Adherents of a Salafi school, the Madkhalis, are gaining prominence on both sides of Libya’s divide, causing concerns about puritanical agendas imposed through military and religious institutions.

Negotiators should ensure that rebuilt security forces are politically neutral and secure the Madkhalis’ pledge to respect pluralism.


I. Introduction

Ultra-conservative Muslims known as Salafis – a revivalist movement advocating a return to the practices of early Islam – have gained prominence in Libya since the fall of Muammar al-Qadhafi’s regime in 2011, wielding influence in armed groups, official security and religious institutions, and at times seeking to impose their views on society.

One particular subset of Salafis, adherents of a school of thought established by Saudi theologian Sheikh Rabee al-Madkhali, has made a particularly rapid ascent and now holds considerable political, military and social influence in both western and eastern Libya.

Some officials in Libya’s rival governments – the UN-backed Governmentof National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli and the Interim Government (which is not recognised internationally) in eastern Libya – defend the Madkhali-Salafis (henceforth referred to as Madkhalis) as reliable security partners and dismiss their religious ideology as harmless.

However, their rise is alarming their political opponents, particularly Islamist factions, as well as religious minorities and civil society actors, adding another fracture line to an already layered and complex conflict. 

Madkhalis’ prominence in some of the most important armed groups, including ones critical to Tripoli and Benghazi’s stability, are also complicating an already fragmented political and military scene.

Although Madkhalis were active under Qadhafi’s regime, which they generally supported, the 2011 uprising and subsequent breakdown of state authority gave them unprecedented opportunities to organise and gain positions of influence.

So did the conflict that broke out in 2014 and the division of already fragile state institutions between competing governments in the east and west.

Madkhalis have found allies among the principal forces in the conflict, including the Libyan National Army (LNA), a military coalition based in eastern Libya headed by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar and allied to the Interim Government also based in eastern Libya, and the internationally-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) in the west, which came to power following the December 2015 signing of the Libyan Political Agreement.

Both governments and military coalitions have relied on armed groups with a Madkhali component. The LNA offensive launched in early April 2019 to capture Tripoli and the ensuing battle for the control of the capital could, if successful, open more space for them to operate.

Given their growing influence across Libya, and their readiness to use it to further an ideological agenda many Libyans see as intolerant and repressive, Madkhalis increasingly find themselves under scrutiny.

In some respects, they have behaved no worse than other armed groups, and their societal agenda is not unique.

Islamists, especially jihadist groups such as Ansar al-Sharia and the Islamic State, have also restricted a range of public freedoms, and other religious factions with ties to armed groups have supported the demolition of Sufi shrines, which they consider heterodox.

But what sets the Madkhalis apart is that they are firmly rooted in the security apparatus with the active support of authorities in power as Islamist groups, be they political Islamist or Salafi-jihadist, appear to be losing ground. 

Another contentious issue is their association with Saudi Arabia, which has opened them to the charge that they seek to impose a foreign agenda.

Research for this report was principally conducted over the course of 2018 and early 2019 in major Libyan cities, including Tripoli and Benghazi, as well as abroad, through interviews with Libyan adherents and opponents of Madkhali-Salafism, government officials, politicians, business people, civil society activists, foreign experts and diplomats.

Some Libyan interviewees did not want to be quoted by name when discussing the rise of Madkhalis due to fears of repercussions, including arrest by security forces with ties to this current, a sign of the movement’s perceived power and lack of tolerance for criticism.

II.The Madkhali-Salafi trend in Libya

A.Wahhabi Origins

Salafism is a religious current that calls for the emulation of the salaf al-salih (pious ancestors), the first adherents of Islam who accompanied Prophet Muhammad, as related by the hadith (the sayings and actions attributed to the prophet, which collectively amount to his sunna, or path, and complement the Quran by elaborating on points of religious doctrine and practical matters).

Although Salafism emerged in Egypt in the nineteenth century as an anti-colonial Muslim revivalist movement, its theological roots lie with the eighteenth-century Wahhabism that originated in the Najd region of the Arabian Peninsula, in what is today Saudi Arabia.

In its contemporary incarnation, it is generally divided into three broad sub-trends: scripturalist or “scientific” Salafism, a politically quietist current that opposes political participation and contestation; reformist Salafism, which is more politically engaged and can take a revolutionary form; and jihadist Salafism of the kind embraced by al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). 

Much of the contemporary schism in Salafism emerged in Saudi Arabia toward the end of the 1980s, particularly over the kingdom’s foreign policy.

Madkhali-Salafism – named after Sheikh Rabee Ibn Hadi Umayr al-Madkhali, an octogenarian Saudi scholar who chaired the Sunna Studies department of the Islamic University of Medina in the 1990s – has emerged in the last three decades as a major current in the first category of “scientific Salafism”. 

Madkhali’s followers have spread far and wide across the Arab world, in part due to the support of well-funded Saudi religious charities and access to satellite television channels.

Madkhali rose to prominence in Saudi Arabia in the context of the 1990-1991 Gulf war as a staunch defender of the Saudi royal family’s decision to allow U.S. troops on Saudi soil.

More generally, he has defended the concept of ta’at wali al amr (obedience to the ruler regardless of how just or pious he is), making him an often-cited example of a “court scholar”.

The cornerstone of Madkhali-Salafi ideology, however, is the belief that religious authority in the Muslim world should be based on scholars’ virtues and behaviour (a classic Islamic methodology known as ilm al jarh wa taadil, the science of disparagement and praise); Madkhali’s followers hold that he is the most virtuous scholar in present times.

 After realising the advantages of a Salafi current that preached against political dissent, the Qadhafi regime allowed Madkhalism to expand. 

This self-styled religious investiture is the instrument with which Madkhali combats contemporary religious thinkers or political currents that he deems divisive or corruptive of the Muslim nation (umma).

His main targets are more revolutionary Salafi movements, particularly those of a Salafi-jihadist orientation, as well as political Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood. 

He also rejects democracy as contrary to Islam; accordingly, clerics associated with the trend in Libya regularly preach against a democratic path. 

His Saudi origins and once prominent role in the Kingdom’s religious establishment have prompted accusations that his sermons and edicts on Libya serve a foreign agenda.

B. Emergence in Libya

When it first appeared in Libya in the 1990s, security services, alert for any signs of possible radicalism, treated Madkhali-Salafism with suspicion.

The ideology was introduced by Libyans who had studied at Madkhali-linked institutions in Saudi Arabia and Yemen, or who had been exposed to Madkhali-Salafism while on pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina.

Several of the key figures in Libya’s Madkhali movement today – including its most prominent preacher, Sheikh Abu Musab Majdi Hafala, mooted by some of his supporters as a possible future Grand Mufti (the top state-appointed religious position) – have attended religious colleges in Saudi Arabia and Yemen.

After realising the advantages of a Salafi current that preached against political dissent, the Qadhafi regime allowed Madkhalism to expand. Madkhali’s acolytes took over a number of existing mosques and opened new ones.

They also ran centres where children learned to memorise the Quran, and distributed religious books and taped sermons imported from Saudi Arabia.

Later, as Madkhali used satellite television and the internet to spread his doctrine beyond Saudi Arabia, he gained more followers in Libya.

Over time, the Qadhafi regime also allowed Madkhali-Salafism to flourish as a counterweight to the influence of jihadist groups formed by Libyan veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In their sermons and literature, Madkhalis warned against both banned political Islamist movements like the Muslim Brotherhood and jihadist groups opposed to Qadhafi’s rule (although both the Brotherhood and the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group – the most serious armed threat to the regime in the 1990s – reached an accommodation with the regime later).

Some within these groups believe Qadhafi placed Madkhalis in his security apparatus to help monitor mosques and other spaces for any sign of religiously inspired challenges to the regime.

In the 2000s, Qadhafi’s son Saadi began engaging with the Madkhali current, frequenting their mosques in Tripoli, seeking counsel from Madkhali clerics and growing the beard with shaved moustache typical of its adherents.

This earned Madkhalis the nickname “jamaat Saadi” (Saadi’s group) in the years leading up to the 2011 uprising. 

At that time Madkhali-Salafism made inroads in several poorer neighbourhoods of Tripoli – most notably Buslim, Hadhba and Souq al-Juma, the hometowns of several Madkhalis now prominent in the city’s security apparatus – and Benghazi through dawa (proselytising) and charitable works.

It also won adherents in Misrata, Libya’s third-largest city, and smaller towns such as Zintan and al-Khoms in the west and Marj and al-Abyar in the east.

During the first weeks of anti-regime protests in 2011, Madkhali clerics appeared on state television to denounce the demonstrations.

Madkhali himself urged Libyans not to participate in what he cast as sedition against a lawful ruler. 

This inspired another nickname: Madkhalis became known as the “stay-at-home” group.

In the latter stages of the uprising, however, some adherents – particularly in Tripoli after it fell to rebel forces – joined armed groups that eventually grew to become key players in the new disorder.

to continue in part 3



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