A wave of attacks on Muslim shrines in Libya has led to violent clashes between ultra-conservative Islamists and locals trying to protect the holy sites. As we went to press, three people had been killed and several others wounded in the town of Rajma, 50km from Benghazi, when extremists attempted to destroy the mausoleum of Sidi al-Lafi. This is the fourth brazen attack in the country in recent weeks. Before the latest incident, people took to the streets in Libya’s capital city, Tripoli, demanding that the newly elected parliament intervene to protect the country’s vulnerable cultural heritage. These attacks represent attempts by hardline Islamists to dictate religious policy in the “new Libya” as the government works towards democratisation.
In August, extremists destroyed three historic Sufi shrines in northern Libya: the Islamic Center of Sheikh Abdel Salam al-Asmar in Zlitan, the shrine of Sidi Ahmed Zaroug in Misrata and the Sidi Al-Sha’ab shrine in Tripoli. Bulldozers were brought in to destroy the Tripoli shrine. Libya’s congress held an emergency meeting on 26 August. “These kind of actions are unacceptable and condemned by our religion,” said Mohamed al-Magariaf, the president of the congress, at a televised press conference. He went on to say that some of those who participated in the destruction were believed to be members of the security forces. The interior minister, Fawzi Abdel A’al, promptly announced his resignation, only to withdraw it two days later, fearing that it would “further complicate security”.
The attacks were carried out by Salafists, a group of extremist Sunni Muslims who see the veneration of shrines—a common practice for Sufis who follow a mystical dimension of Islam—as an act of heresy. Salafism is related to Wahhabism, which is popular in Saudi Arabia. Although the majority of Libyans are Sunni, they follow a more liberal school of thought. Umar Mawloud AbduI Hamid, a member of the League of Libyan Ulema, a religious scholars’ group, condemned the attacks in August, accusing the extremists of “repeatedly attempting to undermine the stability of our country to achieve their fiendish goals” and being inspired by a “school of thought foreign to our venerable and indigenous traditions”.
“This attack on freedom of worship will undermine [Libya’s] fragile process of democratisation,” says Larbi Sadiki, a lecturer in Middle Eastern politics at the University of Exeter. According to Peter Cole, a former senior analyst with the International Crisis Group who worked in Libya during the revolution and the period of transitional government, “the role of religion in Libyan society is up for debate in a way that it has not been since Gaddafi came to power. Hardline groups are going to try to set the agenda without recourse to democratic process by changing facts on the ground, such as demolishing shrines.”
“Sufi orders have polarised and enriched society for hundreds of years,” Sadiki says. “To try to expunge them from the social and religious fabric by destroying their places of worship is dangerous. It would upset a natural balance that has existed for a long time.”
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Libyan shrines under attack'