Ed Husain

The Arab Street

Husain examines politics, society, and radicalism in the greater Middle East.

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A NATO-backed Islamist State in Libya?

by Ed Husain
October 24, 2011

Mustafa Abdul-Jalil (center) chairman of the Libyan National Transitional Council (NTC), stands during the national anthem as the NTC announce the liberation of Libya in Benghazi on October 23, 2011 (Esam Al-Fetori/Courtesy Reuters).

It took Libya’s current leader three full days to appear in public after Qaddafi’s killing. He was scheduled at a press conference on Thursday morning—he appeared on Sunday. Then, rather than speak in Tripoli, he addressed a mass gathering in Benghazi, annoying vast swaths of the Libyan population who are still unsure as to why they would recognize his National Transitional Council (NTC). They complain about the domination of the NTC by people from Benghazi. As though these complications were not enough for a divided people, Mustafa Abdul-Jalil then opened a premature, ill-conceived public schism between Libya’s secularists and Islamists by declaring that Libya is an “Islamic state.”

Fortunately, among Muslim activists and Arabs in particular, there is no real consensus on what an Islamic state really means. Turkey’s Prime Minister Erdogan recently spoke in Egypt about how a secular state was the best model for Muslims. Tunisia’s Rashid Ghannoushi has made bold statements about the caliphate (or Islamic state) being a chapter of the Muslim past. But it is unclear whether Libya will opt for the Turkish or Tunisian wisdom.

My good friend and former Quilliam colleague, Noman Benotman, knows Libya better than most.  He was a leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) and negotiated peace terms directly with Saif Qaddafi in a bid to disengage LIFG from violence and move away from al-Qaeda. Noman knows the Islamist, salafist, and jihadi trends in Libya from his many years leading the LIFG.

In July of this year, writing in the Times, Noman warned about the rise of extreme salafists in Libya, many who had returned from the battlefields in Iraq, and some who were foreign fighters from Egypt, Tunisia, and Algeria. Noman also wrote about training rebel military camps in Libya. Many of these were training not only for jihad against Qaddafi, but also jihad for creating a state that reflects their understanding of sharia.

They were the fiercest fighters against Qaddafi—now they expect their vision to materialize.

The rise of Islamism is not Libya’s only problem. I wrote about other challenges here and here.  However, Abdul-Jalil’s major mistake was to declare Libya an Islamic state so early and add policy details to it by suggesting that polygamy would be legally accepted and bank interest made illegal. Leaving aside the economic and social flaws of both polices, he has now given a public nod to those who want to see more such measures introduced.

The argument, for them, is simple: Libya is now an Islamist state. If so, it cannot cherry-pick parts of the sharia. Therefore, all aspects of their understanding of sharia must be embraced and a caliphate of sorts must ensue. Whatever the details of this debate, NATO-supported Abdul-Jalil has pulled the carpet from under the feet of secularists and liberals. The debate is no longer about a secular or Islamist Libya, but about how more or less Islamist Libya can become.

3 Comments

  • Posted by Nikos Retsos

    I have seen a lot of fear-mongering about Libya, such as lost portable anti-aircraft missiles that might fall into Al Qaeda hands, lost of large quantities of other ordnance supposedly unaccounted for, possible civil war among rebel units, etc. Now, we have here the scarecrow of an Islamic republic wafting over the TNC’s ambiguity on what kind of Muslim state it will be. And I see some prognosticators running far ahead in vision that the TNC itself. But I think it is too early to tell. The brewing Libyan democracy within
    Islamic culture and values would probably go though various stages of testing and adjustments before the 40 Libyan main tribes finally compromise into something in-between the West’s decadent politics and Islam’s rigid Sharia Law.

    The only questions that remains are: a) How much of their values the Western powers who helped the TNC get rid of Gadhafi will try to inject into the fabric and shape of the new Lybya? and b) How much pressure from the aforesaid powers the TNC can resist, and how much support it will get from the various tribes? The fight for the future of Libya, therefore, is not going to be “what kind of Islamic state the TNc will try to impose on Libyans,” but whether foreign interests or domestic values and preferences would mold the shape of post-Gadhafi Libya. I feel that Abdul Jalil’s promise of a new Libya built on an Islamic pedestal is excellent, and it puts foreign powers on notice that Libya won’t become a Mecca for McDonalds, Alcohol, Red light districts, foreign bases, and a hunting ground by foreigners against Libyans who object to the capitulation and control of their government by foreign interests. I believe Abdul Jalil’s vision is as-good-as it gets, but it is a tall order against the odds of the current social upheaval and uncertainty. Nikos Retsos, retired professor

  • Posted by XoEve

    I have seen a lot of fear-mongering about Libya, such as lost portable anti-aircraft missiles that might fall into Al Qaeda hands, lost of large quantities of other ordnance supposedly unaccounted for, possible civil war among rebel units, etc. Now, we have here the scarecrow of an Islamic republic wafting over the TNC’s ambiguity on what kind of Muslim state it will be. And I see some prognosticators running far ahead in vision that the TNC itself. But I think it is too early to tell. The brewing Libyan democracy within

  • Posted by refinancement|credit

    Its much better if you consider what other people might have to say rather of just going for a gut reaction towards the subject. Consider adjusting your personal believed procedure and giving others who could read this the benefit with the doubt.