Hundreds of Libyans took to social media recently to express their anger and disappointment at the latest decision by the country’s General Authority for Awqaf and Islamic Affairs (GAAIA) to create what it calls “Guardians of Virtue”, supposedly to guard Islamic virtue in the Muslim society. GAAIA’s chairman, Mohammed Al-Abani signed, 25 May, decree no 436/2023 launching what the Authority describes as an “awareness program” to, generally, protect and guard Islamic virtues and values in the already moderately-conservative Muslim country. Opponents compare the “program” to secret police aiming at “policing minds of people” said Khalil Al-Hassi, anti-corruption activist and journalist.
How the “program” will be run and what legal and constitutional legitimacy the Authority has to police Islam in the country is a source of controversy. Many critics fear the new power GAAIA is gaining is illegal and unconstitutional because such issues are outside its scope of work.
However, GAAIA and its many followers defended the idea of creating “guardians of virtue” by pointing to allegations of many Libyans converting to Christianity. They claim that many “foreign” civil society organisations, disguised as aid agencies, are operating in the country with little to no proper government control. They accuse them of helping many young Libyans convert to Christianity.
They point to Libya’s Internal Security Agency’s crackdown, earlier this year, on such organisations which led to the detention of an unknown number of Libyans accused of abandoning Islam for Christianity, or becoming atheists. Among the detainees were two American citizens who claim to teach English in private schools, but the security agency accused them of proselytising and helping many Libyan become Christians. Both were deported, while the Libyans remained in detention awaiting trial. Proselytising in Libya is a serious crime and could be punishable by the death penalty. Last March, Amnesty International called on the Libyan government in Tripoli to stop what it called “persecution of young Libyans by militiamen and security agents under the guise of protecting “Libyan and Islamic values”.
However, more liberal Libyans accuse GAAIA of being an extremist organisation controlled by religious radicals, including its chairman Mr. Al-Abani. In its 2021 report, the National Audit Bureau accused the Authority of serious financial misconduct and its head of misuse of public funds. They also fear that such a wide range of powers given to the Authority erodes freedoms and threatens civil society, driving the country to become more “conservative and even radical”, said Mohssen, a law student in Tripoli, who does not want to publish his family name.
Beneath the surface, the story is about conflict between different religious teachings flourishing in the country. For example, Eid Al-Fitar, last April, was celebrated on two different days in the country – something that never happened in Libya throughout its history. The country’s Fatwa House announced that Eid would be on Saturday, 22 April, while GAAIA said it was on the day before. Different parts and cities in Libya observed Eid on different days. Both institutions are, supposedly, part of the Tripoli-based Government of National Unity, led by Prime Minister, Abdulhamid Dbeibah. This unprecedented event in Libya, many believe, is kind of spreading more divisions in the already divided country with two governments, one recognised by the United Nations in Tripoli, while another unrecognised one in the East.
GAAIA believes the threat to Islam in the country is very serious and should be tackled before it becomes a serious “deviation in faith”, difficult to treat, said Yahia Ben Halim, one of the leaders of the “guardians of virtue” program. Speaking at a recent TV talk show, Mr. Ben Halim rejected the idea that there is any “fighting” among different religious groups in the country. He said they were not policing people’s beliefs but “we are the guardians of virtue, as God has commanded us to speak kindly”. At the same talk show, Wanis Mabrouk, member of the Association of Muslim Scholars in Libya, accused GAAIA of “violating” international law. He also questioned the legal grounds of “the program”, which he accused of “sowing” hate in the country.
Political division is, certainly, part of the story but the reality lies in the conflict raging beneath the surface between different interpretations of Islam in a usually harmonious country, with no different regional beliefs and very little ethnic diversity, that never was an issue before.
While the legal and constitutional debate goes on about what GAAIA can and cannot do, the ambiguity of “the program” and how it will be implemented raises further problems for the country and the entity behind it – GAAIA, in this case.
Undoubtedly, Libya is witnessing fundamental changes that run deep into the society and its way of life ever since 2011, when NATO supported rebels toppled the late leader, Muammer Gaddafi. Milad Abdelsalam, a sociologist in Benghazi, thinks what happened then was a “political and social tsunami” and, after such violent “shake ups, nothing stays the same”, he added.
Before 2011, interpretation of Islamic teachings was not an issue nor a reason for division but, since then, the country has seen a growing number of fanatic groups preaching their own, usually extreme, version of Islam, completely foreign to Libya throughout its history. In 2015, for example, Daesh took over Sirte in the middle of the country, imposing its harsh, supposedly Islamic Sharia on the population before it was expelled in 2016, while Al-Qaeda is still suspected to have sleeper cells in the virtually ungoverned southern region. A few days ago, a court in Misrata, western Libya, sentenced 23 Daesh members to death, while many more are still awaiting trial. Between 2012 and 2017, in Eastern Libya, particularly Benghazi, Ansar Al-Shariah group almost completely controlled the region and took years to be defeated by General Haftar’s army.
The battle for Libya’s soul is not over yet and Islam is certainly part of it, when it should not be, actually. Greedy politicians will always use Islam for their own political gains, at the expense of the wider society. However, Islam in its moderate interpretation will always be dominant among Libyans.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.