Top Libyan officials implicated in mosque desecrations
Members of the Libyan government and its military have been implicated in the destruction by Islamists over the weekend of several mosques affiliated with the Sufi branch of Islam, an indication that the government that replaced Moammar Gadhafi after a months-long NATO bombing campaign is having difficulty controlling its extremist elements.
On Sunday, the ruling General National Congress summoned Interior Minister Fawzi Abdel Al, Defense Minister Osama Jweili and several other military and intelligence officers for questioning after the Sufi shrines were attacked Friday and Saturday. General National Congress speaker Muhammed Magarief slammed the desecrations as “disgraceful acts.”
Magarief went as far as to suggest that there may have been official collusion in the attacks, saying that those responsible “are unfortunately aligned with some in the Supreme Security Committee (SCC) and ex-revolutionaries.” The security committee is responsible for organizing Libya’s armed forces.
Abdel Al subsequently handed in his resignation while the positions of the other officials appear tenuous, especially Jweili, whose appointment is widely thought to have been part of a deal with a powerful militia group from the city of Zintan, 90 miles south of Tripoli. Jweili was formerly the head of Zintan’s military committee.
The Zintan brigade captured Saif al-Islam Gadhafi in November and agreed only last week to allow him to be tried next month in Zintan in exchange for political favors, one of them reportedly being the appointment of Jweili.
Sufis believe in a mystical brand of Islam that some conservative Muslims label heretical. The attacks on the shrines began early Friday, when ultraconservative Islamists used bombs and a bulldozer to level the tomb of a 15th-century Sufi scholar, Abdel Salam al-Asmar, in the town of Zlitan, 100 miles east of Tripoli. The radicals also destroyed thousands of historical books when they burned a library in a nearby mosque to the ground.
As dawn broke Saturday, Islamists emboldened by the success of the Zlitan attack struck the Sidi Shaab Mosque, which housed the shrine of the Sufi mystic of the same name, opposite the Mahari Radisson Blu hotel and overlooking Tripoli harbor.
Members of the security forces stood guard as militants, some of them members of the Supreme Security Committee, used heavy equipment to smash the shrine and then a bulldozer to raze the mosque. Police at the scene failed to intervene but enforced the blocking of the road that leads to the mosque and kept journalists from filming or taking pictures.
A moderate imam who tried to reason with the extremists was beaten and taken away, and a group of Libyans protesting the destruction was violently confronted. Reports allege that Salafist clerics in Saudi Arabia have instructed Libya’s Salafists to destroy religious shrines, which they consider objects of idolatry.
The latest desecration of religious sites is a repeat of attacks by Islamists on Sufi shrines in Libya, Mali and Egypt during the last year.
The Zliten clashes and Shrine destruction
The tanks at the checkpoints set up right after Tripoli were enough to give away that something was wrong — as indeed there was. Only 15 kilometres outside Zliten, the town famous for its Sufi shrine, the sounds of distant explosions told people waiting in the long queues of cars at the last check point before Zliten what was happening. A fight was underway and with each loud explosion taking place fairly regularly its intensity was clear to everybody. The explosions came from a 106mm gun.
It was not until the small hours of the Friday morning that it was evident the clashes which had started as a tribal issue had engulfed the whole city.
The explosions increased and intensified after midnight and the sound of small calibre weapons were audible, like anti-aircraft weapons — compared to those of 106mm. The local radio stations in Zliten were broadcasting war-time programmes and blaming the chaos on Qaddafi supporters. It was reported that a green flag had been raised in the city centre and that the revolutionaries were now trying to clear the area. A warning was then issued that 100 tanks and hundreds of armed cars were on their way to Zliten in support of the Qaddafi forces with plans to seize the town. It turned out to be not true.
The radios were calling for all revolutionaries to come out and fight for the town. It was 2 a.m. Suddenly one of the stations switched to airing Takbeers on repetition whilst the other congratulated the people that reinforcements have arrived from Misrata and Tripoli. This too never happened.
The explosions kept happening at regular intervals through the night. The loudest took place around 5 a.m. on Friday morning, followed by another loud explosion 15 minutes later. A group of people in cars drove to a building nine kilometres west of Zliten — I was told it was a water plant — raided it and set it on fire. A petrol station was also set alight a few hours later in the same area.
Random explosions kept occurring after sunrise. The security officials then raided a compound where a building had been burned earlier. They kept shooting at the empty buildings and setting rounds towards the sea. They were, unintentionally, firing towards the part of the valley where some friends and I were camping. It lasted just about five minutes. We lay on the ground the whole time to avoid the bullets that were flying over our heads with the distinctive ‘whizzing’ sound.
The road towards Zliten was empty although there was some activity inside the city. Houses were bullet ridden, used shells scattered all around the area suggesting the intensity of the fighting that took place.
It had started as a clash between two branches of the local Awlad Al-Sheikh tribe following the killing of a man from one of the them. The tribe are descended from Sidi Abdel Salaam Al-Asmer whose shrine was the focus of Friday’s battle. Fighting escalated on Thursday to a fully-fledged gun battle involving heavy weapons after both sides called in allies from outside, some coming from Bani Walid. This angered locals and exacerbated the conflict. Meanwhile Salafists in Zliten were already involved in the conflict and used the chance to demolish the shrine.
Belonging to a Sunni school of thought that sticks to a strict interpretation of the faith, they view the idea of praying to saints and considering them holy as polytheism and the practices going on in such shrines as un-Islamic. The keeper of the Zliten shrine was also accused of black magic, however, no evidence was shown.
The dome in the main round-about, named after the marabout whose shrine was destroyed, was also destroyed.
The building with shops across from the shrine was totally burned and so was a mobile shop in an adjacent street. The streets were littered with used shells and debris, the houses were bullet ridden and there were two burned-out cars in front of the shrine. The holes in the walls suggested the use not only of 14.5mm anti-aircraft gun but the heavier calibre ones as well.
When the Salafists attacked the shrine and the dome in the square, heavy fighting took place but they were large in numbers — almost all the brigdades were involved in the demolition.
The popular version, however, is that the shrine was demolished by one of the two branches of the Awlad Al-Sheikh tribe after some people came from Bani Walid to avenge the death of the man killed. Another version was that the clash was not tribal but that Qaddafi supporters were involved in the demolition. It was later clear that the people involved in the destruction of the shrine were not pro-Qaddafi. This seems to have been an attempt to cover up the issue.
Speaking while efforts to exhume the body were ongoing, the fighters present at the shrine said that 16 people had been killed in the fight and that where they were was nothing less than a ‘frontline war’. This too may have been an exaggeration, although they faced stiff resistance from people trying to stop the demolition of the shrine.
The situation around the area of the Asmariya Islamic University complex which houses the shrine was all the more chaotic not only with the heavy presence of armed men but with several people visiting it. Their faces were grim and they recited prayers to make their discontent clear. There was a great deal of argument between the visitors and those demolishing the shrine although all ended with both sides saying “May Allah guide you to the right path” to the other.
The shrine was incorporated in the mosque. The fighters destroyed the dome by planting explosives on it and then the grave was destroyed by a jack hammer. The Salafists and their supporters tried to exhume the body in order to rebury it secretly so that there would be no longer be shrine in which to pray. They dug down five metres but did not find anything — and nothing has been said since about a body being found.
The mosque was also badly damaged, with the minarets sprayed with bullets and missing chunks of masonry. The building next to the mosque, said to be a library, was totally burned.
Until last week, the shrine was visited by thousands every month with people coming not only from different parts of Libya but from other countries. They used to seek blessings and offered sacrifices to have their prayers heard.
The Salafists had tried to attack the building earlier this year but were repulsed by local fighters and then agreed to have the issue decided upon by the Grand Mufti, Sheikh Sadek Al-Ghariani.
This time they succeeded because they did not give any time for the authorities to intervene. They also had the support of the local brigades who were present at the time of demolition, a crucial factor they lacked the last time.
The destruction of the Sufi shrine in Zliten was not the first of its kind in free Libya. According to reports it has been going on from early summer last year. The first shrine in Tripoli was demolished days after the fall of Bab-al-Aziziya. The demolition of shrines continued till earlier this year when a fatwa from the Grand Mufti halted it temporarily.
The events of Zliten, as expected, have emboldened Salafists elsewhere and the first blow came in the capital itself where the shrine in front of the Radisson Blu hotel was demolished on Saturday. The Sidi Sha’ab Mosque housing the shrine was very badly damaged and is likely to be leveled. The bodies from the two shrines on the same road as of the Sha’ab Mosque were also exhumed but the structure was left intact.
The destruction of the Sufi shrine in Tripoli is more controversial as it was carried out under the eye of official security agencies. The road was blocked by the police cars with dozens of policemen present. The move was immediately condemned by the head of the National Congress, Muhammed Magarief, who promised said that those responsible will be dealt with.
Surprisingly, the condemnations came almost two days after the shrine was demolished in Zliten. The incidents of Tripoli might have been avoidable, if the authorities had responded more quickly to the Zliten incident.
The deputy Prime Minister, Mustafa Abushagur, also condemned the incident calling it an act of crime and saying that those involved would be held responsible. However, given the state of security in the country and the fact that no criminal has so far been held responsible for any crime, it is understandable that some people have no fear of being held responsible for their acts or that they can feel nothing is going to stop them doing what they want.
Voices are now being heard belatedly saying that these incidents must serve as a wakeup call and that there needs to be an immediate crackdown on any unsanctioned activity in the country.
Libya’s Sufism being bulldozed to the ground
Religious sectarian tensions are reaching record levels in post-Gaddafi Libya, with two Sufi religious sites attacked and destroyed in just two days by Salafi activists.
An armed group of people including government security personnel have bulldozed the Al-Shaab Al-Dahman mosque, containing many graves, in the center of Tripoli on Saturday over allegations that a Sufi Muslim sect has been engaging in “black magic”.
Libya’s government has condemned the attack and also voiced concern at the authorities’ involvement in the demolition.
“What is truly regrettable and suspicious is that some of those who took part in these destructive activities are supposed to be members of the security forces and from the revolutionaries,” the president of Libya’s newly-elected National Congress, Mohamed al-Magariaf, told reporters.
It is unclear how many security forces personnel were involved in the bulldozing. Authorities tried to stop the demolition, but after a small clash with the armed group, the police decided to cordon off the area while the destruction took place to prevent any violence erupting.
“A large number of armed militias carrying medium and heavy weapons arrived at the al-Sha’ab mosque with the intention of destroying the mosque because they believe graves are anti-Islamic,” an anonymous government official told Reuters.
Reuters also has information that the Interior Ministry allegedly gave the green light to the bulldozing “after discovering people had been worshipping the graves and practicing ‘black magic'”.
Tripoli’s Al-Shaab Al-Dahman mosque contained around 50 Sufi graves, including the tombs of Libyan Sufi scholar Abdullah al-Sha’ab and of soldiers who fought Spanish colonialists.
Mohamed al-Magariaf called the Prime Minister to an emergency meeting on Sunday and slammed the Interior Minister Fawzi Abdel A’al for a general lack of security in the country. The attack on the mosque comes on the back of a similar incident in Zlitan and a double car bombing that killed two people in Tripoli a week ago.
The criticism did not go down well with the Interior Minister. In protest to the rebuke, he tendered his resignation.
AFP Photo / Mahmud Turkia
Friday saw another attack on Sufi worship sites in the city of Zlitan. Ultra-conservative Islamists destroyed the tomb of a 15th-century Sufi scholar and set the Mosque’s library on fire.
The vandals bulldozed the grave of Abdel Salam al-Asmar and set a historic library in a neighboring mosque ablaze, according to witnesses. The structure’s dome collapsed and a minaret was pitted with holes.
“We are distraught at the destruction of this historical and spiritual place in Libya,” said Mohamed Salem, caretaker of the mosque.
Meanwhile, a Facebook page called “Together for the Removal of the Abdel Salam al-Asmar Shrine” praised supporters on the “successful removal of the Asmar shrine, the largest sign of idolatry in Libya.”
Following the fall of the former government, cultural clashes between followers of the mystical Sufi tradition and ultra-conservative Salafis have taken central stage in the new Libya.
Sufism is a mystical sect of Islam which includes dancing and building of shrines to venerated figures. Followers make pilgrimages to them.
As Libyan authorities struggle to control countless armed rings that refuse to surrender weapons following last year’s civil war, Salafis, who say Islam should return to the simple ways followed by Mohammed, have established a number of armed gangs in post-Gaddafi Libya. They view Sufi practices as idolatrous.
Since the start of the Arab Spring uprising across the region, a number of Sufi sites have been attacked in Egypt, Mali and Libya.
AFP Photo / Mahmud Turkia
AFP Photo / Mahmud Turkia