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.


B.A Divisive, Ultra-conservative Social Agenda

In the east especially, Madkhalis have used the eastern Awqaf to pursue their ideological agenda in several ways.

In July 2016, the Authority issued a statement arguing that the draft constitution then under consideration should not be approved because, it claimed, the text contained violations of Sharia, particularly in reference to what the statement described as “national security” and “societal peace”.

When the Constitutional Drafting Assembly (CDA) approved the final draft the following year, the Supreme Fatwa Committee again warned Libyans that some of its provisions breached Sharia, including the notion of citizenship – particularly in relation to equality between men and women – and the defence of freedom of expression and assembly. 

The committee also took issue with provisions related to forming political parties, which it described as a source of conflict and division.

Some of the decisions of the eastern religious institutions have sparked national outrage. In July 2017, the Supreme Fatwa Committee issued a fatwa accusing adherents of the Ibadi sect of Islam, common among Libya’s Amazigh (Berber) minority, of “deviance” and of subscribing to an “infidel” doctrine. 

The ruling on Ibadis drew widespread condemnation. A joint statement issued by more than 200 Libyan politicians, academics, journalists and activists “categorically rejected the sectarian religious discourse, which divides Libyans and strives to disseminate hate speech”. For Amazigh-led armed groups in western Libya, the fatwa also further fuelled suspicion of forces with a strong or dominant Madkhali component, including Radaa. As an Amazigh commander put it:

The Madkhalis are openly against the Ibadis. How can I, as an Ibadi, accept that they be given so much power?”

 Beyond religious institutions, Madkhali elements in the LNA and its affiliated security branches have acted as self-appointed ‘morality police’. 

In line with Madkhali doctrine, the committee has issued rulings against women travelling without a male guardian; called for all gatherings to be gender-segregated; has denounced any celebration of Prophet Muhammad’s birthday, traditionally a popular holiday in Libya; and prohibited demonstrations in general as sinful. 

In October 2018, the committee issued a statement – read out at mosques across eastern Libya – repeating its denunciation of demonstrations, describing them as a “Western evil”.

Beyond religious institutions, Madkhali elements in the LNA and its affiliated security branches have acted as self-appointed “morality police”. Several incidents throughout 2017 highlighted this aspect of their growing influence.

In January that year, Madkhali elements in the local security directorate seized a shipment of books imported from Egypt – including works by Friedrich Nietzsche, Paulo Coelho and Naguib Mahfouz – in the town of al-Marj.

They denounced what they called a “cultural invasion” of un-Islamic literature, claiming the books contained pornographic material and information on Shiism, Christianity and sorcery. The eastern Awqaf issued a lengthy statement regarding the incident, accusing “secularists” of trying to encourage “moral corruption”.

Over 130 Libyan writers and intellectuals responded in an open letter criticising the seizure as “intellectual terrorism” and “an attempt to muzzle voices and confiscate opinion and thought”.

The letter made reference to a “particular doctrine” – without referring directly to Madkhali-Salafism – and warned:

The actions of the followers of this doctrine, including in mosques, schools, media and other social institutions in many regions of Libya, threaten social harmony, increase the threat to civil peace and contribute to the complexity of the crisis faced by the country.

The following month, Abdelrazeq al-Naduri, the LNA’s chief of staff and then military governor of the eastern region, issued an order prohibiting women under the age of 60 from travelling abroad unless accompanied by a male guardian.

He argued the ban was necessary for “reasons of public interest” and “to limit negative aspects that accompanied Libyan women’s international travel”. 

Several observers accused Madkhali elements within the LNA of pushing for the order. The LNA annulled the ban within days – most likely due to the public outcry – and replaced it with a new order imposing travel restrictions on all Libyans, male and female, aged between 18 and 45, requiring security clearance before travelling abroad.

Civil society activists, especially women who had mobilised against the original order, interpreted the new decree, which referred to the “need to put in place measures to counter risks from abroad that threaten national security”, as an attempt to further curtail civil society activity, already regularly criticised by Madkhali clerics in mosques under their control.

In March 2017, LNA-affiliated Madkhalis shut down a Benghazi rally marking “Earth Hour”, an international event organised by the World Wildlife Fund to raise environmental awareness, and arrested a number of people, including an Agence France-Presse photographer who had taken pictures of the event.

The eastern Awqaf issued a statement saying the rally was “sinful” because it included men and women mixing and it accused participants of “Satanism”.

A key Madkhali figure involved in the shutting of the Earth Hour event, Abdul Fateh Ben Ghalboun, who commands a unit allied to the LNA’s Saiqa special forces, has also publicly criticised the mixing of male and female students at universities in Benghazi.

In December 2017, Ben Ghalboun’s unit arrested a young male singer after videosof him performing at an all-girls high school event circulated on social media. Ben Ghalboun accused the singer of encouraging vice.

The school’s principal was also detained. So far, however, there is no sign of the implementation of gender segregation in any of Benghazi’s universities, where young male and female students intermingle openly.

Since late 2014, a number of activists in eastern Libya who have publicly warned against the growing power of Madkhalis within Haftar’s coalition or posted comments on social media criticising their heavy-handedness have been threatened and in some cases detained. A Benghazi activist said:

They use their influence within the security apparatus to pursue their agenda. They are much feared. Anyone who speaks against them is targeted. Those of us involved in civil society have become very wary, because we know they are suspicious of us. The space for our activities is shrinking.

Similar dynamics have played out in Tripoli and other parts of western Libya where Madkhalis have an armed presence. In November 2017, Radaa shut down a comic book convention in Tripoli and arrested the organisers and some attendees for violating “morals and modesty”.

In a statement, Radaa added that such events were “derived from abroad and exploit the weakness of religious faith and the fascination with foreign cultures”.

In May 2018, Radaa detained two men who had organised the Septimus Awards, an annual media event. Relative of one of the detainees told Human Rights Watch they believed the men may have been targeted because photographs of the ceremony showed men and women mingling, with some women dressed in a manner Radaa considered unacceptable.

Madkhalis are not alone in pursuing an ultra-conservative agenda hostile to civil society, but activists say they have contributed to mainstreaming it and have put their Islamist rivals (particularly Ghariyani, the Tripoli-based Mufti) in western Libya on the defensive. 

In addition to specific attacks on civil society and their growing control of mosques, Madkhalis have also spread their influence through mosque-based social and humanitarian activities and religious charities, whose services are in higher demand as purchasing power declined steeply since 2014.

They have also set up an extensive network of radio stations that broadcast Madkhali’s sermons, and are active online where they have created several popular websites, forums and social media pages to disseminate their ideology and aggressively monitor social media for any criticism of Madkhali, his ideas or the Madkhali current more generally.

Finally, they have moved into the private education sector, opening up schools in Tripoli, Benghazi and elsewhere.

Educators have raised concerns about how many of these schools are operating without a licence from the education ministry, how they are funded and the contents of their curricula, particularly in light of the widespread view that they promote intolerance.

A Benghazi-based academic warned:

Their influence is immense and people should be concerned. This threatens minorities like the Sufis and Ibadis and, in my view, it threatens our national identity more generally, because this imported ideology is at odds with it. Not seeing their growing influence as a problem is a problem in itself.

In early 2019, the eastern government approved the request to establish some Salafi religious training centres. 

Even in Tripoli, Madkhalis have requested authorisation to open religious training centres, but this remains a contentious issue that is being debated within the GNA’s ministry of education.

So far, Madkhalis have made no attempt to alter Libya’s legal and judicial system, which is based on European-style positive law.

Other ultra-conservative groups that sought to impose their agenda in the past (such as al-Qaeda-inspired groups or ISIS) began with persecuting judges and lawyers and trying to disband courts they condemned as not Sharia-compliant.

While Madkhalis have not engaged in such practices, their critics fear it may just be a matter of time. For their defenders, however, such fears are unfounded.

continues in part 7




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