Destroying Libya’s Heritage

Most Libyans know who AbdelSalam Al-Asmar is. A renowned Islamic sheikh and warrior of the 15th century, he was buried in a mausoleum built to memorialize him in the city of Zliten. Yesterday that shrine was demolished.

After the revolution, the more extreme Islamic ideologies that were suppressed under the old regime began to manifest once more. The graves of WWII soldiers were attacked, billboards depicting humans were defaced, news spread of the re-emergence of the Salafia, the fundamentalists.

The shrines in Libya are the destination of many pilgrims, who believe that paying respect to the resting place of these holy men will bring them good fortune. They can be found across the country, from Derna to Zliten to Tripoli. Some people go as far as praying to these graves. But polytheism, associating others with God, is considered the worst sin in Islam.

So these Salafis have been going around digging up the graves and hiding the bodies of these men, taking it upon themselves to stop the worshipers from transgressing. Yesterday, they burned and demolished one of the most important shrines in all of Libya. Today, it continues, with the destruction of mosques that contain graves in Tripoli.

The head of the General National Congress tweeted that the attack on mosques and shrines is unforgivable and those responsible will be held accountable. But so far the government is powerless to stop them.

Opinions have ranged widely, from approval to stark outrage. Those who agree believe that it’s an Islamic obligation to stop people from committing this sin. Those against say this is an attack on Libya’s history.

As a Muslim, a citizen and an architect, I can’t even express how angry I am. Gadhafi committed a similar atrocity in Benghazi many years ago when he destroyed the shrine of Omar Mukhtar, and again during the revolution when he dug up the graves of murdered protesters to hide their bodies. Why would we accept it now, because it’s supposedly done in the name of Islam?

I don’t believe that demolishing mosques and shrines will change the mentality of the people who worship there. Violent acts of aggression rarely make people see the light of way. I also fear that, unheeded, this wanton destruction will lead to a slippery slope, and our UNESCO heritage sites in Sabrata, Leptis Magna, Shahat, etc. will be targeted next.

Libya’s heritage is valuable, it’s something we’re proud of. The blatant lack of respect for the law and order of the country is another worrying aspect. These people have no authority to destroy public property.

The GNC will hold a session soon to review the current situation. More to follow.

Update: 

The GNC held a meeting to discuss the situation, and the actions were publicly condemned by the head of the GNC Mohammed Magariaf, and there’s been discussion about reviewing the Interior and Defense Ministry in light of the recent events. Because of this, the Interior Minister resigned.

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