Multiple attacks on Sufi religious and historical sites last week highlight two threats to Libya’s democratic transition: Islamic extremism and the failure of the government to take action. On 25 August, Salafist extremists destroyed a Sufi shrine and library in Zlitan. The following day, Salafist extremists attacked the Sha’ab Mosque in Tripoli, which contained the graves of revered Sufi figures. In response, Libyan activists, local civil society groups, and international organizations, such as UNESCO, have protested these attacks, calling on the government to protect historical Sufi sites.
Such incidents are particularly disconcerting as they threaten religious freedom and may indicate a rise in Salafism in Libya, or at least an increase in the aggressiveness of minority religious extremist groups. These Salafist extremists consider Sufism – a mystical movement within Islam – heretical. It appears that these groups are inspired by a Wahhabi interpretation of Islam, which is highly intolerant of any practices or beliefs that it deems to be religious innovation. By condemning other Islamic faith groups, Wahhabi influence poses a serious threat to Libya’s religious, cultural, and historical integrity.
Coverage of the conflict that brought the end of Gaddafi's 42-year regime over Libya exposed some of the weakest points in the ways we conceive of geographical categories. Rebel forces accused Gaddafi of using “African mercenaries,” painting a racial tint to the civil conflict. In many respects, the conflict showed the limits of Libya's Africanness -- which Gaddafi emphasized in his later years -- while aggravating the very real historical tensions between Arabs and other ethnic groups in Africa. Nevertheless, the positioning of Libya as an African nation has resonated with many Africans on the continent and throughout its diaspora.
How can we account for Libya's occupation of both Arab and African fields of identity?
A month ago, few would have suspected that Mali’s government was in line to have its power usurped by its 7,500-man army. President Amadou Toumani Touré, whose present whereabouts are unknown, has been lauded for his democratic governance and was a likely candidate for the ever elusive Mo Ibrahim prize for African leaders who voluntarily cede power. Next month’s elections were to seal the deal for the political career of a man who has played by the rules, since he first took power in a coup in 1991 that earned him the title “soldier of democracy.”
After 42 years under the tight grip of Muammar al-Gaddafi, Libya is not only experiencing a political revolution but also a media revolution. The tightly controlled state-run media of the Gaddafi regime allowed no room for free expression or criticism. As the revolution which began in February of 2011 spread across Libya, numerous media outlets emerged including more than 300 dailies and weeklies according to the news website Magharebia. During a trip to Libya late last year, I noticed new newspapers with their first editions on sale at news stands on a weekly basis.