LIBYA – DEMOCRACY OR THEOCRACY?
Democracy tends to give sovereignty to the people. Muslim countries prefer to emphasize the sovereignty of Islamic legislation.
There are three major currents within Islam – modernism which calls for a contemporary interpretation of Islam, secularism which calls for the separation of religion and politics and fundamentalism which is unwavering in its adherence to traditional Islam and strongly anti-western.
A new Libyan interim government takes the reins of power on 8th September and has the unenviable task of shepherding that war weary country towards a form of Islamic democracy. It will be a difficult and protracted task.
For the friends of Libya the news of the violent destruction of ancient shrines, mausoleums and libraries has been disturbing. The Sufi shrine of Sidi Abdul-Salam Al-Asmar Al-Fituri in Zliten has recently been badly damaged following clashes that left at least three people dead. In Tripoli one of the most important Sufi mosques, the resting place of the holy man Sidi Al-Sha’ab, was attacked by Islamic fundamentalists. A mechanical digger moved in to finish the demolition, overseen by personnel from the Supreme Security Committee.
Libya’s Interior Minister, Fawzi Abdel A’al, resigned on 26th August after being censured by the prime minister for failing to stop the destruction of the Al Sha’ab mosque. He returned to work two days later leaving observers to wonder about a power struggle behind the scenes.
Much of the problem lies in the number of armed militias which fought in the late civil war and have not yet been disarmed or absorbed into the army. Many of them are led by Islamic fundamentalists of the Salafist tendency. They reject as idolatrous the building of, and worshiping at, shrines which venerate Sufi notables. The possibility that Salafists now wield undue influence in the Interior Ministry via the Supreme Security Committee cannot be overlooked.
The list of attacks is escalating. In Tripoli the Othman Pasha Madrassa, named after its Ottoman Turkish founder, was attacked by a group of armed men at 3 a.m. on 29th August. They used automatic drills to dig up graves and also looted several historic texts from the school’s library.
There are reports from Al-Tag near Kufra in southeast Libya that Salafists removed the human remains from the mausoleum of Sidi Muhammad Al-Mahdi As-Senussi (1844-1902), the son of the founder of the Sufi Senussi Order. On 9th July the historic Sahaba Mosque in the eastern Libyan port of Derna was attacked and the shrine of Zuhayr Ibn Qais Al-Balawi, companion of Prophet Muhammad and Muslim military leader, was demolished.
The Human Rights Watch made this statement on 28th August; ‘We are shocked at the attacks on Sufi shrines in the past few days and more so, at the failure of law enforcement agencies to step in and protect these national heritage sites’.
There are striking parallels to be found in English history. When Henry VIII broke with Rome it released a wave of destruction at the hands of religious extremists. When his son, Edward VI, ascended the throne in 1547 religious reformers of an iconoclastic bent became influential at court. A royal injunction was issued which mandated those who wished to obliterate the symbols of the ‘old religion’ and ‘destroy all shrines. pictures, paintings and all other monuments of feigned miracles…..so that there remains no memory of the same on walls, glass windows, or elsewhere within their church or houses.’ Further waves of destruction occurred, notably during the English civil war and afterwards during the reign of Oliver Cromwell.
There are signs that the Tunisian government is giving tacit approval to Salafists some of whom have caused disturbances recently and a growing number of attacks on Coptic Christians in Egypt are being watched by concerned observers. To the south, Mali has already been destabilised by the al Qaeda franchise Ansar Dine which has destroyed ancient Sufi sites in Timbuktu.
Seeds of religious intolerance have germinated in the Arab Spring. Are the shoots about to bear fruit and multiply? Which way will the new Libyan government turn?