Libya, the Salafist War against Moderate Islam Takes Shape
The Libyan revolution has not been kind to Mahmud al-Arabi. Last March, forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi ransacked his grocery store in Zuwara after he fled to Tunisia, stealing about $6,000 worth of supplies.
When he returned in September, His new business drew the attention of Islamist rebels who helped to overthrow Gaddafi. After they threatened the store’s landlord, they blew up Arabi’s shop. Out of money and out of work, Arabi spends his days in his trailer home lamenting the turn his country has taken. Says he, “I got nothing but suffering from this revolution.”
Throughout this country, Libyans are discovering that their hard fought battle to win freedoms is at risk. Puritanical Muslims known as Salafis are applying a rigid form of Islam in more and more communities. They have clamped down on the sale of alcohol and demolished the tombs of saints where many local people worship.
"I lost everything in my store and had no money. So I decided to sell alcohol."
He shows off a room with 3,000 small cans of Heineken beer and a dozen liquor bottles. “Business was very good,” he boasts. “I had more than a hundred customers a day who bought Absolut [Vodka], J&B and [Johnny Walker] Red Label.” But when the Salafis came knocking, Arabi knew his days as an alcohol vendor were numbered. “They said this was a Muslim village where alcohol is forbidden,”
It is not only Arabi who has faced the Salafis’ wrath. The estimated 200-to-400 members of the local Salafi movement have demolished shrines belonging to adherents of the Ibadi sect, long considered heretics by orthodox Sunni Muslims. In the town’s cemetery, large blocks of stone surround what was once a mausoleum.
Salafists are intolerant of other strands of Islam and have physically attacked Muslim minorities in other parts of the Arab world such as Iraq and Saudi Arabia.
"The situation has gotten much worse lately," says Ibadi Sheikh Walid Darder. "We may have not had political rights under Gaddafi, but we did not live in fear of going to the mosque."
Throughout Libya, Gaddafi’s fall has emboldened Salafis, who were persecuted and imprisoned under the now deceased leader. They have increased their public presence, taken over mosques, and even hoisted the flag of al-Qaeda over the courthouse in Benghazi where the revolution began eleven months ago. In the capital of Tripoli, Salafis have destroyed more than six shrines. In one incident, dozens swarmed mausoleums belonging to two Muslim mystics and dug up their bodies so that worshippers could no longer visit their tombs. They also burned the relics around the shrines.
Arabi however is not concerned with the destruction of obscure tombs he does not frequent. “I just want my life back,” he pleads.
>Abdelhakim Belhadj was made commander of the Tripoli Military Council, after the rebels took over during Operation Mermaid Dawn in late August 2011.
>Belhadj and other leaders of the LIFG fled to Afghanistan, and joined the Taliban In 2002, after the September 11 attacks.
>Belhadj had developed “close relationships” with al-Qaeda leaders, and specifically Taliban chief Mullah Omar. Based in Jalalabad, he is alleged to have run and financed training camps for Arab mujahideen fighters.