Battlelines drawn for fight over Libyan Islam

Wed Nov 30, 2011 10:41am EST
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By Christian Lowe

TRIPOLI (Reuters) - When night falls on the street outside Tripoli's Abdullah Eshaab mosque, theological discussions often break out. Lately, they have taken place at the point of a gun.

On three occasions this month, groups of ultra-purist Islamists have turned up at the mosque gates after dark, armed with Kalashnikov rifles, 106-mm anti-tank cannon and truck-mounted Grad rockets, according to a cleric at the mosque.

They want to demolish the tomb, inside the mosque, of Suleiman Al-Feituri, a 12th-century holy man, because they consider such tombs as idolatry.

Facing off against them are the mosque's own, more moderate worshippers backed up by a militia unit armed with automatic weapons and two pickup trucks with anti-aircraft guns mounted on the back.

"So far we've been trying to negotiate with them but if it does not work we will use force," said Omar Hajaj, a 30-year-old businessman who is also assistant to the cleric in charge of the mosque.

"They are a bunch of extremists who do not want this country to settle down," he said, as the mosque's security detail stood outside with the safety catch off on their weapons. "We warn everyone of the danger of these people."

Freed from Muammar Gaddafi's repressive 42-year rule, Libyans are now considering what kind of Islam they want and how big a role it should play in their everyday lives.

The process has turned into a contest between mainstream Muslims, on the one hand, and on the other, Islamists who follow a stricter interpretation of the faith and believe it should inform society's rules and government policy.   Continued...

<p>A view of the empty tomb of Muslim holy man Sidi Ali Zaghwani in Tripoli's Janzour neighbourhood is pictured November 29, 2011. REUTERS/Ismail Zitouny</p>