By Virginie Collombier

This paper attempts to make sense of the ‘Political’ and ‘Quietist’ Salafis currents’ relationships with ‘politics’ and state institutions in times of turmoil.


Libya’s Salafis at the crossroads. (2011) Resistance and loyalty in times of state collapse

Salafi trajectories under Qadhafi

Numerous Libyan testimonies date the emergence of a Salafi phenomenon in Libya to the late 1970s-early 1980s, highlighting the role then played by Saudi sponsorship and the struggle for regional influence between Libya and Saudi Arabia.

Wahhabi-influenced Salafism started spreading in Libya with written and audio material entering the country and young Libyans travelling to Saudi Arabia to perform the hajj and ‘umra. Many would stay in the country and attend religious institutions for a few months before returning home.

On their return, the Libyan authorities would be wary of the security threat that they could pose and would use repression to contain the diffusion of ideas considered extremist.

The Salafi ideology that spread during this period would constitute the shared matrix on which Libya’s main Salafi currents would develop in the following decades, although taking different directions, especially in terms of relationships with political authority and politics in general.

Contrary to assumptions regarding the ‘political’ albeit violent nature of some Salafi currents and the purportedly ‘apolitical’ nature of others, Libya’s pre-2011 Salafi sphere tended to contradict the reality of this divide.

Salafism in pre-2011 Libya essentially developed around the jihadist and quietist trends. There was no space for political Salafism to develop as a result of Qadhafi’s policies to restrict political participation and to promote his own interpretation of Islam.

However, even the groups that were satisfied with limiting their activities to the religious sphere were by so doing at least implicitly recognising the legitimacy of the political authority allowing them to do so, which could be considered a political stance.

The divide that ran through Libya’s Salafi sphere was therefore not so much between political and apolitical groups but rather between groups that demonstrated resistance or loyalty to the regime and, by extension and because of the intrinsic relationship between the two under Qadhafi, to the state.

Like many countries in the MENA region, Libya had a history of groups mobilising religious principles to contest political authorities, sometimes violently.

In Libya Islamist resistance to Qadhafi’s regime was essentially led by the Libyan branch of the Muslim Brotherhood and the more militant Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), a group formed primarily of Libyans who had fought in Afghanistan and which engaged in violent action against the Qadhafi regime in the 1990s.

The group constituted at the same time a component of the global jihadist sphere and part of the opposition to the regime. Throughout the 1990s it attempted to use violence to spur regime change in Libya, attempting several times to assassinate Qadhafi.

The response of the regime was severe repression, resulting in significant losses to the group and hundreds being imprisoned.

In the early 2000s, however, Qadhafi seemed to perceive the 9/11 attacks and the increased Western focus on counterterrorism as a rapprochement opportunity.

The activities of former LIFG members in the west had become more difficult. In parallel, the emergence of Qadhafi’s younger son Saif as the possible heir to his father was accompanied by the introduction of a series of reforms which focused on the economy but also included an attempt at accommodating part of the Islamist sphere as a way to prepare for the succession.

In the mid-2000s, this reform process had a direct impact on Libya’s two main Salafi currents. Qadhafi seemed to have perceived the benefits he could get from promoting the quietist Salafi current: by rewarding their loyalty he could use them to counter his Islamist opponents.

A number of preachers started to emerge who had trained with local scholars in Saudi Arabia and Yemen and were then empowered by the regime despite some reluctance on the part of the general population.

The Ministry for Endowments and Religious Affairs, which was responsible for the organisation of mosques, zawiyas, Quranic schools, and the hajj, started appointing a few Salafi imams in 2007-2008 and some mosques were handed over to them.

However, as a result of their continuing dependence on Saudi religious authorities and the absence of strong national religious institutions in Libya, the quietist Salafi movement before 2011 remained largely non-institutionalised, and any different ideological tendencies in its midst ill-defined.

At the other end of the Salafi spectrum, in 2005 a dialogue was initiated between Saif al-Qadhafi and the imprisoned LIFG leadership through the mediation of Qatari-based Islamic scholar Ali Sallabi, himself a former prisoner in Libya.

While some LIFG leaders had already started to rethink the group’s strategy, for the regime and for Saif al-Islam in particular this ‘reconciliation’ process could help turn ‘pardoned Islamists’ into strategic allies.

Some of the imprisoned LIFG leadership showed a level of ideological flexibility, their reflections focusing on demonstrating that violent jihad contradicted orthodox Islamic theology.

In the recantation document produced by six members of the LIFG’s Consultative Council (shura) and published under the name Corrective Studies in Understanding Jihad, Accountability and the Judgement of People in 2009, the authors publicly renounced the use of violence to drive political change without forbidding engagement in politics or insisting on obedience to the ruler in all things.

This recantation enabled many leading figures in the movement to be released from prison, many of whom travelled abroad. However, others in the broader LIFG and jihadi networks (mostly among the younger generation) opposed this recantation and continued to promote armed action, albeit generally outside Libya.

At the beginning of 2011, Libya’s Salafi sphere had started to transform and diversify, in part as a result of the policy changes implemented by the regime in the previous years.

The quietist trend confirmed its loyalty to the regime, to some extent being rewarded for it in the form of positions in state religious institutions.

In parallel, the resistance potential of the jihadi current had been reduced as a result of part of the movement renouncing the use of political violence. However, this ideological and methodological shift could hardly translate into a new strategy for the ‘pardoned’ jihadis as the political game remained fully controlled by the regime and hence did not offer opportunities for participation.

This was one of the paradoxes of the recantation: violence against the regime was not an option any longer, yet institutional politics was not an option either.

The turning point

The uprising that started in February 2011 radically altered the political context in Libya, forcing both the former jihadis who had reconciled with the regime and the quietist Salafis loyal to it to reconsider their relationships with the political authorities in place.

Former jihadis now had an opportunity to act for political change.

Loyalist Salafis were challenged over whether to stick to their supportive stance or to anticipate political change and switch allegiance.

While they had renounced the use of violence to achieve political change, when the 2011 uprising started former LIFG members, whether in prison or under surveillance in Libya or abroad, had to make a decision regarding their participation.

Early on, several members of the former LIFG shura council were summoned by the regime out of concern that they could lend their support to protestors. Some were pre-emptively detained in the infamous Abu Slim prison, like Sami al-Saadi and Khalid al-Sharif.

Others, such as Abdulhakim Belhaj, managed to escape and join other LIFG members fighting with the revolutionaries. The former LIFG leaders who chose to participate in the uprising were now back in direct violent opposition to the regime as the protest movement rapidly became militarised and provided an opportunity for political change.

They gradually established their own command and control structure, establishing a military base in the western Nafusa Mountains and using their international connections, notably with Qatar, to obtain funds and weapons and facilitate travel for fighters from abroad.

While their military experience played a role in increasing their profile and influence on the ground, they also took advantage of extensive media coverage. Their role was, for instance, presented as pivotal in the fall of Tripoli in August 2011, which contributed to them gaining influence over the new structures created to administer the liberated city and later the country.

By joining the military uprising, the former LIFG leaders went against their earlier decision to renounce the use of violence to achieve political change.

In doing so, they signalled that transforming the political order remained their key objective, and that they considered this could not be achieved without violence. Success also essentially depended on the availability of a favourable context and proper resources.

In 2011-2012, these conditions were apparently met. At the end of the war, the former LIFG leaders therefore attempted to control Libya’s new institutions from the top with a view to shaping and influencing the new state from within.

In contrast to them, part of the Salafi quietist current initially stood up against the 2011 protests, gaining for itself the nickname the ‘stay-at-home’ (‘ilzam baytak’) movement. In so doing, to a large extent they fulfilled the regime’s calculations when it supported the emergence of the movement in the 2000s.

From Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Rabi’ al-Madkhali, a professor of hadith at the Islamic University of Medina and a key figure in the movement advocating ‘apolitical’ Salafism and unconditional loyalty to the royal family, issued a fatwa condemning the uprising and the divisions (fitna) it created within the community of believers.

He was followed by Libyan Salafi figures – some of them now part of the official religious establishment – who appeared publicly in mosques and on television to denounce the threat to national unity and security posed by protesters and calling for such behaviour to be criminalised.

Among them was a young sheikh from the city of Yefren in the Nafusa mountains, Majdi Haffala, who would end up playing a key role in the growing influence of the movement in western Libya after 2011.

However, the position of the so-called Madkhali Salafis remained ambiguous, especially as events unfolded on the ground and the situation seemed to evolve in favour of the anti-Qadhafi camp. Saudi sheikhs issued conflicting fatwas, which resulted in some within the movement in Libya participating in the uprising, albeit at a late stage or in minor roles.

They also rapidly took advantage of the collapse of the regime’s authority to engage in proselytism and the imposition of moral order at the neighbourhood level. In this regard, their choice to focus on society and the grassroots level was in accordance with the ideology they professed (being ‘apolitical’ and prioritising da’wa). However, it was also a direct consequence of the lack of opportunities and resources available to them in a context dominated by the ‘revolutionary’ narrative.


Virginie Collombier, Middle East Directions Programme European University Institute. She has been a Research Fellow at the European University Institute of Florence, Italy (EUI) since September 2013. Her main research interests are in social and political dynamics in Libya, with a focus on processes of mediation and reconciliation; the political economy of conflicts; security issues.







Related Articles