya since, fundamentalist Libyans have been pushing for a strict interpretation of Islamic law. Under the umbrella of lawlessness, gunmen calling themselves Salafis broke into the Saif al-Nasr Mosque in Tripoli on November 8, 2011, smashed open the wooden sarcophagus and removed the remains of el-Nasr, a scholar who died 155 years ago, as well as that of a former imam, Hammad Zwai. The gunmen moved the bodies to a Muslim cemetery and, with the help of graffiti left on the walls, explained their disapproval of the Sufi Muslim tradition of burying scholars and teachers in mosques to honor them.
The estimated 200 to 400 members of the local Salafi movement in the small town of Zuwara near the Tunisian border have demolished shrines belonging to adherents of the Ibadi sect, long considered heretics by orthodox Sunni Muslims. In the town’s cemetery, large blocks of stone surround what was once a mausoleum. The large, conical-shaped structure that once adorned it now lies collapsed in the debris.
In January 2012, extremists bulldozed through a wall of an old cemetery in the eastern city of Benghazi, destroyed its tombs, and carried off 29 bodies of respected sages and scholars. They also demolished a nearby Sufi school.
A group of Salafis angered by the burning of the Koran at a NATO military base in Afghanistan entered the Commonwealth War Cemetery in Benghazi on February 24, 2012, and shattered headstones of British and allied servicemen who fought in North African desert campaigns against the Nazis during World War II.
Salafis are intolerant of other schools of Islam and have physically attacked Muslim minorities in other parts of the Arab world, including Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Many Muslims frequent the shrines of saints, believing the holy men have powers of intercession with the divine. Salafis, however, believe these are pagan rites that must be obliterated from Islam, in line with the teachings of the founder of the Salafi movement, Muhammad Ibn ‘Abd el-Wahab (1703-1792) whose philosophy has been the official doctrine of Saudi Arabia since the end of the eighteenth century. Its adherents prefer to call themselves Salafis.
The Wahhabi teachings disapprove of the veneration of historical sites associated with early Islam on the grounds that only God should be worshipped and that veneration of sites associated with mortals leads to idolatry. Many buildings associated with early Islam, including mausoleums and other artifacts, have been destroyed in Saudi Arabia by Wahhabis from the early nineteenth century through the present day.
Indeed, this version of fundamentalist Islam is not typical of Libyan Islam. Moderate Libyan and North African Islam has receded in the face of Wahhabi Islam coming from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries. Under Gaddafi, the regime succeeded mostly in containing the Salafi push. But in areas remote from the center (Benghazi), the Salafis, together with al-Qaeda elements that apply a strict Wahhabi Islam, succeeded not only to survive the persecutions of the Gaddafi regime, but also succeeded in proselytizing their school of thought among the Libyans who were the backbone of the fighters in Afghanistan.
Throughout Libya, Gaddafi’s fall has emboldened Salafis, who were persecuted and imprisoned under the now deceased leader. They have increased their public presence, taken over mosques, and even raised the flag of al-Qaeda over the courthouse in Benghazi where the revolution began eleven months ago. Gaddafi’s disappearance and the link between the Qatari regime and the fighting militias particularly exposed the connection with Abdel Hakim Belhaj, the head of the Tripoli Military Council and former Guantanamo Bay inmate, and has created a situation where the military commanders of Libya are part and parcel of the Salafi-Wahhabi school of Islam. This explains their attitude towards the prevalent Sufi Islam in North Africa.
Moreover, for thirty years, massive amounts of oil money have been used to drown the Middle East and North Africa in Wahhabi ideas. The purpose of this support for the Wahhabi school of thought is basically political, in that the Saudi system of government depends on an alliance between the ruling family and the Wahhabi sheikhs. Hence, spreading the Wahhabi ideology reinforces the political system in that country.
Libyans exposed to Wahhabi ideas see a society different from theirs. Men and women are completely segregated, but rates of sexual harassment and rape are among the highest in the world. Alcohol is banned but many people drink in secret. The law does not apply to princes, who can do what they like, confident that they are immune from punishment. Libyans learn that performing your prayers on time is not voluntary, as it is in Libya, but a compulsory obligation, and if you are late the police might arrest you and harm you. They learn that if you are walking along the street with your wife and her hair is accidentally uncovered, then a policeman will pounce on her to hit her with a stick and make her cover her head. Women in Tripoli are already feeling the heaviest burden to conform. They have been under pressure to dress conservatively since Gaddafi’s downfall.
In January, hundreds of Libyan Salafis rallied to demand that Muslim Shari’a law inspire legislation. Assembled by Islamist political and religious groups, mostly young and bearded men holding up copies of the Koran demonstrated in squares in the capital Tripoli, the eastern city of Benghazi, and in Sabha in the southern desert. In Tripoli’s Algeria Square, Islamists burned copies of the “Green Book,” Gaddafi’s pronouncements on politics, economics, and everyday life, to underline that the Koran should be the country’s main source of legislation.
The chairman of Libya’s ruling National Transitional Council (NTC), Mustafa Abdul Jalil, promised in October to uphold Islamic law. “We as a Muslim nation have taken Islamic Shari’a as the source of legislation; therefore, any law that contradicts the principles of Islam is legally nullified,” he said. The NTC says that the new constitution that will be drafted by a panel elected in June must have Islamic law, i.e. Shari’a, as its principal source. How Shari’a will be interpreted remains uncertain until the constitution is drafted.
The new trend in Libyan Islam is also weighing on the economy. The deputy governor of the central bank of Libya stated that a law regulating Islamic banking would be issued in the first quarter of 2012, but stressed that both conventional and Islamic banks would be allowed to operate in Libya. Islamists in Algeria Square in Tripoli held up placards demanding a financial system respecting Islam’s ban on interest and calling for a constitution derived from Shari’a’s legal and moral codes.
Along with Libya, Egypt is also preparing a law that will pave the way for the issuance of Sukuk the Arabic name for financial certificates, commonly referring to the Islamic equivalent of bonds. Since fixed income, interest bearing bonds are not permissible in Islam, Sukuk securities are structured to comply with Islamic law and its investment principles that prohibit charging or paying interest. The Islamist party that won Tunisia’s election says it will encourage the establishment of stand-alone Islamic lenders.
Islamic banking services in Libya are limited today to Murabaha, a three-party contract where a customer places an order at a bank to purchase goods from a supplier by paying a deposit and secures the rest through collateral. The bank sells the goods back to the customer at a mark-up with a fixed credit period.
The Break-Up of Libya?
On the one-year anniversary of the start of the Libyan revolution, the NTC seems to have lost control of what used to be a united Libya. The NTC is unable to impose its authority over regional military bodies, while tensions between secular and Islamist groups are surfacing in all spheres because of the clash between two versions of Islam: The North African (and Libyan) version and the Salafi-Wahhabi school of thought represented by the militias.
The country itself has split into two semi-autonomous regions. Representatives of about 100 militias from western Libya declared in January 2012 that they had formed a new federation to prevent infighting and to allow them to press the country’s new government for further reform. The leader of the new federation, Col. Mokhtar Fernana, said the council’s committee in charge of integrating revolutionary fighters was taking in men who had fought for Colonel Gaddafi.
Beginning in March 2012, tribal leaders and militia commanders declared eastern Libya to be a semiautonomous state. The thousands of representatives of major tribal leaders, militia commanders, and politicians who made the declaration at a conference in Benghazi said the move was not intended to divide the country. They declared that they want their region to remain part of a united Libya, but insisted the move was needed to stop decades of discrimination against the east.
The conference stated that the eastern state, known as Barqa, would have its own parliament, police force, courts and capital – Benghazi, the country’s second largest city – to run its own affairs. Under their plan, foreign policy, the national army, and oil resources would be left to a central federal government in the capital Tripoli in the west. Barqa would cover nearly half the country, from central Libya to the Egyptian border in the east and down to the borders with Chad and Sudan in the south.
The announcement aimed to pose a federal system as a fait accompli before the National Transitional Council. The goal is to revive the system that was in place between 1951 and 1963 when Libya, ruled by a monarchy, was divided into three states: Tripolitania in the west, Fezzan in the southwest, and Cyrenaica in the east – or Barqa, as it was called in Arabic.
Sufism vs. Salafism
Polarization between the two main schools of Islam in Libya, Sufism and Salafism, has created two distinct camps fighting one another. The tension between the traditional Sufis and the Salafis, influenced by Saudi Wahhabis and other ultra-conservative foreign Islamists, has become a key divide in Libyan politics as parties begin to form to contest free elections in June. At present the Sufis are on the defensive and behave accordingly. Sufi militiamen guard the remaining mosques in Tripoli, including the Sha’b Mosque, home to the body of a revered scholar, Abdul Sahfi, which is interred in a large stone sarcophagus.
Libyan Sufis staged a joyous parade through the heart of Tripoli and Benghazi to mark the Prophet Mohammad’s birthday, defying radical Salafi Muslims who were pressuring them to scrap the centuries-old tradition. Chanting hymns to the beat of drums and cymbals, marchers choked the narrow alleys of the walled old town to celebrate the feast of Mawlid (birth), a favorite event for pious Sufis whose spirituality is an integral part of North African Islam. The celebrations were the first since the fall last August of Muammar Gaddafi, who kept religion under firm control during his 42-year dictatorship, and went ahead despite concerns that hardliners might attack the marchers as heretics.
This is the essence of the phenomenon: the disconnect between belief and behavior is a social malaise that emanates from Saudi Arabia and has spread like a plague throughout almost all the Arab world, just as it has spread into Islamist groups. Libya is clearly its victim, as are other Arab states that have witnessed the so-called “Arab Spring.”
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Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah, a special analyst for the Middle East at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, was formerly Foreign Policy Advisor to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Deputy Head for Assessment of Israeli Military Intelligence.