The Libyan Revolution: Democracy or ‘Purity of Islam’?
It’s long been clear that the movement has strong Islamist roots.


Mustafa Abdul Jalil’s announcement last month that Islamic sharia would form the basic source of legislation in the new Libya, and that all laws contradicting the sharia were immediately null and void, came as a surprise for Western observers. Given that the chair of Libya’s National Transitional Council (NTC) wears the sign of his piety on his forehead in the form of the darkened “prayer bump” or zabibah created through vigorous prostration during prayer, it probably should not have.

Western observers had always been determined to see the anti-Qaddafi rebellion in Libya as a “democracy movement.” They were encouraged to do so by English-language NTC statements replete with soothing — if not indeed downright soporific — boilerplate that had undoubtedly been composed with the aid of Western advisers or PR agencies. But from the very start of the rebellion, clear evidence was available that the most fervent opponents of Qaddafi rejected his rule not as undemocratic, but, above all, as un-Islamic.

The anti-Qaddafi revolution is sometimes known as the “February 17th” revolution in honor of the February 17, 2011, protests in Benghazi that are widely credited with instigating the uprising. The date of those protests, incidentally, was chosen to commemorate protests in Benghazi five years earlier that were sparked by the famous “Mohammed cartoons”: the Islamist source of outrage par excellence. (For the details, see my “Our Principles? The Libyan Insurrection and the Mohammed Cartoons.”)

The 2011 protests were sponsored by a London-based umbrella group named the National Conference for the Libyan Opposition (NCLO). On February 15, just two days before the protests, the NCLO website posted an Arabic-language text titled “Qaddafi: Islam’s Enemy No. 1.” (A Google cache of the Arabic text is available here. An online commentator named Andy Stone was the first to draw attention to the document.)

The text, of which an English translation is available here, amounts to an indictment of Qaddafi for a long list of alleged crimes against Islamic orthodoxy. It ends with a rhetorical question: “Have you heard of any tyrant who has done to Islam and its people what the criminal Qaddafi has done?” The list of charges includes Qaddafi’s discouraging women from wearing the traditional Islamic “veil,” his suggestion that Jews and Christians should be allowed to visit Mecca, and, perhaps most importantly, his rejection of the sunna.

The sunna are the traditional Muslim practices that derive not from the Koran, but rather from accounts of Mohammed’s acts and teachings: the so-called hadith. The term “Sunni Islam” refers to the sunna, and strict fidelity to the sunna is at the heart of contemporary fundamentalist movements in Islam. It is hardly surprising that an Arab leader who rejects the sunna would be regarded as a very great heretic indeed. Toppling Qaddafi had long been a goal of Islamic militant groups, including al-Qaeda and the local Libyan al-Qaeda affiliate, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG).