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Libya’s Islamic reform model

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

Faced with the threat of hardline Islamists, Gadhafi is encouraging the kinder, more tolerant strand of Sufism.

Today, Zliten is booming off the back of a spike in pilgrimage traffic. Aside from the monumental new mosque, Libya’s Ministry of Education has contracted a U.S. firm to oversee a major expansion of the Al-Asmariya Islamic University. And across the country Sufi orders celebrated the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad in March by taking their musical, folk Islam to the streets and parading through town centers for 40 days.

“They demolished the zawaya [Sufi prayer halls] but they're now rebuilding them because they realize that Wahhabism failed and this is the only way to fight the influence of the U.S.,” said Khalifa Mahdaoui, a former military officer and government consultant who now runs a cultural center in Tripoli. “Sufism decreases passions while Wahhabism inflames them.”

But growing Muslim conservatism — sometimes referred to as "Wahhabism" after the theological trend followed by U.S. ally Saudi Arabia — is increasingly felt across Libyan society. This Bedouin culture was never freewheeling and liberal like Baathist Iraq or Syria in the 1960s and 1970s but Gadhafi’s post-revolution Islamization policy made society even more conservative.

“In the 1980s there was only one row of worshippers at prayer time in the mosques whereas now they're full,” said Abu Ajayla bin Khalid, a mosque attendee at central Tripoli’s Bourguiba Mosque.

When Gadhafi seized power in a 1969 coup against King Idriss as-Sanussi, he banned alcohol and upped Islam’s profile in this majority Sunni desert country of 6 million people, double the size of France. He crushed Sufi orders, especially the Sanussiyah, a brotherhood related to deposed King Idriss as-Sanussi, which boasted social relief and civil society networks in villages and cities more extensive than the government’s.

“When Wahhabism arrived in the late '80s they started to consider us heretics and to say we'd deviated from true religion,” said a follower of the Aroosiah Sufi order who insisted on anonymity in a sign of the continuing sensitivity felt by Sufis. “The bearded ones started popping up and making pronouncements as to what is halal and what is haram which had never happened before.”

Eastern Libya’s Cyrenaica region remains a hotbed of anti-regime militancy. The Libyan government fought a successful war against Islamist militants in the 1990s and claims to have broken the back of their militias despite occasional attacks continuing. More recently, a disproportionately large amount of Libyans have fought in Iraq.

The new, grassroots Islamization is coming at a time when unprecedented levels of consumer goods are flooding into the country. Alcohol remains banned but new five-star hotels are opening in Tripoli and construction cranes mark its still-humble skyline for Dubai-scale development. Young secular Libyans entertain themselves at low-profile house parties and beach excursions where cameras are banned as they consume designer drugs, homemade alcoholic drinks and bottles of vodka smuggled in from neighboring Algeria.

Although public spaces remain fully Islamic, Moroccan, Algerian and West African prostitutes frequent disreputable parts of town and the slums of African migrant workers around the ramshackle Old City.

“There's been an increase in mosques, madrassahs and a change in perspective on the part of a generation that were sinking in drugs and indolence,” said Sheikh Khaled, a plump, bearded Quranic instructor at a kuttab. “That is why we are using television to expand the missionary call.”