An expert's point of view on a current event.

The Battle of the Shrines

The attack on the U.S. diplomats in Benghazi isn't the first time that Libya's ultraconservative Islamists have tried to shake things up. Can the country's nascent democracy rise to the challenge?

Al Jazeera
Al Jazeera

The protestors who stormed the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, where the U.S. Ambassador and three others were killed last night, belonged to a group called the Ansar Al-Sharia Brigade. Ansar al-Sharia is part of the ultraconservative Salafi movement in Libya, but until the attack on the consulate they were better known for acts of vandalism against inanimate objects — namely, ancient Sufi shrines, representing a brand of Islam rejected as blasphemous by these ultraorthodox Muslims. (The image above shows their destruction at the Sidi Abdel Salam al-Asmar al-Fituri mosque in Zliten on August 25.)

Yet the Salafi campaign to "cleanse" Libyan Islam of what they view as pernicious cultural influences has far more in common with the attack on U.S. diplomats than might at first seem apparent. In both cases the ultraconservative Salafis are aiming to undercut Libya’s new democratically elected government, which they also deem to be insufficiently Islamic.

Starting last November, Libyan Salafis have staged a series of attacks on Sufi shrines around the country. But the campaign really began to go into high gear in August, when the extremists attacked several shrines in quick succession. On August 25, Ansar al-Sharia even deployed an excavator to destroy the Sidi Al-Sha’ab Mosque (which contained the tomb of a Sufi saint) in the center of Tripoli, unchallenged by government security forces.

That same day, Mohammed al-Magariaf, the president of the General National Congress (GNC) and interim Prime Minister elected earlier this year, denounced the shrine attacks as "disgraceful acts," and said that "those involved were criminals who would be pursued." He was immediately contradicted by the country’s Interior Minister, Fawzi Abdel A’al, who commands the security forces who presumably answer to the government. Abdel A’al declared that he was not prepared to "shed any blood for the sake of some tombs." He went on to claim that he didn’t have the firepower to compete with the armed Salafi militants in the country. "I won’t embark on a losing battle and drag the country to war," he told reporters — effectively capitulating to the extremist threat.

His claim is hard to believe. By most counts the government’s security forces, grouped under a body known as the Supreme Security Committee (SSC), number up to 100,000, which surely ought to be enough to counter the threat from scattered extremist groups. But given these recent incidents, many Libyans are now worrying that the government’s own security forces may be penetrated by the extremists. The assault on the Benghazi consulate raises similar questions, given that forces loyal to the government were conspicuous primarily by their absence.

The Salafis are resorting to such acts as a way of countering the effect of the elections on July 7, which didn’t go the way they would have preferred. When Islamist parties were roundly trounced in the elections (Libya’s first free vote in half a century), many observers rejoiced at the clear indication that Libya was "bucking the Islamist trend." Libyan voters had categorically and democratically rejected extremist and fundamentalist Islamic views and opted for a modernist, secular state.

The Salafis, who preach a return to the primal Islamic community of the Prophet Mohammed, are trying to impose their will nonetheless. Their puritanical version of Islam regards the Sufi shrines, where believers sometimes pray to the bodies of buried saints, as "idolatrous." But the Salafi attacks also have a broader political goal, which is to exploit the weakness of the GNC before it takes full power. In the July election, Libyans selected 200 members of the GNC, the legislative body that is to choose a future prime minister and cabinet. Nominations for the prime ministerial post have already been submitted and are currently being considered. The new prime minister and the cabinet members selected by him are due to take power in the coming weeks. The GNC also has the job of appointing a committee that will draft the eagerly anticipated Libyan constitution.

By destroying Sufi shrines across Libya in what appear to be coordinated attacks, the Salafis are demonstrating "a highly symbolic way to assert control," writes Libya expert Stephen Schwartz, the executive director of the California based Center for Islamic Pluralism, in a recent article.

The weakness of the government response to the shrine attacks has given rise to credible claims that the SSC itself, the Ministry of Interior, and the Ministry of Justice have a number Salafis among their ranks, as even Magariaf has been forced to admit. "Salafis are now the core of SSC and have branched out in different agencies beyond the Ministry of Interior," says Mazin Ramadan, a bystander who witnessed the attack on the Sidi Al-Sha’ab Mosque.  He identifies one of the men leading the attack as a member of the Ministry of the Interior. "The SSC blocked the street and he managed the tomb raiders," says Ramadan. "I spoke to him and he said that they will not stop until they have cleansed Tripoli."

Instead of stopping the destruction of the mosque, the Ministry of Interior sent the SSC to "protect" the Salafis, who then proceeded to finish the job. Instead of arresting the perpetrators, SSC members intimidated protestors and arrested journalists who were trying to document the destruction. "I was harassed and they actually took my camera from me, but luckily I managed to get it back," one female Libyan photojournalist told me. "They also told me I should cover my hair." The government’s security forces even allowed the Salafis to abduct one of the Sufi leaders who was protesting the demolition. This abuse of power highlights the SSC’s increasing tendency to restrict some of the fundamental freedoms won by the Libyan revolution.

Over the past few months the SSC has been steadily increasing its power and authority even as the government remains mired in the turmoil of transition. On the day of the Tripoli attack, Deputy Prime Minister Mustafa Abushagur issued a statement openly admitting that the security forces had defied his order to protect the site — prompting additional questions about the extent to which the government remains in control of its own security forces.

Abdel A’al’s Interior Ministry says that battling Salafi vandals is entirely secondary to the bigger task of waging war against pro-Qaddafi insurgents. But the two problems have more in common than is at first apparent.

Saadi Qaddafi, one of the deposed leader’s sons now living in exile in Niger, has publicly allied himself (in Arabic) with the Salafis and pledged repeatedly to return to Libya to lead a counter-revolution. Despite his widespread reputation as a playboy under the old regime, Saadi recently declared: "I am not a politician. I am a Salafi." By refusing to tackle the Salafis head-on, the security authorities are thus potentially allowing pro-Qaddafi elements to undermine stability in Libya.

Concern about Saadi doings has much to do with the fear of rising Saudi involvement in Libyan politics. Saadi also has well-documented links with the ultraconservative Wahhabi sect of Saudi Arabia, which has been promoting the Libyan Salafi movement. The Libyan Salafis desecrating the shrines base their actions on fatwas, Islamic legal pronouncements, from Saudi clerics. Libyan Islamic scholars have issued a statement blaming Saudi Arabia for the attacks on Sufi shrines, noting that the Saudi scholar who issued one of the anti-Sufi fatwas receives a salary from the Saudi government. The transitional government has complained to the Saudi government, which it accuses of interfering in its internal affairs.

The attacks have deeply shocked many Libyans — who, after all, voted overwhelmingly for secular political forces in the July election. "These acts of destroying religious and educational sites are the most dangerous events to take place in Libya since last year’s war," Hafed Al-Ghwell, a long-time opponent of the Qaddafi regime, told me. "They demonstrate that we have a force that is outside the law that can impose its will on both the government and people of Libya with impunity."  Last night’s shocking attack on the U.S. consulate confirms such fears.

There have been some encouraging signs of a backlash against the rise of the Salafis. Last Friday, residents of the Libyan town of Rajma, 30 miles southeast of Benghazi, took to the streets to battle a group of ultraconservative Islamists who had arrived on the scene with a peculiar mission: to destroy an ancient Sufi shrine. The townspeople held the outsiders at bay until government security forces arrived to lock the place down — but not before the fighting had taken three Salafi lives, leaving another seven people wounded. (Similarly, the Libyan government statements on the tragedy in Benghazi have been admirably straightforward in their condemnation of the attack.)

For their part, Western governments, who were highly vocal in support of the Libyan revolutionaries, have been notably silent about the shrine attacks. Perhaps the rise of Islamic extremism as a response to the Arab Spring is an inconvenient truth some would prefer not to acknowledge. But the international community should take note: Salafism is the fastest- growing Islamic movement in the world. Western governments ignore this threat at their peril. We have now seen where this has led: to the deaths of Americans on Libyan soil. 

James Wheeler, an American who came to Libya to help the wounded during the revolution, has stated the issue clearly. "Extremists did not win the war in Libya," he wrote in a recent tweet. "They cannot and must not win the peace."  

<p> Sharron Ward is a documentary filmmaker and journalist currently filming a documentary about the long road to democracy entitled Libya: After the Fall. </p>