A strategic and political risk consultancy, Menas Associates, says Libya, the war-torn North African country is locked in a renewed religious crisis.
In its Libya Focus, a monthly intelligence report on the African country, Menas says tensions are rising in western Libya between two competing religious currents: the Salafists on one side, and those who are of a more political Islamist bent and who support the country’s Grand Mufti, Sheikh Sadiq al-Ghariani on the other.
These two ideological currents have long been at loggerheads as they have competed to control Libya’s religious space.
The Salafists accuse the political Islamists — from the Muslim Brotherhood to more hard-line currents that espouse jihad — of sullying religion with politics, while the political Islamists accuse the Salafists of being deviant and of being the servants of Saudi Arabia.
They also refer to them disparagingly as Madkhalists after Saudi scholar, Sheikh Rabee bin Hadi al-Madkhali, whose teachings many of them follow but this label has been vociferously rejected.
‘’Tensions were particularly acute in late 2016 after Sheikh Nader Omrani — a leading member of the Dar Al-Ifta (Fatwa House) of which al-Ghariani is the head — was kidnapped and killed.
‘’Al-Ghariani and his followers blamed his death on members of the Special Deterrent Force (a.k.a. RADA Force) headed by Abdel Raouf Kara that includes many Salafists among its ranks’’, Menas says.
Tensions then increased significantly in November 2018 when the GNA appointed a prominent Salafist, Sheikh Mohamed al-Abbani to head up the Awqaf (religious endowments office).
Although al-Ghariani and his followers have always rejected the GNA, Fayez Serraj’s decision to appoint a follower of the Salafist school to such a senior position — especially one that brings control of land, buildings and significant financial flows — was simply too much.
The decision also demonstrated the extent to which Salafists have been able to spread in the country and penetrate the security structures in Tripoli and elsewhere. This current indeed existed under the former Qadhafi regime.
The former leader was willing to allow it some space because its followers are apolitical and do not believe in opposing a country’s ruler. It is, therefore, an effective counterbalance to the more politicised Islamist movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood.
It is also a reason why Saudi Arabia and some of the other Gulf countries tolerate Salafists while cracking down very hard on the political Islamists. However, the former Qadhafi regime always contained the Salafists and kept them in check with its members regularly being rounded up and imprisoned for periods.
Since the 2011 revolution, the Salafist faction has spread massively across the whole of Libya with young people, in particular, turning to its sheikhs and teachings. They have been able to take over and control large numbers of mosques and have destroyed anything — such as Sufist shrines and schools — that they consider being idolatrous and have generally extended their control over the religious space.
Some have taken up arms, forming their brigades. In eastern Libya, the Salafists form a major component of the LAAF’s forces.
This has alarmed the political Islamist current, which has not been shy to express its hostility towards the Salafists, and all the more so following al-Abbani’s appointment in 2018. Indeed, after taking up the post, he set about appointing Salafists to key positions within the Awqaf, as well as appointing Salafist imams and preachers.
Al-Ghariani’s supporters have demanded, repeatedly and with increasing vigour, that the GNA remove al-Abbani and replace him with someone who is not from the Salafist current.
According to the intelligence report, ‘’on April 29, al-Ghariani once again stirred up tensions with a fiery speech on the Al-Tanasuh television channel in which he condemned the Salafists and al-Abbani. He declared that, The GNA’s Awqaf and its head, Mohamed al-Abbani, are loyal to the enemy and follow the Madkhalist manhaj [way or path]. It is one of the branches of Saudi intelligence. He also accused the Presidency Council of being complicit with the Madkhalists.
‘’In the following days, groups of revolutionary elements — spurred on by al-Ghariani, as well as the GNA’s recent victories over Sabratha and Surman — moved in on the Awqaf offices of several western towns including Zawiya, Khoms and Zliten.
‘’They shut down and blocked these offices with sandbags and ejected the staff who worked there, and proclaimed their rejection of alien ideologies and the Madkhalists. This prompted a furious response from the Awqaf, which accused the Grand Mufti of being behind the attacks and of igniting fitna (discord) between people.
‘’On May 17, with the war of words escalating, a group of al-Ghariani’s supporters in Misrata accused al-Abbani of marginalising Ahl Al-Sunna — the people of the Sunna or Sunni Islam — and demanded that he be handed over for investigation for spreading hatred.
‘’For his part, al-Abbani issued a statement instructing all Awqaf staff members to continue their work. He didn’t mince his words and castigated the al-Ghariani current in Misrata as a mixture of members of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG). He also accused the political Islamist current of following a ‘deviant ideology’ and of having no legitimacy.
‘’This clash of ideological currents is concerning enough, but those who support al-Ghariani are increasingly trying to paint the Salafists in western Libya as being secret supporters of Haftar and the LAAF, thereby depicting them as the enemy within.
‘’These allegations are derived from the fact that Salafists in the east have joined Haftar in a major way. Although there is no overarching organisational structure to the Salafist current — which is extremely diverse and comprises different groups who follow their sheikhs, and while only a few Salafists in west Libya have shown any inclination to back Haftar — political Islamists clearly fear that Salafists in their towns are waiting for the moment to switch sides and support the LAAF.
‘’The fact that Salafist brigades in Sirte did just that — switching allegiance from the GNA to the LAAF as Haftar’s forces approached in January 2020 — has only deepened these suspicions.
‘’Following the shutdown of the Awqaf in Zawiya, the hardline Islamist who had orchestrated the closure, Abdelrazzak al-Bishti, accused the town’s Salafists of siding with the enemy. Those who forced the shutdown in the other towns made similar accusations and similar sentiments are also increasingly being expressed by al-Ghariani.
‘’These more hard-line elements have accused the Salafists of being insufficiently proactive in using the mosques to rally support for the war against Haftar.
‘’Given that many western towns comprise both Salafists and those who follow the political Islamist current, this deteriorating situation has the potential to spiral out of control. Al-Abbani has already appealed to the GNA’s interior ministry for protection for the Awqaf and, on May 17, made it clear he was still waiting for it to take the necessary measures to protect Awqaf buildings and staff.
‘’Yet Fayez Serraj is in a difficult position. He dislikes al-Ghariani, who has never hidden his disdain for the GNA. Yet, at the same time he knows that, if the Salafist current is allowed to expand any further, it will further agitate the current of hard-line Islamists who are seeking to undermine the GNA.
‘’Yet however Serraj responds, this growing competition for control of the religious space is not going to go away and could easily degenerate into a more serious conflict. ‘’