By Frederic Wehrey and Katherine Pollock
In Libya, recent attacks against Sufi targets have been driven by doctrine, but also socioeconomic resentment.
On December 29, armed militants attacked the shrine of Mahdi Sanusi in Kufra, in southeastern Libya, exhuming the corpse of the famous Libyan Sufi leader and father of the country’s first ruler after independence, King Idris.
The incident followed on the heels of similar assaults on Libya’s Sufi heritage.
On November 28, the eve of the Prophet Mohammed’s birthday, unidentified assailants set fire to Zawiyat Sheikha Radiya, a 16th-century Sufi mosque in Tripoli.
In October, another of Tripoli’s historic Sufi mosques was destroyed, and in September a prominent Sufi activist was kidnapped, along with alleged reports of many other kidnappings and arrests across the country.
Aside from highlighting Libya’s continuing lawlessness and the incapacity—and sometimes unwillingness—of government authorities to protect Sufi sites, the attacks underscored the growing power of the country’s Salafists.
Though Salafi animosity toward Sufis has been typically portrayed in purely doctrinal and theological terms, there are often deeper socioeconomic and political drivers.
As case studies from across the Islamic world highlight, anti-Sufism is sometimes a proxy for class-based tensions, or it stems from the perceived association of Sufis with deposed regimes or foreign powers.
LIBYA’S STRONG SUFI LEGACY
In Libya, Sufis have played a prominent role in the country’s modern history, as state-builders, nationalists, and anti-imperialists. This was embodied by the Sanusi dynasty under Idris al-Sanusi and, most famously, the iconic figure of Omar Mukhtar, the Sufi teacher-turned guerilla leader who fought the Italian occupation for two decades.
Yet at times the Sufis have also had a more ambiguous and collaborative relationship with Libya’s occupying foreign powers, whether the Ottomans, the Italians, or the British, which made them easy scapegoats for opponents.
When Qaddafi overthrew King Idris in 1969, he played up this dimension, labeling Sufism (in particular the Sanusi order) as pro-imperialist and reactionary—an effort to eliminate a political challenge from the vestiges of the Sanusi dynasty, especially in the east.
In the first two decades of his regime, the Libyan dictator ordered the destruction of a number of Sufi shrines and the confiscation of Sufi endowments, fueling anti-Sufi sentiment across society.
Toward the end of his rule, he had a brief rapprochement with Sufism, publicly praising it to provide a counterweight to the country’s political Islamist and jihadi movements, which he saw as greater threats.
After the 2011 revolution, Sufis briefly flourished given their newfound freedom. Yet they also came under immediate attack across the country from Libya’s Salafists, who were now similarly unfettered. While these so-called “quietist” Salafists, often derided by their opponents as “Madkhalis” because of their affiliation with a Saudi-based cleric named Rabi‘ bin Hadi al-Madkhali, have theoretically eschewed political action in favor of social morality, this has changed in recent years.
The Salafists have aligned themselves with Libya’s fragmented political camps and, more importantly, have come to dominate the policing sector through militias nominally aligned with Libya’s rival authorities in the west and east.
Here, they have won some plaudits for tackling illegal narcotics, but have also prompted unease and outrage by repressing activities they deem un-Islamic—art, music, and the mixing of genders.
They have also used their narrative of combating crime and terrorism to target rival Islamists, whether Salafist-jihadists from the Islamic State or political activists from the Muslim Brotherhood. Their new authority also provides a cover for attacks on Sufis.
The clearest example of this is a Tripoli-based militia called the Special Deterrence Force that, while not wholly Salafi in composition, is led by a self-described Salafist named Abdelraouf Kara.
Routinely blamed for attacks on Sufis in the capital, Kara denied authorizing attacks to one of the authors in a 2013 interview, though he admitted his men were involved.
More importantly, neither he nor the regular police forces in the capital have proven willing or able to protect Sufi sites. In eastern Libya, a similar dynamic is at work, though with a wave of attacks on Sufis by Salafi militias aligned with the military administration of General Khalifa Hiftar.
All of this reflects what can best be described as a “Salafization” of Libya’s security sector, marked by the dominance of the Salafists’ norms-based policing.
The result has been a growing climate of fear and vulnerability among Libya’s Sufis—tempered by defiance. Visits with Sufis in December 2017 in Tripoli, Misrata, and Sirte showed this defiance on full display, with the Sufis challenging the Salafi control of public space through parades and loud performances of the hadra, a ceremony involving recitation and music, in public squares.
Still, the question remains, what are the motivations behind the anti-Sufi attacks?
On the one hand, there is indeed a well-founded doctrinal split between Sufism and Salafism, over creed, ritual, and behavioral norms. Salafists view Sufism as a heretical accretion to their conception of Islam, as they believe the Prophet Mohammed and his companions practiced it, and an affront to the sacrosanct principle of the oneness of God.
On the latter, Salafists deride the Sufis’ practice of devotional chanting, dancing, and drum-beating, along with their supplication of deceased saints, as a form of polytheism, or shirk.
They further condemn the Sufis’ organization into orders or schools (turuq) as a splintering of the umma, or the Islamic community of believers.
A December 2017 interview with a Salafi member of a militia-turned-police in Sirte, the 604th Infantry Brigade, provided a fairly typical Salafi critique of Sufism. “They give the power of God to their sheikhs,” he said, “and they practice black magic.”
But he also noted a political dimension to the rivalry, claiming that the Sufis had long been regarded as Qaddafi’s “fifth column,” while acknowledging the irony that the “quietist” Salafists had themselves been allies of the late dictator, with many sitting on the sidelines of the 2011 revolution or remaining loyal to the regime.
Thus, while there are indeed ideological divergences, politics and the relationship to central authority invariably come into play. Attacks on Sufis can perhaps be considered one part of a broader recomposition of Libya’s Salafi field, in which attacks on a religious “other” are used to delineate identity and attract adherents.
A SOCIAL AND ECONOMIC RIFT
Perhaps due in part to the manner in which Sufis have been alternatively scapegoated and tokenized by Libya’s rulers, socioeconomic resentment has also developed between Sufis and Salafists.
Salafism has tended to achieve traction among first-generation rural migrants to urban areas (Libya underwent rapid urbanization in the first decades of Qaddafi’s rule), who lack access to traditional patronage networks. Sufism, on the other hand, has often been the preserve of entrenched urban and semi-urban families with wealthy endowments.
Sufi critiques of Salafism embody this class and generational split: Sufis often accuse the Salafists of lacking in formal Islamic education and of being uncouth latecomers to piety. As one Sufi sheikh in Tripoli noted in an interview conducted in December 2017, pointing to a nearby seaside community of Salafists, “We knew these guys were just simple fisherman, who drank, and now suddenly they are Madkhalis.”
Ultimately, Salafi attacks on Sufi sites do not solely reflect an ideological clash. They are also a symptom of both longstanding and emerging societal tensions because of Libya’s economic disparities, which have only intensified due to ongoing political conflict, as well as the country’s monetary crisis.
The solution to anti-Sufism is therefore less about reconciling the two doctrines, moderating Salafism, or bridging the two communities through dialogue, while these might be worthy initiatives.
Instead it will require addressing the broader deficits that have long bedeviled Libya—reforming the economy, developing inclusive institutions, and, especially, implementing the rule-of-law.
While the latter imperative has always been important, it is becoming more so now, given the dominance of Salafists in the policing sector and the ensuing attacks on Sufis.
Frederic Wehrey – An American scholar of Middle East affairs and an expert on Libyan and Gulf politics. He is a Senior Associate at the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Katherine Pollock – James C. Gaither Junior Fellow Middle East Program