Politics & Policy

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.

#ad#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).


It is now known that LIFG cadres played key roles in the anti-Qaddafi rebellion. The rebel leaders in question include — but are not limited to — the head of the Tripoli “military council,” Abdul-Hakim Belhadj. In 2007, in a recorded message, al-Qaeda’s chief ideologue and current leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, announced the incorporation of the LIFG into the al-Qaeda network. He was joined by the now-deceased Afghan-theater al-Qaeda military commander Abu Laith al-Libi — “Abu Laith, the Libyan” — who explained that the “banner of jihad” had been hoisted against Qaddafi’s “apostate regime.” (See Al-Qa’ida’s Foreign Fighters in Iraq, a report of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, p. 12.)

The same fervency and the same motives were manifest on the front lines in the Libyan war. In early October, the Algerian newspaper Echorouk published a report on the siege of Sirte, which would prove to be the decisive battle in the war. The report revealed that one of the rebel battalions was led by a veteran jihadist named Abu Bilal al-Afghani. “I am Libyan-born,” al-Afghani said, explaining his participation in the war against Qaddafi, “and I work with my brothers in Jihad against he who insulted Allah and His Messenger and denied the Sunna of his Messenger.” (Translated excerpts from the Echorouk report are available here on the Roads to Iraq blog. My sincere thanks to the proprietor of Roads to Iraq for translating the additional passage cited above.)

#ad#Further evidence of the Islamic and/or Islamist wellspring of the revolution is available on the German-language web   of the Misrata-based pro-rebellion organization Wefaq Libya. The video collection of Wefaq Libya German includes a clip of Qaddafi nonchalantly removing a woman’s face-covering or niqab and another of an outraged Tripoli resident berating Qaddafi for having (implicitly) compared himself to Mohammed. “You dog! You Jew!” the man screams.

Perhaps most significant, however, is a video with German subtitles dated July 14. The clip shows a group of rebels, arms in hand, singing a jihadist anthem in which they pledge “to bring back the purity of Islam to Tripoli.” “We will take up our fight with them,” the men sing:

We will go in groups to stop them

We will bring back the purity of Islam to Tripoli

After all our humiliations, after all our humiliations.

As the remainder of the video makes clear, the corresponding line in the original version of the song runs instead, “We will bring back the purity of Islam to al-Quds,” i.e. Jerusalem.

— John Rosenthal writes on European politics and transatlantic security issues. You can follow his work at www.trans-int.com or on Facebook.

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