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.

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.”


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