In nearly all the Arab revolutions in North Africa and the jihadist offensives that followed them, incursions against Sufi shrines have preceded the onset of wide-scale radical aggression. As they initiate their invasive strategies, terrorists linked to al Qaeda and inspired by Saudi-financed Wahhabism (alias “Salafism”) start by targeting the spiritual Sufis and their ancient tombs and monuments for murder and destruction. This devastation has several motives.
First, assaults on the Sufis, an introspective tradition in Islam proscribed by extreme fundamentalists, are the most efficient way of announcing to conventional Muslims the arrival of a narrow, rigid, and totalitarian style of observance allowing no variation in religious practice from that dictated by the new overlords.
Second, the terrorists condemn the habits found among most (though not all) Sufis, embodying mutual respect for the other religions and their particular esoteric doctrines—especially Christianity, but also Buddhism and others.
Third, as adherents to peaceful dialogue and human coexistence, the great majority of Sufis are seen by the extremists as ineffective in defending themselves.
Finally, the radicals see Sufi maintenance of tombs and devotions to Muslim saints as violations of Islamic monotheism.
Egypt and Libya—historic centers of Sufi activity—saw outbreaks against Sufis simultaneously with, or immediately after, the end of the former dictatorship in each country. Wahhabi mobs invaded Sufi installations in Alexandria, Egypt, Tripoli, Libya, and Tunisia and Morocco. The places marked for demolition were long-established, locally-beloved sites. None of these attacks had to do with the overthrow of the previous rulers; they were motivated instead by fanatical hatred of the Sufis.
In Mali, a center of moderate Islam for centuries, the annihilation of the region’s ancient Sufi heritage has continued even as terrorists fight against disrupted national authorities, intervening French military forces, unruly Tuareg separatists, and each other. At the end of last year, Abou Dardar, speaking for the al Qaeda-aligned Ansar Dine (Volunteers of Faith) announced, as reported by BBC News, that “not a single mausoleum” would remain intact in Timbuktu. Four structures were leveled in a single day, with pickaxes used to wreck mud-brick buildings. In addition, Dardar promised a search for “hidden mausoleums” in the area, which would be obliterated.
Such nihilistic rage is not limited to Sufi and other Muslim cultural legacies deemed offensive to the fundamentalists. In November 2012, an Egyptian cleric, Murgan Salem al-Gohary, called on Muslims to flatten the Pyramids and the Sphinx, in imitation of the Taliban's 2001 artillery bombing and dynamiting of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan. Members of the Egyptian Al Nour or “Party of the Light” appealed for a less drastic option: covering the statues of the pharaohs from public view. As in their opposition to honoring Sufi saints, the radicals argue that ancient effigies may encourage prayer to multiple deities and idolatry, although worship of the ancient gods and veneration of the pharaohs has been absent from Egypt for more than a millennium and a half.
Egyptians, nevertheless, are not uniformly passive in dealing with Wahhabi/”Salafi” belligerence. In the Nile Delta governorate of Al-Qalyubya, townspeople fought the radicals in 2011, and again in November 2012, residents organized a “human shield” to protect the Sufi shrine of sheikh Muhammad Al-Nabarawy.
Fundamentalist Shia Iran has also seen incidents of resistance against ongoing repression of Sufis, identified by the Islamic state with other “enemies:” Christian converts, Baha’is, “Zionists,” and Sunni Muslims. In mid-January 2013, members of the Gonabadi-Nimatullahi Sufi order in the large central-western Iranian city of Shahrekord found one morning that regime agents had broken into a private courtyard and destroyed a large tent set up to accommodate weekly ceremonials led by the local chairman of the Sufi group.