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Role of Islam in Libyan Revolution

Many Cyrenaicans have historically belonged to the Senussi Sufi order, which became a part of their religious identity from the 19th century until Muammar Gaddafi´s "Al Fateh revolution” in 1969, after which he tried to control the religious institutions, suppress Islamic independent groups and make his revolutionary doctrine the dominant ideological trend in the society. The new Libyan leader also excluded Muslim conservative sensibilities from politics.

At the same time, Gaddafi tried to use the religion to spread his influence in different parts of the world by setting up the World Islamic Call Society and the World Islamic Leadership, two organizations which held numerous conferences in Libya and abroad and served the Libyan regime to establish good relations with many Muslim personalities and entities in the world. Therefore, Libya supported Islamic activities in Africa or played an important role in the negotiations between the Filipino authorities and rebel Islamic groups supporting independence for the island of Mindanao.

In recent weeks, most of Western media have published stories about the new leaders of the Libyan revolution and their links to the political Islam. They have often mentioned Abdel Hakim Belhaj, the commander of the Libyan fighters' Tripoli brigade, who was previously a target for US and British intelligence agencies, which considered him as a "terrorist” and an ally of Osama bin Laden. He was arrested by CIA in 2004 and sent to Libya after being interrogated and tortured in Thailand.

Such allegations of terrorism have been denied by Belhaj, a veteran of the war against Russians in Afghanistan and former leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), who was persecuted by Gaddafi´s regime. The group led a three-year, low-level insurgency mainly based in eastern Libya in 1995 and 1996.

Gaddafi regarded Islamists as the greatest threat to his authority. His regime arrested and imprisoned thousands of Islamists and kept their organizations illegal. Some of their leaders were tortured and killed. Others took refuge in the Arab Gulf countries, where they collected funds to support their organizations, in European countries or in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.

In 2010, Belhaj was released after he and other LIFG leaders renounced the armed struggle, except in invaded Muslim countries, including Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine. As the Guardian notes, citing jihadi "expert” Noman Benotman: "The experiences of the LIFG leaders in armed conflicts in Afghanistan, Libya and Algeria have forced them to mature politically, recalculate strategically, moderate behaviorally, modify their ideological beliefs”.

In 2011, after the Libyan revolution broke out, Belhaj and his associates in the ex-LIFG formed the Islamic Movement for Change and called for NATO to intervene on the rebels' behalf. The Islamist militants played an important role among the rebels' forces because of their fight experience in Afghanistan and other places. Islamist-controlled brigades fought well in the battlefield and their commanders gained influence.

Most Libyan Islamists support a democratic system where the power lies "in the hands of the Libyan people”. Islamists are also trying to set up an Islamist party to compete in the elections. The party would try to create a democracy founded on the Islamic principles and make the Islamic Law or Sharia a main source of legislation. It would be a party which is deeply religious but operates within a system protecting liberties.

Another prominent Islamist leader is Abdul Basset Haroun al-Shahaidi, who lived in exile for 21 years because of his opposition to Gaddafi. According to The Washington Post, he has travelled abroad to seek money for security training in Libya. "The Islamic way is not something dangerous or wrong.
 
The West hears "Islamic law” and they think we want to lock our women in boxes,” Shahaidi said. "The Islamic groups want a democratic country, and they want to go to the mosque without being arrested. They are looking for freedom like everyone else.”
 
However, the two most influential Libyan Islamists are probably the Salabi brothers. According to Der Spiegel, "Ismail Salabi commands one of the toughest rebel brigades in Benghazi. His brother Ali, considered one of the country's religious leaders, spent time in Libya prisons in the 1980s for criticizing the Gaddafi's regime.
 
Two decades later, he was recruited by Gaddafi's son Seif al-Islam to help negotiate freedom for imprisoned Islamists who renounced violence, including Belhaj.” After the anti-Gaddafi uprising started, Ali travelled back and forth between Libya and Qatar, the Arab nation on the Persian Gulf that supplied the revolutionists with weapons and trained its fighters.”
 
In those months, Ali emerged as an important figure in the Muslim Brotherhood, one who has contributed to the constitutional charter and is seen as a spiritual leader for some of the fighters. He is also a close associate of the Muslim Brotherhood-linked scholar Yusuf al-Qaradawi.

He has played down any suggestion of tensions between religious and secularists within the opposition's ranks, though other sources claim otherwise. "You cannot say there is a power struggle between secularists and Islamists,” he says. "We are happy and ready to accommodate all differences of opinion, even religions and beliefs.”

Despite these claims, Ali has described the leaders of the National Transitional Council (NTC) as "extreme secularists”. He told Al-Jazeera television that Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril and his allies are "extreme secularists” who seek to enrich themselves via "the deal of a lifetime.” Jibril and his associates were guiding the nation into "a new era of tyranny and dictatorship,” he said.

"The goal for which the Libyan people have sacrificed so much, including their blood, is to have democracy, justice, freedom and equality,” he told The Irish Times. "My biggest fear is the possibility that there may be no real democracy in Libya or that people might come to power in the name of democracy and then become tyrannical. All I want is for the international community, especially the big countries like France, Britain and the US, to respect the Libyan people's decision in choosing their representatives.”

When asked what role he would like to see Islam play in post-Gaddafi Libya, Salabi talks about the place he believes it should have in the constitution. "Islam was the fuel of this revolution, it motivated people. Islam is part of the culture in Libya and it always has to be part of the constitution.”

Actually, according to the Post, Islamists and secularists on the Transitional National Council clashed last summer on whether Islamic law should be the primary source for legislation. Initially, secularists prevailed, winning approval of a provision that established Islamic law as one guidepost for a future Libya, but not the dominant one.

Days later, however, Islamists led by the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood took advantage of secularists' absence from the eastern city of Benghazi to win passage of a revised provision that made Islamic law the principal law of the land, said a council member involved in the process. He spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the fraught subject.

This new reality was reflected in the first public speech in Tripoli of NTC chairman Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, who said "moderate Islam” would guide post-revolution Libya. "We seek a state of law, prosperity and one where Sharia (Islamic law) is the main source for legislation, and this requires many things and conditions,” he said. He added that Libya's new leaders would not accept any extremist ideology. "We will not accept any extremist ideology, on the right or the left,” he said.

According to the document issued by the TNC, Islam will be the state religion and the principal source of legislation will be the sharia (Islamic law). The rest of the draft constitution describes the country´s future political institutions and includes the rule of law, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and a multi-party electoral system.

In conclusion, Islam has always been a unifying factor of the different tribal, social, and regional sensibilities in Libya and will remain so for the foreseeable future.
 
It can, therefore, be expected that moderate Islam will become a key component of both popular discourse and politics and a stabilizing force in the country. The Islamist opposition is certainly one of the best organized in the country and its political role will turn out decisive in the following years.
 

By Yusuf Fernandez