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.
Failed institution-building (2012-2014). Libya’s Salafis in the competition to reconstruct authority
Libya’s transition after 2011 has been characterised by different phases. The first one, which started in August 2011 with the publication of a Constitutional Declaration by the interim National Transitional Council (NTC), set on track a process of electoral politics and institution-building, which rapidly became stalled as a result of the different political factions’ incapacity to discuss and agree on any key issue in the transition.
Libya’s former LIFG leaders and the quietist Salafi current addressed this phase in very different ways. Several former leading LIFG figures confirmed the ideological shift initiated with the 2009 recantation, expressing their support for democracy and deciding in favour of direct participation in institutional and electoral politics.
In contrast, the quietist current remained strongly opposed to political participation and continued to focus on spreading the faith (and ensuring respect for the faith) at the grassroots level. However, while they refused to get involved in the political game, prioritising instead the imposition of moral order, quietist Salafis did not seem to aim to maintain their autonomy vis-à-vis the state.
On the contrary, they started engaging directly with the nascent state institutions at the local level, not only in the field of religion but also that of security.
‘Political’ Salafis: controlling the nascent institutions from the top to shape the state
The first phase in the transition rapidly saw the emergence of a new explicitly political brand of Salafism embodied by some former leaders of the LIFG.
The new opportunities offered by the political transition provided them with the space they needed to move away from jihad against the regime and engage in institutional politics as a way to achieve political change.
In 2011 the new political Salafis also had credentials to put forward that constituted important resources in the transition phase. The key role that figures like Abdulhakim Belhaj was considered to have played in the armed uprising, together with their long past as opponents of Qadhafi and their military experience abroad, provided them with significant revolutionary and military legitimacy.
However, their credentials had more to do with their personal experiences, reputations and social connections as individuals than with their previously belonging to the LIFG. For instance, Sami al-Saadi, also known as Abu Mundher al-Saadi, could mobilise his past as a foreign fighter in Afghanistan and a long-time opponent of Qadhafi.
Unlike Belhaj, however, he also enjoyed significant credit in Libya because of his religious credentials and his role as the main ideologue of the LIFG.
Information shared on al-Saadi’s personal website clearly illustrates the three main sources from which he derives his authority: recognised qualifications in Islam and the Arabic language from higher education institutions in Libya and Pakistan; experience in religious and political positions; and the authority and approbation of Islamic scholars inside and outside Libya with whom he had studied.
As a result, al-Saadi benefitted from a solid reputation and credibility, not only as a fighter but also as someone between a scholar (‘alim, religious authority) and an ideologue (political Salafi thinker).
Taking advantage of the authority and legitimacy they enjoyed in 2011, the former LIFG leaders immediately attempted to translate it into influence in the new state institutions, exemplifying a form of political Salafism that sought to shape the state from within.
This was also a top-down approach based on engaging politically at the national level. With elections scheduled as early as June 2012, former leading members of the LIFG had to make a decision regarding their willingness to engage in party politics.
A large congress of the former organisation was organised in Tripoli in November 2011 which aimed to address the issue of political participation, understood both as taking positions in the nascent institutions and competing in elections.
No clear strategy emerged from the meeting but there was a shift in favour of democracy. Individually deciding in favour of political participation, both Belhaj and alSaadi formed their own political parties.
The platforms and memberships of the two parties highlighted the different political views and priorities of their leaders. While Belhaj’s Homeland party (Al-Watan) described itself as a “political party based on Islamic references,” it also favoured an inclusive approach, opening its ranks to non-Islamist figures and putting forward a nationalist agenda focusing on development, justice and cooperation.
In contrast, al-Saadi’s Moderate Nation (Al-Umma Al-Wasat), which described itself as a proponent of moderate (‘wasati’) Islam,19 was more explicitly Islamic and put implementing sharia’ at the top of its national pact.
In July 2012, both Belhaj and al-Saadi stood as candidates in the election for the first transitional legislature, the General National Congress (GNC). Although these parties performed very poorly in the election,20 several figures from the political Salafism spectrum were elected as independent candidates in 2012.
Hence, by forging alliances with parliamentarians in the GNC from Islamist backgrounds and from revolutionary strongholds, former LIFG leaders managed to gain influence over the new parliament and over the first transition governments.
Some of them took key ministerial security positions. They also started pressuring the assembly to adopt laws that fitted their political agendas, such as the Political Isolation Law to exclude from political office figures who had held positions under Qadhafi.
The Martyrs bloc (Kutlat al-Wafa’ li-Dima’ al-Shuhada’), which was formed to promote the law, was supported by Libya’s Grand Mufti, who called for demonstrations, and armed groups which were using violence to push for adoption of the law.
Al-Saadi himself played a key role in the campaign as the head of the Coordination for Political Isolation.
The religious authority enjoyed by several figures among the political Salafi movement, combined with the legitimacy they earned from having fought and defeated Qadhafi militarily, was also instrumental in helping political Salafis gain influence over the new state religious institutions.
This was done through an alliance with the broader sphere of political Islam supporters. When the National Transitional Council (NTC) re-established Dar al-Ifta’, the institution responsible for interpreting Islamic lawin 2012,22 Sheikh Sadeq al-Gharyani was appointed as its head.
A university professor and influential religious figure, Sheikh al-Gharyani was already well known to the Libyan public before 2011.
Close to Saif al-Qadhafi, he had played an important role in the negotiations between the regime and the LIFG leadership, leading to the movement’s recantation, but he had also opposed the regime on some occasions.
In February 2011, Sheikh al-Gharyani had called for an uprising in Tajoura, the eastern Tripoli neighbourhood where he had his roots, providing religious justifications for opposing Qadhafi and his regime.
His appointment as Libya’s mufti in 2012 appeared a natural consequence of his religious credentials and the respect he inspired among the revolutionary forces and the political Islam current.
In return, the position conferred on him the power to decide on all key issues of religious doctrine and to access resources, especially through the zakat fund.
Control over the state’s religious institutions was exploited by political Salafis and their allies in the political Islam sphere to influence politics. Ahead of the first parliamentary election in July 2012, Sheikh al-Gharyani had publicly declared that voting for parties in favour of limiting sharia’ would be ‘un-Islamic.’
Tensions rapidly rose after the appointment of the first transitional government in late 2012 as Sheikh al-Gharyani started acting as intermediary between government officials and some armed groups with a view to facilitating their access to government funding.
In spring 2013, he also made public speeches in favour of the Political Isolation Law,25 taking a strong stand with the Martyrs bloc in the GNC and therefore contributing to deepening polarisation in the political sphere.
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.