By Dr Ismail Suayah
North Carolina, USA, September, 2012:
My wife is my favorite companion, and we do many things together, but one thing she . . .[restrict]refuses to do with me is watch action films, because images of violence and senseless destruction fill her with despair. The other night I showed her two pictures of the mosque and zawiya (Sufi school) of the revered Sufi Muslim scholar-teacher, Sheikh Abdussalam Al-Asmar, in Zlitan. In the first, taken last spring, our eleven-year-old daughter, Aliya, stood in front of the mosque, its glistening emerald dome shimmering in the clear blue Libyan sky over her head. The second photo, taken after the shrine’s destruction, showed a gaping hole where the dome used to be. My wife turned her head away. “I cannot bear to see that,” she said before she stood and walked away. That gaping hole, she told me later, haunted her for days.
Usually she is far more sensitive than I to violent images, but the destruction of the mosque affected me the same way. Just last May, we pulled our daughter Aliya from school so she could see a free Libya for the first time. Aliya had found her own way to support the Libyan revolution, making and selling hand crafts in her spare time to raise funds for those displaced by the fighting. One day in Libya, so she could see the war’s impact, I took her to see the destruction in Misrata. On our way back towards Tripoli, I planned to stop in Zlitan to show her the sites of Sheikh Abdussalam Al-Asmar. Our visit to the shrine would be an uplifting end to a difficult day of witnessing the widespread destruction in Misrata.
I had vivid, tender memories of visiting that shrine as a child. Frequent nose bleeds often woke me from my sleep when I was young, and my blood-drenched pillow terrified my poor, illiterate parents who had already lost four children to preventable diseases. Their only recourse was to visit the revered sheikh’s shrine to make a desperate plea to God to restore my health. I vividly recall sitting in that shrine between my mother and blind grandmother as they prayed, the melodic voice of my mother reciting the Koran and that of my grandmother making dua (prayers of supplication) asking the divine (Allah, azza wajal) to stop the bleeding and lift my burdens.
When my daughter and I arrived at the sheikh’s mosque, we were disappointed to discover the shrine sealed shut for fear of looting and desecration by extremists. The notion that this peaceful shrine was threatened was so unsettling to me that I rushed my daughter out of Zlitan. As we drove away, I wondered how any Muslim could argue that God was not in that space where I had sat between my blind grandmother and my mother listening to their fervent prayers to God.
I abhor stereotypes; groups of human beings are never homogeneous. I am not here to cast all Salafis as extremists, but those who destroy Libya’s heritage are fanatics. In their arrogance and delusion they have oppressed people who have already endured decades of brutal oppression. Where in Koran or Hadith do they find justification for destroying centuries-old mosques and desecrate graves of Muslim scholars? What right do they have to burn a 500-year collection of scholarly Sufi Islamic work – not to mention a heritage of our nation? Hasn’t Qaddafi burned enough books in Libya?
Libya does not belong to the Salafis. My ancestors lived in Libya long before the Salafi movement came to North Africa. Libyan Salafis have no creed from God or referendum from the Libyan majority to impose their ruling on the fate of my country’s heritage. Nor can they claim sole ownership of the faith which Libya’s majority practice. Why do most Libyans and Muslims around the world remain silent when the Salafi extremists attack holy sites? Islam teaches us to honor and respect the dead and pray for them, not desecrate their graves. Our faith is that of peace and justice, not violence and destruction. Let’s remind ourselves that our God is most merciful and compassionate.
The first sign of what was to come appeared in October 2011 when Salafis attacked and vandalized about a half-dozen Sufi shrines in and around Tripoli, including two shrines in my home town Janzour. The desecration of Christian graves belonging to British and Australian WWII soldiers in early 2012 was the second sign. But the wave of desecration (some happened in broad day light) of sacred historical sites that stretched from Misrata to Tripoli after Ramadan is our most alarming sign of what the future holds if we allow Salafis to dictate the terms of life in Libya. Today, they are more heavily armed and organised than ever – poised to indoctrinate Libya’s innocent, frustrated youth and take advantage of Libya’s fragile state. If the perpetrators and enablers of these heinous acts are not held accountable now, their zeal will only worsen. What will happen when they decide to oppress the Libyan women? Will we allow them to determine the fate of Libyan Jews should they be granted their right of return to Libya? Oil alone cannot sustain Libya; what will happen if the Salafis drive away tourism?
While they are predominantly Sunni Muslims, Libyans are as diverse as any group, and not just in their Islamic practice (madhab/tariqa). The Libyan society is racially, ethnically, culturally and economically diverse. This diversity should play to our strength, not to our weakness. The Libyan people sacrificed so much in order to be free from fear and oppression, so let’s not succumb to either. Let’s object to those who intend to divide us and do so peacefully, in accord with our Islamic values. Let’s unite behind the leaders we have democratically chosen. Let’s have a constitution that embraces our diversity. Let’s create the peaceful, just and prosperous future that Libya’s young people deserve.
Dr Suayah is a former geo-marine scientist, currently working in the software industry. He lives in the United States in the state of North Carolina with his wife and two children. [/restrict]