Persecution of Sufis in Libya is a relic of Qaddafi's stratagem
It has been more than a year since the Libyan revolution succeeded in demolishing the dictatorial regime of Muammar Qaddafi. Following his death, analysts warned of tribal fighting and slow regional disintegration, but Libya has proven these commentators wrong.
Today, the country has a new, democratically elected government and a diverse political landscape of parties and coalitions. Contemporary Libya is clearly a nation in the making, rather than just a conglomeration of tribes ready to be at each other's throat. Libyans, however, are still experiencing some conflicts.
In the past months, local Salafist groups have been attacking Sufi gathering places and teaching centres in different parts of the country. In the middle of last month, the head of the most ancient Sufi shrine in the city of Tripoli, Shaykh Abdullah Banun, received death threats.
Libyan politicians have repeatedly condemned these episodes of violence, but the number of attacks seems to be increasing. In August, the interior minister, Fawzi Abdellahi, resigned in protest at criticism from others in government over his failed handling of the violence.
This situation could lead observers to believe that the analysts who were so pessimistic about Libya's revolution were only half wrong. Libya has not collapsed into a constellation of tribes, but the country does seem to be prone to the risk of disintegration along religious lines.
Doubtlessly the religious conflicts between Salafis and Sufis shed light on a number of issues that the new administration is struggling to resolve, most of all the diffusion of violent Salafi activism.
It is important to clarify that religious conflicts are not the product of the Libyan revolution. On the contrary, they are the legacy of the old regime.
To understand these events in their proper context, it is important to look at the recent history of the country. Specifically, it is important to remember that before Qaddafi's coup in 1969, Libya was a kingdom with a Sufi king.
In the colonial era the powerful Sanusi Sufi brotherhood fought against the Italian occupiers with the help of Britain, and after the liberation of the country Idris asSanusi, head of the Sanusis, was elected the first king of Libya. When Qaddafi's Free Officers Movement took power, it overthrew the monarchy, dismantled the Sanusi order and identified Sufism as an antirevolutionary agent.
In the first two decades of the regime, Qaddafi publicly condemned the Sufi brotherhood in his speeches, and ordered a number of their meeting places to be destroyed, actions very much like what the Salafis are doing today.
People associated with Sufism were closely monitored by the police, and often arrested.
For years, the Qaddafi regime effectively fuelled anti-Sufi sentiment in the country, publicly portraying Sufism as a heretical form of Islam and as a fossil of monarchic Libya that had no place in a "revolutionary" nation.
By criticising Sufi Islam, Qaddafi planted a seed, the fruits of which are apparent today. The roots of anti-Sufi violence in Libya, in other words, can be traced back to the actions of the regime. There is a history behind them.
It is also interesting to notice that during the last years of his regime, Qaddafi decided to publicly rehabilitate Sufism, as a counter- balance to the spread of Salafism.
He perceived the Salafis to be a local extension of the Saudi government (an old enemy of his Jamahiriya, or peoples' state).
Worried that a number of Libyans were showing sympathy for Saudi-style understandings of Islam, Qaddafi decided that Sufism was, in a sense, the lesser evil.
All of a sudden Sufism was revealed to be a useful propaganda tool. In the late 1990s, Qaddafi began to praise Sufis in public, presenting them as an alternative to Salafis. Following his familiar strategy of "divide and rule", the dictator fuelled the Sufi/Salafi antipathy on a local level, paving the way for today's violence.
This change of attitude by the regime created an association between Qaddafi and Sufism, in the minds of many Libyans.
This association is doubtlessly incorrect: Sufis were for many years heavily persecuted by Qaddafi, and were never loyal to him.
As a result of this association, however, a number of revolutionaries who fought against Qaddafi now perceive Sufism to be a remnant of the dictatorship.
The religious conflicts that are taking place in Libya at the moment are neither new nor unexpected. Commentators should not rush into an analysis of the mistakes and faults of the Libyan revolution. On the contrary, they should try to understand that Libyans are still dealing with the consequences of 40 years of dictatorship.
For four decades, Qaddafi manoeuvred different groups, both religious and tribal, as a way of keeping his grip on the country. Expecting Libyans to resolve the residual issues in just one year is not only unrealistic, but myopic.
Igor Cherstich, a social anthropologist at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London University, has conducted extensive ethnographic research in Libya
Updated: December 5, 2012 04:00 AM