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Libya’s Islamic reform model

Gadhafi enlists a surprising ally in his jihad against Islamists — dervishes.

ZLITEN, Libya — Dozens of boys and young men mill around the cavernous hall of the Muslim University madrassah in this Sufi shrine town in northwestern Libya. Pilgrims drift in and out of the enormous mosque recently built on the site of a Sufi saint’s tomb after paying their respects.

In addition to Libyans, African and Asian students from the majority Sunni sect of Islam attend this Islamic seminary.

“They study Quran and the Shariah and carry out missionary work for Islam in Africa and Asia to teach its tenets,” said Abd as-Salam Milad Shomeyla, one of the guardians of the shrine of 15th century Sufi saint Abd as-Salam al-Asmar. Sufi dervishes take part in ecstatic dancing and prayer sessions.

The Zliten shrine is flourishing now, but it was blacklisted by President Moammar Gadhafi's regime for many years and its financial affairs were removed from a private trust and assigned to the government's Ministry of Islamic Endowments.

It was all part of the restrictions imposed by Gadhafi on Sufi orders as part his efforts to control Islam in the country. Sufi places of worship were shut down or razed to the ground on the pretext that they encouraged a deviant form of Islam. Libya is now feeling the backlash against that policy.

Sufi ceremonies had been a mainstay of popular Islam in Libya. From the time of the Ottoman Empire through Italian colonialism and up to the era of the deposed King Idriss, they enjoyed significant social and political power. After Gadhafi seized power in 1969, he dissolved the main brotherhoods and prosecuted particularly fiercely the Sanussiyah order, which possessed extended charity and economic networks.

But Gadhafi has now reversed his policies to encourage Sufism, apparently because he is worred about the growth of support in Libya for a more fundamentalist, Wahhabist form of Islam.

Locals believe that Gadhafi changed his mind about Sufism after a near-death crash of his motorcade while passing outside Zliten one day. Allegedly taking it as a supernatural sign of displeasure by the Sufi saint, he immediately returned financial control of the shrine's affairs to its original owners.

But the real reason may have more to do with the revelations that large numbers of Libyan jihadis have targeted U.S. troops in Iraq. A 2007 U.S. Army report found the number of Libyan fighters in Iraq in the previous year had surged from 4 percent to 19 percent, placing them second in number only to the Saudis.     

Militant training camps have bloomed in the barren, sparsely populated Sahara desert. Libyan intelligence has monitored the spread of radical Islam along the African Sahel since the political thaw that followed Gadhafi’s 2003 rapprochement with the West. In 2004, a desert operations camp was discovered belonging to the fundamentalist Algerian Islamic group the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat.

In Benghazi, Libya's second largest city after the capital Tripoli, Islamism is on the rise. The Mediterranean port was once so multi-cultural that it was dubbed by its expat residents “the poor man’s Alexandria.” Although its malls throb with imported goods, far fewer women walk its streets and those who do are heavily covered by their burqas or hijabs. This contrasts with the more liberal atmosphere for women in Tripoli.

Other signs of a rise in Muslim fundamentalism in Libya include the demonstrations in which a mob torched the Italian consulate in 2006 during the Danish cartoons controversy and the incident in 2008 in which an audience pelted a concert stage with stones, forcing Bob Geldof to cancel a concert, that had been organized by Gadhafi's westernized son.