How Is Religion Informing Libyan Rebels?

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How Is Religion Informing Libyan Rebels?

“Mr. Frattini (the Italian Foreign Minister) said he was concerned about a rise in “Islamic radicalism” and “the rise of an Islamic emirate” in eastern Libya.” -The New York Times

“This is the al Qaeda that the whole world is fighting”.-Muammar Gaddafi, referring to the uprising against his regime.

In much of the press at the moment, there is, if we might be frank, a fear of what Islam might mean in Libya. It’s a fear that Gaddafi and his cohorts have been willing to exploit to maximum benefit, claiming that the free Libyans are essentially al Qaeda. It’s a claim that many in the region use, in order to deflect attention away from their shortcomings – but it is a claim that need not be given much attention at all. Libya’s religious establishment have a history of being a fighting force – but fortunately, a fighting force that al Qaeda would likely run away from, as opposed to run towards or try to lead.

The modern nation-state of Libya is built on a rather interesting foundation. Modern Libya owes a great deal to a particular Muslim spiritual order – the Sufi order of the Sanusis. They were so named on account of their eponymous founder being a member of the family of the Sanusis (Muhammad bin Ali al-Sanusi) – and many of the succeeding sheiks and leaders of the order were likewise from that family.

The Sanusi Sufis were a traditional, orthodox fraternity of Sufis who had been considered great reformers in the 18th and 19th century. They inspired a great deal of fear, however, in the West – because it was the Sanusi Sufi order that had raised the banner of resistance to Western colonialism and imperialism in North Africa. The famous Omar al-Mukhtar, the Libyan resistance leader in the 20th century, who had fought the Italian fascists in the deserts of Libya for nearly 20 years, was a disciple in this order – who had rejected Italian sovereignty over his country out of a belief that all Libyans were born with the innate right to consent to who governed them.

The Sanusi Sufi order, run by its leading family, continued this role during World War II fighting with the Allies against German and Italian forces in the North African desert battles. The order led Libyan resistance to fascism during World War II that the Sanusis established the independent state of Libya as a constitutional monarchy, which was more democratic than any other Arab state at the time. It is perhaps no coincidence the flag of that state has been raised by the whole of the Libyan resistance – be they liberal, conservative, religious or secular. They seek not a return to the monarchy – but they do seek a return to a constitutional state of affairs.

In contemporary Libya, one can find all sorts of religious currents – with nearly all falling into the traditional outlook of north African Islam. Sunnism, with invariably traditional (Ash’ari) theology and the Maliki rite – and with all of that usually comes an appreciation and respect for Sufism, without necessarily becoming a part of an order. All of this is important to note now – because it is still that type of religion that informs the Libyan resistance now. That Libyan religious establishment, Sufi or not, has never been particularly happy with the current Libyan regime. The Sanusis in particular rejected that rule, particularly in the late 1970s, resulting in clashes – and resulting also in the Sanusi family (members of whom founded modern Libya), as well as the Sanusi Sufi order, being subjected to all kinds of pressures in Libya. Many opposition figures were forced to leave Libya, and go to Egypt, the UK or the US. There are many deeply committed adherents to and masters of the order outside of Libya – who are also opposition leaders who had been pushed to leave Libya. Many Libyans were, and remain, incensed that while the Italian fascists dared not touch the resting place of the founder of the Sanusi Sufi order, the current regime exhumed his remains – to a place yet to be known – out of a fear of what it might represent to those who opposed the ruling government.

The imprint of that type of religious force can be seen in the current attitude of the Libyan religious scholarly community, particularly in the Network of Free Ulema. This network, which remains anonymous out of fear for the security of its members, has been remarkably clear during the whole uprising. First, when Libyans began to protest, they spoke up for the right of Libyans to speak their mind to power – but they didn’t call for the overthrow of the regime. But when it became clear that the regime was perfectly willing to use extreme force on huge numbers of people, the network took the step of calling for, and agreeing with, the dismantling of this regime. As the conflict has ensued, the network has issued statements congratulating the women of Libya on International Women’s Day, insisting that those in the regime’s forces who sexually abused a woman who tried to tell her story to foreign reporters in Tripoli be brought to justice, called for military assistance to the rebels in the form of a no-fly zone, and upheld the rights of a free press in Libya after Gaddafi’s regime brutalized them. As with the overwhelming majority of the opposition, they do not want foreign boots on Libyan ground – they are more than capable of following in the footsteps of Omar al-Mukhtar in fighting against their oppressors themselves.

These members of the network are not a political party – they consider themselves as moral representatives of civil society, vested with the moral authority that the people of Libya have always recognized within them. They include Muslims of various specializations and backgrounds, including judges, lawyers, writers, intellectuals, as well as both men and women. We do not know what kind of government will emerge in Libya, but an interview with a member of the Network indicated they thought a liberal state, which can permit space for religiosity, as opposed to repressing it, would serve Libya best. They’ve referred to the peaceful transition of power, diversity, an elected government with the separation of powers that serves the brave men, women, and children of Libya with transparency.

But most of all: they share in the longing for freedom that all Libyans have.

Dr H.A. Hellyer, fellow at the University of Warwick (UK), and of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, contributed this piece from Cairo, where he is currently writing a book on the Arab uprisings.

This article was published by the Washington Post on April 2, 2011:

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