Libya Islamists Gaining Strength: Libyans Concerned by Sectarian Violence

When a group of Islamic terrorists with links to al Qaeda assaulted the American consulate in Benghazi killing Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans, many Libyans hoped it was an aberration. But 18 months later, religious violence is growing and the emerging government seems paralyzed.

Radical Islamists have unleashed a string of attacks on foreign and Christian targets. These actions include threats, beatings, public lashings and desecration of holy sites.

In early March, a Coptic church in Benghazi was assaulted and damaged by unidentified armed men. An eyewitness reports seeing the black flag of al Qaeda raised above the church in the aftermath of the attack.

The Egyptian Foreign Ministry has called for a swift investigation into the incident, which is the third such attack on a Coptic church in recent months, according to the Egypt Independent.

Some suspect that the attack may have been retaliatory.

"The burning of the church was a response to Egyptian Copts burning the Libyan flag in Cairo and the painting of crosses on the Libyan Embassy in Cairo," Salem, a Libyan from Benghazi who is working with the National Transitional Council told The Media Line. He refused to give his last name, citing security concerns.

About the time of that attack, two Coptic Christians told the Associated Press that they -- along with dozens of others -- had been abducted by a militia and taken to a detention center in east Libya. There, they claim, they were tortured, threatened with death and forced to make statements insulting Coptic figures.

The men were accused of evangelism, which is illegal in Libya. In early March, Libya attempted to deport 50 Egyptians for printing books encouraging conversion to Christianity. The Egyptian Foreign Ministry intervened successfully on their behalf.

Persecution has extended, as well, to the Sufi community, which some Muslims consider to be heretical. Last year, several Sufi shrines were desecrated or destroyed by Islamic militias. The Libyan government was accused of being complicit, and the resulting uproar almost led to the resignation of the Interior Minister, Fawzi Abdel Aal.

Most scholars say religious persecution is condemned by the Quran and Islamic tradition.

“Muhammad considered Christians and Jews possessors of divine revelations -- ahl al-kitaab, “people of the Book,” or dhimmis -- entitled to protection in return for submission and tribute," Najib Saliba, a Middle East Studies professor at Worcester State College wrote in an article entitled "Christians and Jews Under Islam."

"Accordingly, Muhammad established and recognized treaties with both Christians and Jews assuring them peace, and tolerance to freely work, trade and worship in the same community of Muslims."

The persecution continues, however, and affects Muslims as well.

Last week, a video was uploaded to YouTube depicting the public lashing of a group of men in Sirte. In the video, bearded men take turns tying the men to a tree and whipping them for over 15 minutes each. The men were accused of violating sharia, or traditional Islamic law.

Though unidentified in the video, the men responsible for the lashing are reported by al-Arabiya to be members of Ansar al-Sharia ("Partisans of Islamic Law"), a militant Islamic group that has also claimed responsibility for the assault on the American consulate.

Women are particularly threatened by the fundamentalist interpretation of sharia that these militants seek to enforce.

Aicha al-Magrabi, a poet and university lecturer, was recently stopped by a militia as she rode home from work in Tripoli. The men beat her male driver and threatened to punish al-Magrabi for “being alone in a car with men without a male relative as a guardian.”

Radicalism has been growing in Libya since the early days of the revolution, back in February 2011. Throughout the year, Islamic militants were sighted in several cities throughout the country, fighting alongside their secular counterparts to overthrow Muammar Qadhafi. Now, militias -- both secular and Islamic -- compete for power in the weak state.

With this history in mind, some see recent events in Libya as the natural consequences of a combination of instability, a power vacuum and an influx of jihadist militants.

“Secular regimes, such as the one that existed under Qaddafi, kept Islamist sentiment in check," Barak Barfi, a research fellow at the New America Foundation, told The Media Line. "The collapse of his government, in addition to nonexistent security, has allowed such groups to flourish. With no pervasive intelligence services to persecute them, they are today able to establish virtual states within a state.”

Despite reports of al Qaeda sightings and Islamic fundamentalist activity throughout the past two years, the Libyan National Transitional Council denied the presence of terrorism in Libya until the Sept. 11 attack on the American consulate. This hesitancy to act may have given the militias and religious groups time to establish a foothold in the fledgling government.

“These militias could take matters into their own hands at any point. Some of them are loyal to certain politicians and political groups, and can be mobilized on their orders. There are al Qaida [members] in the General National Congress (GNC)," an anonymous source close to the Libyan GNC told The Media Line. The source asked not to be named due to security concerns.