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Libya's Ibadi Muslims Survived Qaddafi but Now Face the New Threat of Islamic State

As a chaotic civil war between rival governments and militias has raged in Libya, the country's marginalized Ibadis have reasserted themselves in the post-Qaddafi era. But they also have some new concerns.

by KARLOS ZURUTUZA
Mar 22 2016, 6:10pm

Ramadan Azuza, jefe de asuntos religiosos en Jadu, Libia. (Imagen por Karlos Zurutuza)

Dozens of children's shoes and sneakers are seen piled at the entrance of the Islamic school in Jadu, a town in the Nafusa mountain range of northwestern Libya. Young voices reciting the Quran can be heard through the open door, as well as from a small mosque further down the road.

Though such sights and sounds are typical of Muslim countries, the scene in Libya's highlands is a big change from just a few years ago. Established in 2013, the Sheikh Ali Ganuni Islamic School is named for one of several prominent Ibadi dissidents executed during Muammar Qaddafi's rule.

Most Muslims in Libya belong to the Sunni Maliki tradition, but a small number of Ibadi Muslims also reside in the country, primarily in its western mountains. Neither Shia nor Sunni, and for the most part not even Arab, Libyan Ibadis are currently working to restore a branch of Islam that is said to have been founded before the Shia/Sunni schism, but which was largely marginalized under Qaddafi.

"Qaddafi hated us because Ibadis never recognized his authority," remarked Sheikh Ramadan Azuza, the head of religious affairs in Jadu, during a break between lessons at the school. He affirmed that his faith's view of authority and leadership is the most democratic, egalitarian, and moderate in Islam.

"For the Sunnis, leadership must come from the Arab Quraysh tribe in Mecca, while Shia follow the offspring of Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad," said Azuza. "Ibadis choose our own leaders according to their skills, and not their ethnicity or origins."

Ibadi children at the Sheikh Ali Ganuni Islamic School in Juda, a town in the Nafusa mountains.

It has never been easy for local Ibadis. Apart from adhering to an isolated branch of Islam in a country overwhelmingly dominated by the Maliki school of jurisprudence, Libyan Ibadis are mostly Amazigh, also known as Berbers.

The Amazigh are native inhabitants of North Africa, but an ethnic minority. Touareg tribes in the interior of the Sahara desert share the same ancient language. Arabic literature has in the past represented them as infidels and a contemptible class, and they have faced corresponding persecution and discrimination.

Today, unofficial estimates put the number of Amazigh in Libya at roughly 600,000, about 10 percent of the total population. Last year they elected representatives to an Amazigh Supreme Council that is meant to advocate their interests nationally.

Following Qaddafi's ouster in 2011, Ibadis steadily began reasserting their faith and establishing schools and mosques in towns like Jadu. Azuza has several duties as the town's head of religious affairs, including helping with the revision of religious textbooks.

"We tell every teacher to watch out because every now and then we come across Wahhabism between the lines of history, science, or even math books," he claimed, suggesting that countries like Saudi Arabia were responsible for inserting the messages.

Foreign meddling and Libya's deteriorating situation weigh heavily on his mind. Not long after Qaddafi was deposed and killed, warring militias affiliated with rival national governments in Tripoli and Tobruk took in control of vast chunks of the country. Amid the chaos and vacuum of authority, the Islamic State group established a branch along the northern coast of Libya, particularly around the city of Sirte.

Azuza, who previously spent time in Qaddafi's prisons, was blunt about the new threats. He pointed to Sabratha, a city that lies north of Jadu along the coast, where IS militants entered last month and beheaded 12 security officers before retreating. IS fighters are suspected of hiding out in the city, which lies about 26 miles east of Zuwara, Libya's only coastal Amazigh Ibadi enclave.

"The dangers we may have to face in the short term are even bigger than those during Qaddafi's times, and I'm not exaggerating," Azuza said. "ISIS is spreading like wildfire, and we, as non-Sunnis, are highly aware we can turn into their most immediate target."

Although IS has killed Sunnis, it singles out religious minorities for abuse. An Amnesty International report released last February denounced the killing of scores of civilians by the group, several of whom were accused of practicing "black magic." At least 49 Egyptian and Ethiopian Coptic Christians were beheaded and shot last year by the extremists, and the group's systematic rape and sexual enslavement of Yazidi girls has been widely condemned.

The old citadel in Nalut, an Amazigh Ibadi stronghold in the Nafusa mountains.

Ibadi Muslims make up less than one percent of the total Muslim population, and only form a significant majority in the state of Oman.

Other than in Libya, there are also pockets of them in the Mzab valley of Algeria, the island of Djerba in Tunisia, and on the Swahili coast, just below the Horn of Africa. It was actually there that Valerie Hoffman, professor of Islamic studies at the University of Illinois who is today one of the most authoritative specialists on Ibadi Islam, first encountered the sect.

"In 1998 a colleague asked me to make an inventory of Islamic manuscripts in Zanzibar," Hoffman recalled. "I was already a tenured professor of Islamic studies at the university, but during that stay I realized that I was running into names of notable Islamic scholars I had never heard of before."

Hoffman went on to write The Essentials of Ibadi Islam. Regarding Azuza's meritocratic claims, she said that Ibadi custom holds that leaders be chosen for their knowledge and piety without any regard to race or lineage, but noted that many of their imams were in fact elected along dynastic lines. She also stressed that many non-Arabs have assumed leadership within Sunni Islam, such as the Ottoman sultans and the Sokoto caliphate of West Africa in the 19th century.

"In theory we could say it's a rigorist and conservative vision of Islam, but in practice they have historically been very tolerant," Hoffman said.

For the time being, there's literally no Amazigh village in Nafusa that doesn't boast its own Islamic school, and there's no shortage of mosques where locals can practice their faith. In villages like Nalut, the biggest in the mountain range, one can even come across a library full of Ibadi volumes and manuscripts.

The library is named for Ali Yahya Muammar, a prominent Ibadi sheikh who died in 1980 while in prison. Four years later, his two sons were killed after they attacked Bab al-Azizya, Qaddafi's bunker residence in Tripoli, in a failed coup attempt.

Hamid Askar, a 20-year-old student at Nalut's college of law, said he visits the one-room library "two or three times a week" after classes.

"As a kid I remember my parents constantly telling me not to mention the word 'Ibadi' at school, to avoid problems with teachers," he said.

The national flag of Oman (L) is displayed alongside the Amazigh flag and the Libyan flag above a memorial poster for Jadu locals who died during the 2011 civil war that deposed Muammar Qaddafi.

Askar is studying in Nalut but he might finish his education in Oman, which is the only Muslim country in the world where Ibadism dominates. Oman offers scholarships to young Libyans like Askar. It's not strange to find the Omani flag on display alongside the Libyan and Amazigh banners in panels and murals remembering the fallen of the 2011 civil war against Qaddafi.

"Oman did help us with food and some other basic supplies during the war, but it was nothing comparable to the support rebels got from Qatar," remarked Ali Flifel, another regular visitor to the library who is also the headmaster of Libya's only Ibadi high school, where he teaches 70 students boys and girls between 15 and 20 years of age.

"We set up the school back in 2012 to cater to students who wanted to continue their studies in Islam after primary education," the 63-year old explained. Despite Libya's persistent instability and the considerable hurdles that remain, he said he was "very satisfied" with the progress and gains Ibadis have made post-Qaddafi, tenuous though they may be.

A political settlement for the country still looks nowhere near. On January 19, the United Nations announced the formation of a Presidential Council tasked with uniting Libya's warring factions and establishing a unity Government of National Accord. The new executive is still based in Tunis, however, and only began to assert its authority this past weekend when it called on "all Libyan sovereign and public institutions and the heads of financial bodies to start communicating immediately with the Government of National Accord so as to hand over power in a peaceful and orderly manner."

The new government faces opposition by hardliners in the country's two rival legislatures, and there's a possibility that foreign troops might intervene to support it. Though the nation's fate hangs in the balance, the tug of war feels remote to the Ibadi community in the mountains.

"It doesn't matter who is in power down the valley," Flifel reflected. "We are neither Arab nor Sunni, so we know we are pretty much by ourselves in Libya."

Follow Karlos Zurutuza on Twitter: @karloszurutuza

All photos by Karlos Zurutuza

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