Libya: Making something out of nothing

The entire Western narrative on Libya is misleading, framed by an Orientalist discourse, scholar argues.

Not only do Libyans have to deal with Gaddafi, but they must also combat Orientalist critiques of their revolution [AP]

As the Gaddafi regime continues to wage war on the Libyan people and the coalition-backed uprising risks falling into a stalemate, many pundits have speculated about what might happen next, not only with regard to the potential problems facing Libya if and when it enters its post-Gaddafi phase, but also with respect to the fitness of Libyans, as well as the rest of the Arab world, for representative democracy.

While several observers have pontificated endlessly about tribalism, political vacuums and civil war, others have raised the spectre of Islamic extremists gaining a foothold in Libya and in other Arab countries where people continue to demand political reform and democratic governments.

Shortly after the Libyan uprising began, Bernard Lewis, a Middle East historian and Princeton’s Professor Emeritus of Near Eastern Studies, weighed in on the wave of pro-democracy movements that have swept the region.

Reductio ad Hitlerum 

According to an interview published in the Jerusalem Post:

Lewis regards a dash toward Western-style elections, far from representing a solution to the region’s difficulties, as constituting ‘a dangerous aggravation’ of the problem, and fears that radical Islamic movements would be best placed to exploit so misguided a move.

Lewis recommended instead the “development of local, self-governing institutions, in accordance with the Islamic tradition of ‘consultation’,” though he did not make clear why radical Islamist movements would be in a position to exploit the former but not the latter, or how such local institutions would fit into the larger structure of the modern state.

In addition, he claimed that the “current unrest erupted first in Tunisia” because it is “the one Arab country where women play a significant part in public life”, a supposition which is not only offencive to women throughout the region, but is simply false (though perhaps Lewis may be excused for his ignorance given that he hasn’t spent much time in the Arab world).

Beyond these assertions, Lewis characterised the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood as a “dangerous, radical Islamic movement” which is only slightly more benign than the Nazi party, and claimed that democratic elections “can only lead to one direction, as it did in [Nazi] Germany, for example”.

Lewis’s warnings of an Islamist threat analogous to Nazism are ironic given that he was recruited by the Monitor Group, a Boston-based consulting firm advised by Neoconservative luminary and former defence department official Richard Perle, to take part in a campaign to enhance the international image of Muammar Gaddafi, a notoriously brutal autocrat who has been known to dabble in terrorism in the past.

But Lewis’s position is by no means a unique one. Such hypocritical attitudes towards Arabs, Muslims and democracy, espoused by many others, represent a throwback to some of the most well known and patronising justifications for western colonialism and imperialism.

The 18th century English Orientalist Sir William Jones, writing from British colonial India, once argued that “a system of liberty, forced upon a people invincibly attached to opposite habits, would in truth be a system of tyranny”.

A state of nature

What’s remarkable is how little this attitude has changed over the past two centuries. Still today, similarly hollow apologies for depriving entire groups of people of democracy and liberty persist, even as the privileged few continue to insist on these rights for themselves while benefiting from the repression of others.

It matters little that Libyans are crying out for freedom and democracy; for an end to four decades of brutality, suffocation, and indignity; and for the world to take their aspirations seriously – Libyans are emotional, primitive Arabs who do not understand democracy.

After all, Libya lacks political institutions which means it could descend into years of bloody civil war. And Libya is full of Muslims so Islamic extremists could take control of a new government and further destabilise the Arab world.

Besides, the West has a notorious history of imperialism in the region, not to mention an inconsistent record when it comes to humanitarian intervention, so Libyans should have been less selfish and dealt with the regime’s threats to go door-to-door and cleanse the “cockroaches” on their own.

Do Libyans even realise where they’re headed? Have they forgotten about Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq? Gaddafi is admittedly unpleasant, even brutal, but he has held the country together and kept extremists at bay for decades.

Surely that must be worth something: the lack of basic human rights or even a constitution; the highest levels of unemployment in North Africa and a grossly inadequate infrastructure; the pocketing of tens, perhaps hundreds of billions of dollars by one family at the expense of an entire nation; even the occasional hanging of university students in public squares or the dragging of bodies through streets – a less than subtle warning to those who dare challenge the status quo.

As the benevolent dictator’s daughter Aisha once lamented, the people are never satisfied.

Shifting guilt

It’s convenient to credit autocrats with maintaining stability and suppressing what are no doubt the extremist inclinations of their populations – it helps us to assuage our own guilt for profiting from our relationships with such regimes.

Of course, we often overlook the tiny fact that Gaddafi was hardly a champion of stability in the region or a bulwark against extremist elements; quite the contrary, he was for decades regarded as an instigator of mischief and a supporter of terrorism, not to mention an individual who has never had any qualms about massacring his own people.

Despite this he was tolerated, even dismissed as a buffoon and a punchline for years by much of the international community, particularly after his rapprochement with the West beginning over a decade ago.

The Libyan people, in the mean time, continued to suffer quietly while the rest of the world enjoyed a good laugh at Gaddafi’s expense, followed him to his tent in pursuit of lucrative contracts, and sold him the arms he is now turning against his citizenry.

Besides praising the regime for supposedly containing the Islamist threat, it’s quite remarkable to hear pundits who know so little about Libyan society raise the spectre of instability arising from “tribal divisions” – tensions many have naively credited the Gaddafi regime with keeping in check – even while Libyans throughout the country and the world have been scratching their heads in confusion at these concerns, and trying to assure the international community that they are united and committed to democratic change.

Indeed, the Gaddafi clan seems to relish educating the world about Libya’s uncivilised, tribal society with its competing factions poised perpetually on the brink of civil strife.

The unity question

Yet anyone who’s had the misfortune of watching hours of Jamahiriyya state television knows that the regime, perhaps owing to its Sirtian roots and to the acute inferiority complex of its quirky leader, has deliberately sought to impose this primitive, tribal image on wider Libyan society for decades, regardless of the fact that it does not reflect the predominantly modern, urban character of the majority of its citizens today. It may come as a surprise but, unlike their leader, most Libyans who travel abroad do not pitch tents in the middle of city streets.

What’s more, many observers have demonstrated a curious tendency to overlook clear indications that the Libyan national identity is in reality quite strong, and that the current struggle, nurtured by a deep sense of collective suffering over the past 41 years, has only intensified this sense of national unity, at least among the overwhelming majority of citizens who make up Gaddafi’s opposition.

Critics also point to the general lack of institutions in Libya, the absence of political parties and organised opposition groups and the supposed absence of leaders to help facilitate the transition to a new government.

Such concerns, while not unjustified, are often overblown. By most accounts pro-democracy Libyans, both at home and abroad, have largely rallied around the Libyan Interim Transitional National Council formed under the leadership of the widely respected former justice minister, Mustafa Abduljalil, and composed of professionals and representatives hailing from every corner of Libya, in an apparent show of unity that would be the envy of every American general from Iraq to Afghanistan.

Moreover, Libyans are reasonably savvy people who are well acquainted with history – they are fully aware of the considerable challenges confronting them, and quite attuned to the fact that the world is watching and carefully appraising their actions.

Yet despite these promising signs, recognition of the Transitional Council by most of the international community has been slow to materialise (only France, Qatar and now Italy have thrown their hats in the ring).

Moreover, there has been little talk of the considerable potential of Libyan society – with its relatively educated, urban and galvanised population which boasts one of the highest literacy rates in the Arab world – to develop democratic institutions and fill the oft-invoked “political vacuum”.

Many of these institutions, however imperfect, existed before the current regime dismantled them, and they can exist once again.

Where credit is due

We have already glimpsed hopeful signs for Libya’s future in Benghazi and other liberated cities, where residents and their transitional leaders have done a superb job of maintaining order, and ensuring that public services and the operations of day to day life run as smoothly as possible – miraculously all without the Colonel’s apparently indispensable guiding hand.

Unfortunately, most commentators have chosen to ignore such achievements, preferring instead to provoke fears about al-Qaeda and a post-Gaddafi civil war.

That something will be challenging – in this case building a democratic government where only an autocrat has stood – does not mean that it should not be encouraged and supported.

While both Libyans and the international community should remain prudent and realistic about the obstacles involved, the focus must not be on nay-saying and incitement of fears that are largely baseless and often have their origins with the Gaddafi regime.

Rather, it should be on providing support for the Libyan people as they struggle to rid themselves of an illegitimate, repressive regime, work to form a transitional government, draft a constitution, hold free and transparent elections, build stable government institutions, resurrect civil society, fight corruption, repair their economy and rebuild their country.

Make no mistake: Libyans are not naive about their future and the formidable task of state-building that lies ahead of them.

They recognise that there is much work to be done, and that the challenges are enormous and complex, first and foremost among them finding a way out of the current stalemate.

But Libyans are not the first people to be faced with such a task, and they are by all accounts committed to unity, and to working together to rebuild their country.

They display few signs of the divisiveness and extremism that the Gaddafi clan has been claiming they suffer from, and that many Western observers are in turn parroting – why not give them a little more credit?

Najla Abdurrahman, a Libyan-American writer and activist, is a doctoral student in Columbia University’s Department of Middle Eastern, South, Asian, and African Studies.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

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