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Salafist militants have targeted Sufis and their shrines in Libya since the overthrow of the late leader Muammar Qaddafi in 2011. The latest incident took place on 28 November 2017, when Zawiyat Sheikha Radiya Mosque – a historic Sufi site in the capital Tripoli – was torched by unknown attackers. No casualties were reported.
A month earlier, another prominent Sufi Mosque in Tripoli was damaged. That attack was reportedly carried out by the Special Deterrent Forces (SDF), a Salafist militia linked to the Ministry of Interior (MOI) in the United Nations-backed Government of National Accord (GNA). The SDF denied responsibility and pledged to hunt down the perpetrators.
The statement did not console many Sufis, many of whom say that Libya’s two competing governments have done little to protect them. The GNA in Tripoli and the House of Representatives (HoR) in Tobruk have little power or incentive to do so. Each is at the mercy of militias, which feature prominent Salafists in their ranks.
Tarek Megerisi, a Libyan political analyst, recently told al-Monitor that the Salafi groups that rose to prominence after the revolution are primarily responsible for attacking Sufi communities.
“Given that Salafists militias are continuing to grow in power across the country, and the constituency of Salafists in Libya is also steadily climbing, the persecution of Libya’s Sufis seems likely to worsen in the near-term future,” he told the publication.
According to a survey carried out by the United States Institute for Peace, which documented the religious orientation of 134 people, 78 per cent of respondents said they identified as jihadists while 45 per cent identified as Salafists. Seventy-five per cent answered that they consider themselves Sufis. The survey solicited answers from inhabitants in four major Libyan cities, including Tripoli, Benghazi, Sebha and Derna.
Human rights defenders agree that the number of Salafists and jihadists is rising, citing growing religious intolerance in Libya. Part of the reason could be that Salafists who opposed Qaddafi returned from exile during the armed uprising that toppled him.
While the temperament of Salafists differs across the region, their shared aim is to return to the ‘purest’ form of Islam. To achieve this goal, Salafists try to adopt the same practices and ideas as the early Salaf al-Salih – a term referring to the first three generations of devout Muslims. Salafist jihadists have little tolerance for those who do not conform to their view of the world.
Sufis, on the other hand, generally emphasize a spiritual and personal relationship with Islam. Along with praying, Sufis sing hymns, chant the names of God and use dance as a form of worship. All these practices are considered heretical by hardline Salafists.
Sufis in Libya have also historically defended themselves when attacked. During the era of Italian colonization, the Sufi Order of Sanussi led the rebellion. One of the most notable figures was Omar el-Mukhtar, who fought against the Italians for 20 years until his execution in 1931. The first ruler of modern Libya, King Idriss, was also a Sufi. He ruled for nearly two decades until he was deposed by Qaddafi in 1969.
Although Sufis were marginalized for much of Qaddafi’s rule, circumstances have arguably worsened since he died. After the revolution, Sufis worried that new religious officials were inspired by Salafist ideologies, leading them to appoint extremist sheikhs in mosques that pro-Qaddafi preachers once occupied. Some of these new sheikhs quickly pressured authorities to replace other long-time Sufi imams with hardliners.
The destruction of Sufi shrines and graves began the same year. In 2013, Salafist jihadist militants ostensibly murdered the prominent Sufi sheikh Mustapha bin Ragab. The threat of persecution has compelled some Sufi sheikhs to defend themselves again.
In 2012, several Sufi preachers even took up arms to guard their mosques and lodges from Salafist jihadists. Others, like 27-year-old Ahmed Fathi, delivered fiery sermons that condemned attacks against Sufis, civil activists and former military officers in Benghazi, Libya’s second-largest city.
Fathi said that he was never intimidated despite receiving threats on his phone. That was until he found hardline militants waiting for him in his home in 2015. Fed up with his sermons, they told him to leave the country and never return. He listened and fled to Egypt the next day.
The men who threatened Fathi belonged to General Khalifa Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA). Most casual observers consider Haftar a secular tyrant, who has stated his desire to cleanse Benghazi of Islamists. Yet his own ranks consist of many Salafists who have increasingly been cracking down on social and cultural life since LNA forces declared victory in the city in July 2017.
The bigger problem is that Haftar’s rhetoric does not differentiate between Islamists who might have been willing to negotiate and Salafist jihadist militants. His unwillingness to do so, according to terrorist expert Lydia Sizer, has spawned Salafist alliances to counter his forces.
‘Some Salafist-jihadi movements have rallied against Haftar who [they believe] poses an existential threat,’ Sizer stated in her report for the Middle East Institute, a Washington think tank. ‘Haftar is an enabler of future Salafist-jihadi activity as much as he claims to be its chief threat,’ she added.
Sufis, like other vulnerable minority groups, are a target when Salafists are emboldened. The destruction of Sufi sites is also a detriment to all Libyans. Nader el-Gadi, a Libyan photographer who documented the attacks on Sufi sites in 2013, blames much of Libyan society for being complicit in the destruction. Though he does not identify as a Sufi himself, he stated that he could not stand to see Libya lose a 600-year-old heritage. In an article that he wrote for the Berlin magazine Zenith, he recalled the despair he felt after arriving at al-Anadulsi Mosque shortly after it was bombed.
‘It was a very sad moment; even though I don’t have any spiritual relationship with the place,’ he wrote. ‘I felt I had lost something. I remember swimming in the sea when I was young and looking at the shrine to point my way back to the beach. It was a very sad day for the whole town.’