Just this weekend in Libya -- now freshly liberated from Moammar Gadhafi, his body perforce treated roughly -- ancient and venerated shrines of the majority Sufi persuasion were destroyed. In Tripoli at the crack of dawn on Saturday, the centuries-old Sidi Al-Sha'ab shrine was flattened by bulldozers. Two separate government security forces idly stood by. The day before in the city of Zlitan, Libya's most revered Sufi mosque was vandalized, and an adjoining library had its priceless collection of theological treatises torched. The attackers were fellow Libyans. No Westerner was in sight.
The leader of Libya's new congress, Mohamed al-Magariaf, condemned the violence and sought answers from the heads of the interior and defense ministries as to why their forces did not intervene. In fact, they seemed complicit in the destruction. Now the interior Minister Fawazi Abdel A'al has resigned in a huff, and other newly elected members of the congress, which is pretty liberal by Arab standards, have compared the weekend's destruction to the destruction of Afghanistan's great statues of Buddha by the Taliban.
The whole controversy thrusts into question how stable the government is. A coalition of mostly liberals won heavily in elections held earlier this summer, but they have yet to name a cabinet. The religious parties that did not do well in the elections may be ready to make a move on the government.
Yet why do the religious parties tolerate the desecration of sacred places like mosques and libraries containing holy treatises? Supposedly the desecrators were from the Salafi school of Islam. Most Libyans follow Sufi teachings. The Salafi derive their strength form the Arab Gulf countries. All of northern Africa is generally Sufi. Is this a power struggle by members of Islam from outside the region, aided by the Libyan ministries of the interior and defense? Do power struggles in holy Islam involve destroying each other's places of worship? The Sidi Al-Sha'ab mosque was centuries old and is unlikely to be restored. It looks to me from the pictures that it was reduced to rubble.
The problem with Islam as I see it is that it has never reformed itself to accord with the modern world. Of all the great religions, it looks not to the future but to the past. Its impulse comes not from reformers looking to a future living in comity with Westerners. Its impulse comes from fundamentalists looking backwards to centuries long gone, and the fundamentalists want to impose their vision of the world on all civilizations.
If there are modernizers in Islam, they do not speak up. They do not even protect their ancient mosques. While the fundamentalists blow things up and savagely slaughter people for failing to observe one or another of their arcane rules and regulations, the voices of modernity hunker down, if they even exist. When will the voices of modernity speak up?