Cairo, Egypt - Libya’s interior minister retracted his two-day-old resignation announcement on Tuesday amid a growing uproar over the destruction of Sufi shrines and sacred sites, punctuated by a United Nations plea for an end to such “brutal attacks.”
A wave of such desecration since the overthrow of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi has exposed raw schisms among Libyan Muslims. The vast majority of Libyans follow a mainstream form of Sunni Islam, and the country also contains significant numbers of adherents to the more mystical Sufi traditions, which include prayer and worship around shrines and graves. The former King Idris, overthrown by Colonel Qaddafi, came from a Muslim religious order, the Senussi, often considered a form of Sufism. But many other Libyan Muslims roll their eyes at the Sufis or even consider them heretics.
In addition, there are an unknown number of militant Islamists who took up arms against Colonel Qaddafi, some of whom had fought in Iraq or Afghanistan and may favor vigilante action against Sufi deviations from Muslim orthodoxy. There are also Salafis, who favor a strict and puritanical interpretation of Islam and scoff at Sufi practices. In Libya, the Salafis have generally shunned politics and even the revolt against Colonel Qaddafi — earning them some enmity from the militants as well.
It is unclear who is responsible for the destruction of graves and Sufi shrines since Colonel Qaddafi’s killing last October, but the interior minister, Fawzi Abdel Aal, sounded more or less powerless to stop the attacks as he announced his decision on Tuesday to rescind his resignation.
“If we deal with this using security we will be forced to use weapons, and these groups have huge amounts of weapons,” Mr. Abdel Aal said, apparently referring to the militants, according to news accounts of his announcement in Tripoli. “We can’t be blind to this. These groups are large in power and number in Libya. I can’t enter a losing battle, to kill people over a grave.”
“If all shrines in Libya are destroyed so we can avoid the death of one person, then that is a price we are ready to pay,” he added.
Mr. Abdel Aal made the announcement as Unesco, the cultural agency of the United Nations, issued a statement denouncing the escalating vandalism. The group specifically cited the destruction of the Islamic Center of Sheik Abdus Salam al-Asmar in Zlitan, the mosque of Sidi Sha’ab in Tripoli and the shrine of Sidi Ahmed Zaroug in Misurata. “I am deeply concerned about these brutal attacks on places of cultural and religious significance,” the Unesco director general, Irina Bokova, said in the statement. “Such acts must be halted, if Libyan society is to complete its transition to democracy.”
Reuters reported that in at least one episode, the police stood by and did nothing as militants bulldozed a shrine, and the failure of the interior minister to curb the attacks on the sites, along with other recent instances of violence, drew furious criticism from members of the recently elected National Assembly.
On Sunday, Mr. Abdel Aal had said he would resign because of the criticism, but on Tuesday he said his resignation would “further complicate security,” news accounts from Libya said.