- Associated Press - Thursday, October 13, 2011

TRIPOLI, LIBYA Islamic hard-liners have attacked about a half-dozen shrines in and around Tripoli belonging to Muslim sects whose practices they see as sacrilegious, raising religious tensions as Libya struggles to define its identity after Moammar Gadhafi’s ouster.

The vandalism has drawn concern at the highest levels as Libya’s new rulers seek to reassure the international community that extremists will not gain influence in the North African nation.

Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, head of the governing National Transitional Council, reacted with alarm to reports that graves were being desecrated and appealed to a top Muslim cleric, al-Sadek al-Gheriani, to issue a fatwa, or religious ruling, on the issue.

He also called for restraint. “I ask those destroying these mosques to stop doing that because this is not the time to do that,” Mr. Abdul-Jalil said Tuesday at a news conference. “What they did is not on the side of the revolution.”

The campaign appears to be aimed mainly at shrines revered by Sufis, a mystical order whose members often pray over the tombs of revered saints and ask for blessings or intervention to bring success, marriage or other desired outcomes.

Hard-line Sunnis deem the practice offensive because they consider worshipping over graves to be idolatry.

In one case, witnesses said dozens of armed, bearded men wearing military uniforms ransacked a Sufi shrine in Tripoli this week, burning relics and carrying away the remains of two imams, or prayer leaders, for reburial elsewhere.

The assailants arrived in pickup trucks mounted with heavy weapons and stormed the gate to the compound housing the shrine, then dug up the two imams, identified as Abdul-Rahman al-Masri and Salem Abu Seif, and took the remains to be buried in a cemetery, according to the witnesses.

Many residents in the Al-Masri neighborhood welcomed the attack, accusing worshippers at the shrine of practicing “black magic.”

Sufism is a mystical tradition in Islam. The order says its mission is to live a simple life of contemplation and prayer, but followers frequently are targeted by extremists.

Witnesses offered conflicting details, with some saying the attackers were heavily armed and came from other parts of the city and others saying it was a small group of unarmed locals.

Mr. al-Gheriani, who was a key supporter of Libya’s revolution, said in an audio recording posted Monday on his official website that he opposes the building of shrines over graves but he does not sanction their removal, particularly as fighting continues on two fronts, stalling efforts to form a new government.

“The country doesn’t have a government with authorities imposed everywhere. Security is not prevalent, it is shaky and there are too many factions,” he said, calling on groups to stop the attacks. “The time is not right. It may cause sedition … and more bloodshed.”

Stephen Schwartz, executive director of the California-based Center for Islamic Pluralism and a Sufi himself, said the act showed Islamic extremists are starting to make their move.

He said the targeting of rival mosques and cemeteries has been used throughout history as a highly symbolic way to assert control.

“It illustrates that there’s a void … and … the radicals, the fundamentalists are going to try to fill that void,” he said in a telephone interview. “They’ll go where the opportunity is, where Muslims are divided and authority is weakened.”

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