In a house in Tripoli, a commando squad from the United States snatches Abu Anas al-Libi, an al-Qaeda man with a long record of murder. Commonsense tells you that this couldn’t be done without a tip-off from an insider who for some reason was prepared to give him away, or an outright agent planted on him. This is the city in which the American ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, and three other Americans were recently killed. A Russian woman now shoots a Libyan army officer, and the Russian embassy is stormed. And shortly after five in the morning, a column of cars with 150 gunmen identified as belonging to a militia with the weird and wonderful name of Operations Room of Libya’s Revolutionaries pulls up at the five-star Corinthia Hotel in Tripoli. Prime Minister Ali Zeidan lives on the twenty-first floor and they kidnap him, ostensibly to revenge the rendition of al-Libi.
You’d think he was a dead man walking, but not a bit of it. A few hours later there he is in a smart blue suit with a nice tie telling a crowd that caution and wisdom are the order of the day. Who knows what’s going on? Apparently a thousand militias are operating in Libya, but then again a thousand militias are also said to be fighting in Syria, so perhaps the figure is more symbolic than realistic, as in A Thousand and One Nights. Syria has three main Islamist groups rising to thirteen if the smaller ones are taken into account. The relationships between each other and then with the so-called secular militia shift on a basis so regular, so confusing, and so personalized that it is not possible to make sense of it.
Returning to Tehran, Iranian president Hassan Rouhani was greeted by demonstrators throwing shoes at him. Can that really have been a sincere manifestation of political opinion, and not theatre staged to show that the least little concession to Obama requires iron courage? “The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there,” is a sentence that immortalized the novelist L. P. Hartley. Muslims are in foreign countries where things are done differently. One soon comes to the conclusion that under the superficial chaos and breakdown shrewd and ruthless men are forming up and bargaining according to well-established operating principles — but how those principles work and what future they will throw up is shadowy enough to be invisible, beyond the comprehension of non-Muslims.