Is Libya going to be a radical Islamist state?

Barry Rubin Director, GLORIA Center
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During the early years of the Cold War, the U.S. backed Saudi Arabia and other traditionalist regimes to counter the radical, anti-Western nationalist forces that seemed set to conquer the Middle East. The radicals generally dominated Egypt, Iraq and Syria, while more pious Muslim regimes ruled Morocco, Libya, Jordan and Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf monarchies.

That strategy made sense. The argument was that pious Muslims would never be Communists and that the monarchies were indeed horrified by the overthrow of kings to set up radical republics. While there were some radical Islamist forces then — the Muslim Brotherhood, some Pakistani groups and the networks organized by former Mufti of Jerusalem Amin al-Hussaini — they were quite weak in comparison to these two blocs.

But that was a long time ago. Today, the threat is revolutionary Islamism, not Communism, and the cure is either traditionalism, moderate nationalism, communal nationalism or liberal democracy.

The shadowy, scattered and underground Islamist forces have become powerful, attacking nationalist dictatorships and conservative monarchies alike. The Islam card represents something quite different in 2011 from what it did in 1961.

But Obama administration officials don’t understand that. They think the United States has its own Islam card that it can play to counter revolutionary Islamism. The last time I checked, however, Obama was not a recognized rightly guided interpreter of Islam. Those using a Muslim identity first and foremost in political life don’t want an “American Islam.”

True, Iraq has a pious regime that isn’t radically Islamist, but Iraq is unique for many reasons. Its political system was formed during an American-led military occupation, it has some powerful non-Islamist imams and it has delicate communal balances that must be preserved.

All of this leads us to the question: Will President Barack Obama soon be wearing a T-shirt saying:


It’s not yet clear what the answer to that question is, but there are worrisome portents. The main evidence of the moment is the “liberation” speech given by U.S.-backed transitional leader Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, marking the official victory declaration of the NATO-backed rebels. The Associated Press — notoriously cautious about saying the “I” word — characterized the speech as setting out, “A vision for the post-Gadhafi future with an Islamist tint.”

The main theme of the speech was one of tolerance among Libyans, a noble sentiment unlikely to work in a country where factional, tribal, regional and ideological divides run deep.

These are the main clues to Libya’s future that Abdul-Jalil laid out in his speech:

— Sharia law will be the “basic source” of law for Libya. This is not quite the Islamist stance that Sharia is the “only source” of law, but it goes beyond the acceptably pious assertion of it being the main source.

— All laws that contradict Islam’s teachings will be repealed. In other words, Libya will be fully Sharia compliant.

— Only “Islamic banking” will be permitted, meaning no interest but various schemes to circumvent such practices.

— Polygamy, largely banned under Gadhafi, will be reintroduced.

Does this also mean that there will be dress codes for women, alcohol bans, restrictions on entertainment and freedom of speech, the introduction of amputations and beheadings, executions of converts and so on? That isn’t clear yet, but it is a step in that direction.

— Instead of firing guns in the air, Libyans should chant “Allahu Akbar.” This certainly is a less risky way to say “Hooray!” But the implication is that Islamic behavior should replace tribal behavior. A wider point here is that the next regime is likely to try to use Islam to unite the country, overcoming tribal and regional differences. We’re all Muslims, it will argue, so why should we quarrel with each other?

What might be most disturbing, though not the least bit surprising, however, is something else Abdul-Jalil said: “This revolution was looked after by God to achieve victory.”

Now that makes total sense. Western societies also thank the Supreme Being for victories. But what about NATO and the United States, which, let’s face it, were the real authors of victory?

There were U.S. and European flags displayed at the ceremony, but apparently Abdul-Jalil only mentioned the Gulf States, the Arab League, the United Nations and the European Union.

Why not thank the United States and the military forces that were pivotal in the Libyan rebels’ victory? Because by doing so, Abdul-Jalil would undercut his own legitimacy. He would then be the instrument of the West (imperialism, dhimmis) rather than of Allah. Expressing such gratitude would make him vulnerable to rivals.

The view in Libya is that the all-powerful deity caused the infidels to act and thus they deserve no credit, thanks or reciprocal gestures. Moreover, keep in mind that Libya is an energy-rich country, so it won’t need Western aid.

This is the ultimate test for those who argue that Muslims and Arabs have hated the West because of its policies. If Western policy is to bomb Gadhafi’s forces into oblivion and install you in power, won’t that policy please you? That’s one of the Obama administration’s basic assumptions.

In fact, what the transitional leader said has a hidden meaning: “This revolution was blessed by God to achieve victory. And we must go on the right path.”

The phrase “right path” is a pun on Sharia law.

The good news is that the new Libya is unlikely to flex its muscles in the region. Those were Gadhafi’s ambitions. Even if Libya were to be dominated by Islamists, it would not be another Iran. Yet an Islamist Libya would be another source of encouragement for revolutionary Islamists elsewhere. Even though these Islamists don’t all get along well with each other, they already basically have the Gaza Strip, Iran, Sudan and Turkey. They may very soon be the leading forces in Egypt and Tunisia.

So the best-case scenario is a highly Islamic but inward-looking Libya that doesn’t sponsor terrorism or subvert its neighbors. But we could also end up with something much worse: another link in a chain of radical Islamist regimes that dominate the Middle East and ravage U.S. interests there.

As for a moderate, democratic state run by Western-oriented liberals and Facebook kids, you can forget about that.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal at Gloria-Center.org. His latest book, Israel: An Introduction, will be published by Yale University Press in January.