Libyan gunmen broke into the Saif al-Nasr mosque in Tripoli early on Nov. 8, smashed open a wooden sarcophagus and removed the remains of Saif al-Nasr, a scholar who died 155 years ago, and a former imam, Hammad Zwai.
“These bodies have been moved to a Muslim cemetery,” announced graffiti on the walls, explaining the disapproval by some Islamists of the Sufi Muslim tradition of burying scholars and teachers in mosques to honor them.
Muslims pushing for a strict intepretation of Islamic law are jostling for power in the chaos that has gripped Libya since the ouster of Muammar Qaddafi, the third North African leader after those in Egypt and Tunisia to fall in the Arab Spring.
Last month protesters holding signs proclaiming “We Are Here to Purify the Honor of Tripoli” forced the early closure of the capital’s first fashion show since Qaddafi’s 42-year rule in Tripoli ended in August.
“I was scared; I wiped off my makeup and went home,” said Jasmin Abdul Aziz, a 22-year-old student who was one of five models at the event and once paraded a $5,000 dress studded with diamonds in a Qaddafi-era fashion show. “Before, we would wear shorts in the streets. Now, look around you, nobody does.”
The man responsible for maintaining security in the city is Abdel Hakim Belhaj, the head of the Tripoli Military Council and former Guantanamo Bay inmate. The council doesn’t regard the mosque break-ins as a crime and is awaiting the formation of a religious council to rule on the matter, according to his deputy, Mohammed Goaider.
“It is not a crime, but it is not the right time for the bodies to be removed,” Goaider said in an interview. If the religious council issues a fatwa, an Islamic religious edict, demanding the removal of the bodies, security units will do the work, he said.
Belhaj was the leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which opposed Qaddafi in the 1990s and is listed by the U.S. as a terrorist organization. After joining the Taliban in Aghanistan after the Sept. 11 attacks, he was captured and held by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency in 2004 before being sent to Libya, where he spent seven years in a prison until his release last year.
“We are 99 percent Muslim,” said Emhemmed Ghula of the February 17th Coalition, a prominent political group that supports Belhaj. “Our country is a conservative country.”
Tripoli is still controlled by a patchwork of militias, with the National Transitional Council unable to impose its authority over regional military bodies such as the Tripoli Military Council.
“These are all troubling signs for all those who wanted a secular Libya,” Shashank Joshi, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London, said in a phone interview. “Libya is a conservative country, so some amount of that is to be expected, but desecrating graves and closing down fashion shows encroaches on freedoms.”
The NTC says a new constitution, which will be drafted by a panel elected by June, must have Islamic law, or Sharia, as its “principal” source.
Acting Prime Minister Abdurrahim El-Keib is due to present his Cabinet on Nov. 20 to the NTC. Among the groups vying for posts are the Freedom, Justice and Development party, which says it is modelled on the moderate Islamic AKP party that has governed Turkey since November 2002, and the National Front for the Salvation of Libya, which says it is secular.
“The civil state that we yearn for, there is no conflict with that and Sharia as the source of legislation,” NTC spokesman Abdel Hafez Ghoga told reporters on Nov. 15.
How Sharia will be interpreted remains uncertain until the constitution is drafted, and in the meantime tensions between secular and Islamist groups are surfacing in all spheres.
“We are still in the midst of Libya thrashing out its new institutions,” Joshi said. “There will be a long period of instability in which these things will continue. As long as it can remain peaceful, it’s OK.”
At a five-day conference being held in Tripoli’s Radisson Blu Al Mahary Hotel, women’s groups from across the country voiced fears about their rights.
“If they apply Sharia, everything will be good. It is a system to organize society,” Aya Blaou, a Tripoli medical student, said in an interview. “What I am afraid about is that Sharia rules are used against us.”
Belhaj’s supporters insist that Islam must be respected, and say that they support democracy.
“Belhaj wields power on the streets, but he also feels marginalized by the NTC,” Joshi said. “Even if the NTC doesn’t control the streets of Tripoli, they are still in charge. He wants to be part of that.”
The Tripoli Council, the city’s civilian administration, opposes the vandalism at the mosques, according to council leader Abdulrezaq Abuhjaar. Yet it’s powerless to act because it doesn’t control security forces, he said.
“We are not happy about this, it is not right,” Abuhjaar said in an interview. “Disturbing the dead is harming the living. It is a crime that the law punishes.”
Sufi militiamen are now guarding the remaining mosques in Tripoli, including the Sha’b Mosque, home to the body of a revered scholar, Abdul Sahfi, which is interred in a large stone sarcophagus.
Threat of Violence
“Those who break these stones, they are following al- Qaeda,” said Mohammed Abdulla, one of several armed uniformed fighters guarding the mosque. “We will not let them in.”
Women in Tripoli are feeling the heaviest burden to conform. They have been under pressure to dress conservatively since Qaddafi’s downfall, Abdul Aziz said.
She blamed Belhaj and his insistence on a strict interpretation of Islam, and warned that violence may break out if he continued the policy.
“The young people will not allow it,” she said. “We have to have a new revolution.”