By Kouichi Shirayanagi for LIBERTY Blog
Journalist Kouichi Shirayanagi investigates the alarming wave of attacks directed at North Africa’s historic Sufi shrines in the wake of Arab Spring.
Since the start of upheavals across the Middle East and North Africa, a question on the minds of many outside observers has been: will these changes bring out governments that will promote a culture of greater tolerance for religious minorities? Many wonder if they are in any danger due to the turmoil facing the region.
Sufism is a branch of Islam defined by the veneration of great spiritual teachers who throughout history have provided their followers with deeper meaning and understanding of the teachings of the Prophet Mohammed. Sufi orders, or groups of Muslims who respect the teachings of a particular Sufi teacher are spread throughout the Muslim world. They vary in size. The mausoleums of Sufi leaders serve as shrines where followers go to commemorate their deceased leaders on occasions known as mawlid. On these occasions food, tea and other items are often collected and given to all, especially the poor. Rituals involving songs, poetry recitation and prayers usually define a festive mawlid atmosphere. Some of the most beautiful and well-known music and poetry in many Muslim countries have a basis in mawlid celebrations.
In particular, legendary Sufi leaders or awliya are known to have performed miracles achieve sainthood. Many cities and towns are named after revered Sufi saints across the Middle East, North Africa and East Asia. While local Sufi traditions represent minority groups within Islam, there are also opponents to Sufism who believe that the traditions are un-Islamic and a form of polytheism, which is prohibited in Islam. A few fundamentalist opponents look at Sufi practices with great disdain and are known to attack Sufi shrines when the moment arises. In recent months across North Africa, Sufi shrines have been attacked in large numbers sometimes by religious fundamentalists i.e. Salafists and other times by restless youth looking to cause trouble.
In Egypt, at least 25 Sufi shrines have been attacked or ransacked since the end of President Hosni Mubarak’s regime. There were reports of Sufi Shrines attacked by Salafis within weeks of the revolution, notably in March 2011, when five shrines were completely demolished in the town of Qualiub. In June 2012, a group of men bombed the Sheikh Zuwayed Mausoleum near the Egypt-Gaza Strip border in the town of Rafah. The attack, which was the third since the Egyptian revolution, completely destroyed the shrine honoring a Sufi teacher who came to Egypt during the times of Islamic conquest.
In Libya, the country’s Minister of Interior Fawzi Abdelali, resigned in August 2012 after he was criticized by the newly elected Libyan Congress for failing to stop two attacks on Sufi shrines, which occurred two days in a row and drew the attention of UNESCO. In the same month, a shrine dedicated to Sheikh Abdel Salam al-Asmar, a 15th century miracle worker who is said to have later taken up arms to protect his native city was bulldozed and attacked with hand-made bombs in Zlitan. A local Sufi university professor Makki Ali told Reuters in the aftermath of the attacks that local Sufis feared for their lives: “As Sufis we are scared they will begin a witch-hunt and attack us in our homes if the government doesn’t take control of security”.
One day later in Tripoli, Libyan policemen stood by as men bulldozed the Sha’ab Mosque. The mosque contained nearly 50 Sufi graves and the tomb of the revered scholar Abdullah Al-Sha’ab Al Dahmani. Abdelali’s rationale for being unable to protect the shrines was that those destroying them were heavily armed and he wanted to avoid as much bloodshed as possible: “If all shrines in Libya are destroyed so we can avoid the death of one person, then that is a price we are ready to pay”.
About a week later, three people were killed and several others wounded in the Libyan town of Rajma, 50km southeast of Benghazi after Salafis made an attempt to destroy the tomb of the Sufi Saint Sidi al-Lafi, but local residents stopped them.
The reluctance of Abdelali to take on those attacking Sufi shrines not only caused a significant loss to Libyan heritage, but also signaled to the country’s Salafis that they could launch more audacious attacks.
Tunisia was the first country to experience a change in government with the popular overthrow of the repressive dictator Zine El Abedine Ben Ali in January 2011. The basis for the moderate and tolerant image projected by Tunisia over the years was due to the existence of hundreds of Sufi shrines and orders scattered throughout the country. The town where the Tunisian uprising began Sidi Bou Zid, is named after a venerated Sufi saint.
However, in late January 2013 local Sufi officials claimed that in the two years since the Tunisian revolution, over 40 shrines have been attacked. The rash of attacks caused the Ministry of Culture to issue a statement saying a specialized unit would be set up within the Tunisian National Heritage Institute entrusted with the protection of historical and heritage sites.
Assaults against shrines in Tunisia included an arson attack on the famous mausoleum of the 13th century Saint Abu Said Ibn Khalif ibn Yahiya Ettamini el Beji. The town named after the saint is a UNESCO World Heritage site known to many tourists for its picturesque views of the Mediterranean, white walls, blue doors and purple bougainvillea. The final resting place of Abu Said has been a pilgrimage site for his followers since his death in 1231. As news of the attack got out, hundreds came to protest, while Tunisia’s President Moncef Marzouki and Minister of Interior Ali Larayedth paid visits to the site.
Other attacks in Tunisia include the bulldozing of the Sidi Yacoub shrine in Gabes in May 2012, the burning of the shrine of Manubia in the Tunis suburb of Manouba last October, and the burning of the Sidi Ahmed Ouerfelli in Sousse in January 2013, one day before the Tunisian celebration of the Prophet Mohammed’s birthday.The shrine of Manubia is particularly popular with Tunisian women, as it is dedicated to a 13th century woman who was said to have been able to work miracles such as bringing a bull to life after having given its meat to the poor and putting its skeleton back together.
Such was the raft of attacks on Sufi shrines in Tunisia that the US State Department issued a statement calling on the Tunisian government to implement plans to protect its Sufi heritage. “We urge the government of Tunisia to implement its own proposed action plan to improve the protection of all of Tunisia’s important and diverse religious and historical sites,” State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a statement.
The changes in governments across North Africa have been hailed as a golden opportunity for the people of the region to positively change their societies. However, now, more than ever, traditions belonging to Islamic minorities are under attack. Governments suffering from instability following upheavals must soon realize that protecting the freedom of their religious minorities protects everyone’s religious freedom. If they do not act quickly to protect their heritage sites, it will not just be the actual sites that are lost, but the liberty of all.
Kouichi Shirayanagi lived in Tunisia for more than a year and a half before and after the Tunisian uprising studying Arabic, traveling the country, making friends, editing and writing for www.tunisialive.net. He is now the Communications Director for JIMENA: Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa a San Francisco based organization dedicated to telling the story of the nearly one million Jews who left their native countries in the Middle East and North Africa in the second half of the 20th Century.