Despite the ongoing summer power cuts and the escalating COVID-19 pandemic, the ultra-conservative Madkhali Salafist groups have maintained and even expanded their campaign against Sufi believers and their holy sites in those areas of eastern Libya under the control of the self-styled Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF).
In recent weeks, news and videos of a self-styled ‘Anti-Magic and Sorcery Unit’ — which is part of the eastern Libyan parallel government’s security apparatus — carrying out raids and arrests of Sufis have been prominent on social media. Last week, the east’s Supreme Fatwa Committee issued a fatwa ordering the killing of these ‘magicians’ with a sword. This apparent condoning of extra-judicial killings sparked widespread controversy which prompted the east’s Minister of Interior Ibrahim Boushnaf to stress the need to treat the accused in accordance with the rule of law. Nevertheless, the Madkhali armed groups which are affiliated with the ministry continue to raid and arrest alleged Sufis and destroy Sufi shrines.
The Madkhali campaign is not limited to the east and they have also appeared in western Libya. They are, however, a more formidable presence in the ranks of the LAAF-affiliated militias. The appearance of Madkhali sheikhs operating side-by-side with LAAF security officers suggests that, as the ongoing conflict has receded, their militias may be seeking a greater role in the security sector. But the Madkhali efforts to root out ‘magic’ — instead of focusing on more important issues such as smuggling, drug trafficking and other criminal activity — has also angered many Libyans.
These followers of the Saudi Arabian scholar Rabee al-Madkhali — who are socially ultra-conservative but, unlike the Muslim Brotherhood and other political Islamists, are quietists who are prepared to support their rulers — have played a prominent role since the early days of the post-Qadhafi transition. They are known, among other things, for the destruction of local Sufi shrines and tombs, and the violent closure of hairdressing salons, and all music shops and events.