With the post-Gaddafi state weak, Libyans look to God for help
Mohamed Salem believes it was divine intervention that saved the Muslim holy site where he works from being destroyed.
In early March, word reached the keepers of the ornate shrine, the most important of its kind in Libya, that ultra-conservative Salafis were on their way to destroy it as part of a campaign to wipe out any symbols they see as idolatrous.
The curators sent for help. Volunteer militia units came from nearby towns. They surrounded the shrine complex – which houses the tomb of the 15th-century Sufi scholar Abdel Salam al-Asmar – with pick-up trucks mounted with anti-aircraft weapons, and waited to repel the attack.
Then a sandstorm, rare at that time of year, whipped up and shrouded the mosque from view. The attack never came.
“The dust was so thick and the wind so strong you couldn’t see your hand in front of you,” said Salem, a caretaker and religious teacher at the complex. “God protected the grave of this scholarly man and protected us from harm.”
Since last year’s revolt ended Muammar Gaddafi’s 42-year rule over Libya, people have grown used to looking to their own resources, or to God, to help them out, because they feel they cannot count on their government.
The struggle over this shrine in Zlitan, about 160 km (90 miles) west of the Libyan capital, is the story of Libya as it struggles to re-shape itself after Gaddafi’s rule.
It is the story of the battle for the right to define what it means to be a Muslim in Libya, of theological arguments being settled by weapons, and of an interim government that is so weak that it cannot impose its authority over opposing factions.