David Calling

The David Pryce-Jones blog.

Lost in Translation in Tripoli


Muammar Qaddafi’s disappearing act shows that he had prepared for the worst, as dictators do. Rumors have always said that he had prepared miles of underground tunnels. There may be an underground bunker too, set up more operationally than the hole out of which Saddam Hussein was hauled. In that case, he is likely to try to initiate civil war. A spokesman of his on television has been making that threat.

The pertinent question then becomes: What fate do Libyans want for Qaddafi? Reporters are indeed asking that question, but the limitations of language then crop up. They interview only those who can speak English, and many of these have so small a vocabulary that they are unable to express themselves. A conclusion of sorts can be drawn from these unsatisfactory speak-to-the-microphone moments. The wild men make it plain that they expect Qaddafi to be shot down, and his sons with him. They talk repeatedly of making him pay for the 42 years of dictatorship. Those with better English hope to bring him to court, either in Libya or the international court in The Hague. Again the expectation, often left in the air, is that he and his sons will be shot, but legally.

For centuries a tension has existed in the Arab world between freedom and justice, and here it is brought to the surface of the Libyan uprising. Traditionally justice has been a real and vital concept in Islamic societies, and the ruler is expected to enforce it. Freedom does not exist, has never existed in Islam in any shape or form that corresponds to the Western idea of freedom. Freedom there means justice, nothing to do with parliaments, pluralism, free speech and free assembly, and all the features that allow Westerners to see themselves as free. Those Libyans in front of camera exclaiming about freedom and a trial really mean that justice consists of killing Qaddafi with the certificate of approval that a legal process gives, in other words, having revenge cold rather than hot. The question for Qaddafi wherever he is, then, is whether he can mobilize enough people to believe that freedom means fighting for the continuation of injustice.


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