Libya: Testing tolerance

Attacks on mosques in Libya test not only the country’s promising democratic debut, but also the value of tolerance.

Libyan Salafis used a bulldozer to destroy the Sidi Shaab Sufi mosque in Tripoli [REUTERS]
Libyan Salafis used a bulldozer to destroy the Sidi Shaab Sufi mosque in Tripoli [REUTERS]

Attacks on mosques in Libya test not only the country’s promising democratic debut, but also the nation’s value of tolerance.

How do these attacks represent a challenge to the newly-institutionalised democratic order in post-Gaddafi Libya?

Dr Mohamed al-Magariaf, President of the newly elected National Congress (the interim parliament), has summed up wide outrage in Libya at the attacks against a number of mosques across the country. He was correct in taking such a stand and, furthermore, holding those responsible accountable for such heinous acts.

Dr al-Magariaf, one of the initial dissenters in Libya against Gaddafi, took a principled stand against these regrettable events in a country where mosques are part and parcel of the public sphere in which free worship has for hundreds of years been a non-negotiable norm.

His stress on tolerance as a basis for democratic reconstruction derives from a 40-year struggle during which all forms of dissidence and pluralism lacked toleration in terms of expression.

Doctor’s orders

Al-Magariaf was decisive, summoning Prime Minister Abdurrahim El-Keib to an emergency meeting almost immediately after the attacks. It was not a meeting in which he insisted on legal accountability and pursuit of the perpetrators. The intention, I am told, is not about punishment. Dr al-Magariaf wants this type of crime to be stopped once and for all and to have legal backing and laws to protect places of worship and freedom of religion in a country where Sunni Islam is the faith of the majority.

Salafis blamed for Libya mosque destruction

The days of impunity and the ordered chaos systematically fomented by Gaddafi’s former revolutionary committees are at an end. Rule of law and tolerance, as Dr al-Magariaf has frequently explained, are more than rhetorical devices and political platitudes.

The demolition of the Sufi shrine, the most recent in a number of attacks against mosques around the country, undermines interim institutions and the nascent process of democratic reconstruction. Failure to respond to them threaten legality and, more importantly, centralised authority. Especially after the citizenry spoke through the ballot, giving a democratic mandate for legitimate representatives to rebuild a new Libya away from the institution-less and lawless state constructed by Gaddafi.

The questioning that followed, as a result of the measures taken, translates the will to punish lawlessness. Moreover, Dr al-Magariaf champions civilian integration and demobilisation of all militias as part and parcel of the process of bringing the entire bureaucracy and policy and military apparatus under a united command network governed by laws and answerable to political authority. Failure to do so would create illegal rival centres of coercive authority at the hands of illegal militias.

The outcome so far is encouraging and the resignation of those responsible for overseeing the police bureaucracy, early at this stage of the transition, sends the right signals – illegal or irresponsible behaviour is to be dealt with resolutely and firmly. The question right now is how to re-educate and re-train the police force to ready it for the travails of democratic reconstruction, a tough assignment requiring policy that goes beyond punishment at the apex of the police apparatus.

For a police force to stand idle when public property and a space of worship is under attack undermines above all else not just an act of religious faith stressed in Islam, but also the principle of plurality within unity in Libya and all emerging democratic transitions in the Arab Middle East. This is one reason why democratic transition calls for a new policing philosophy in Libya, as in Egypt and Tunisia.

Layers of chaos

Like in Egypt and Tunisia, transition in Libya was never expected to be easy. All three countries face both similar and dissimilar types of challenges and problems. What complicates Libya’s is the regionalism and tribalism, enmeshed with clan-type politics, today complicated by the rise of Salafism.

The Sidi Shaab Mosque and the shrine it housed is a case in point. Misrata is another place where disorder has accompanied its recovery after the attacks it suffered at the hands of Gaddafi’s forces. Its trauma and sense of victimhood, still not dealt with through social work and other forms of trauma relief, has been part of the problem of post-conflict violence still present in this city. Here too, at least one Sufi mosque came under attack.

Zlitan is more or less in the same boat. The city’s Salafists seem to be behind the destruction of another Sufi shrine, Sidi Abdel-Salam al-Asmar al-Fituri. In this instance, the attack has additional roots of enmity between groups from Zlitan and Al-Fituri’s descendants, specifically from the Awlad al-Shaykh clan.

Like Libya, Tunisia and the rest of the Maghreb region has got a tradition of “maraboutism” (from the Arabic term marabout, religious leader), shrines for saintly figures revered by visitors, something that is a form of bed’a or heresy in the Wahhabi creed, for instance.

To an extent, some Salafists may be taking cues from this creed. Here coordination between Libyans and Tunisians, amongst others, of how to learn together and transfer good practices for dealing with these types of challenges is most urgent and imperative. There is a risk of this spreading all over the Arab Maghreb at a time when the forces of Salafism, which should be tamed through political inclusiveness, are on the rise across the region.

The travails of transition

A relatively successful move to an elected political system has ushered in a more accountable state for Libyans. However, a certain degree of lawlessness still plagues Libya in a continually unfolding transition period. Recently, destruction of historic Sufi sites in Tripoli and Zlitan attests to both these new facets of a post-Gaddafi Libya. Revolutionary militias and forces possess a multitude of weaponry which perhaps makes Libya a tinderbox of conflict. These groups come from a variety of regions and towns, and espouse differing religious and political points of view.

One such collection of groups known for their adherence to a purist interpretation of Islam, the Salafis, have gained notoriety. Against this backdrop, the recent destruction of al-Shaab al-Dahmani mosque in Tripoli last Saturday and the attack on the 15th century Abdel Salam al-Asmar shrine (the library was also burned reducing manuscripts to half-burnt objects and ashes) in Zlitan point to the lack of law and order not just for sites of heritage but for ordinary Libyans.

Conflicting information on what transpired in Tripoli and Zlitan betray a lack of security coordination among the various apparatuses of the state. Deputy Prime Minister Mustafa Abushagur’s tweets that he urged the Defence and Interior Ministries to intervene confirm this state of affairs while it was reported security forces in Tripoli, after an initial engagement with the attackers, stepped back from the immediate area – purportedly to defend a nearby hotel.

Condemnation of this attack was accompanied by a direct criticism of the role of the security forces and the state. The words of the Grand Mufti of Libya, Sheikh Sadeq al-Ghariani, are a simultaneous attack on the profusion of heavily armed militias and the state’s failure to introduce rule of law in the country.

Pressure from many quarters on Interior Minister Fawzi Abdel-Aal, both he and the Defence Minister were questioned in a closed-door parliamentary session, led to his resignation. Accountability has been introduced, albeit in a tentative democratic setting, where now the political elite can be summoned to a directly elected institution. Nonetheless, the challenge still remains for maintaining the rule of law bringing unruly military elements into the fold of the political system and preserving the Islamic ethos of tolerance and peaceful co-existence embodied in the Sufi tombs and shrines scattered across Libya.

For now, Dr al-Magariaf and his team seem to be taking steps in the right direction. However, quick fixes are not at hand. What is needed for the protection of tolerance is both short-term and long-term legal, political, social, educational and religious sets of solutions to curb the assault of Libya’s nascent democracy.

Dr Larbi Sadiki is a Senior Lecturer in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter, and author of Arab Democratisation: Elections without Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2009) and The Search for Arab Democracy: Discourses and Counter-Discourses (Columbia University Press, 2004).

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