The Libyan Standard of Resistance
4:01 PM, Mar 30, 2011 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
But there is more to the history of Libya, its pre-Qaddafi ruler, and his regalia. King Idris was head of a Sufi order, the Senussiyya, that distinguished itself in fighting the Italians who ruled over his country from 1911 to 1947, including Mussolini’s fascists. (As Bernard Lewis has correctly pointed out, Sufis are peaceful but not pacifist.) King Idris was forced into exile, whence he continued leading the anti-Italian war. During World War II, Idris summoned his Sufi adherents to join the Allies against Germany and Italy, and with the 1942 capture of Benghazi by the British Eighth Army, he set up a capital there. The regular Allied troops in Benghazi were multinational, including soldiers from the British homeland, the colonies, and “free forces” of Poland, France, and Greece, anticipating the composition of the current anti-Qaddafi coalition. And the Sufis fought alongside them.
The black stripe and crescent-and-star in the center of the pre-1969 Libyan monarchist flag represent the Senussi Sufi order. King Idris’s realm was described in a 1993 academic volume, Polity and Society in Contemporary North Africa, edited by I. William Zartman and William Mark Habeeb, as “a state crowned by a pious Sufi sheikh,” in which Islamic clerics were submitted to state control. Idris’s father, Sheikh Ahmad Sherif Al-Senussi, supported the secularization of Turkey, the country where he gained shelter in 1918. When Qaddafi took power, he wiped out the Senussi Sufi centers, although it is estimated today that a plurality of Muslims in Eastern Libya have remained loyal to them.
The Senussi monarchist tradition should be of interest in gauging Libya’s future for another reason. In addition to state limitation on the powers of Islamic clerics (ulema), the Senussis originate in an earlier Sufi order, the Idrisiyya, that, at the close of the 18th century, sent North African representatives to Arabia, where the radical Wahhabi sect had lately taken root, to oppose Wahhabi fundamentalism and support modernization of Islam by removing the legal power of the shariah schools.
Secularist, opposed to clericalism and shariah dominance, anti-Wahhabi, anti-fascist, and friends of the Allies in World War II: the flag of the Libyan insurgents, if it is more than a flag of convenience, should give heart to outsiders that there is a worthy pre-Qaddafi heritage in Libya, if only the Libyan rebels can reconnect with it.