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Political Islam in Post-Gaddafi Libya

Could the failure of mainstream Islamist groups in Libya give anti-democratic and violent groups the space to breathe?
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The sun sets behind a mosque in Libya. Photograph by Quelle night.

Few people enjoy the distinction of having been both imprisoned by the US government for 'terrorist activities' and financed by it to fight a revolutionary insurgency. Sufian bin Qumu is one of them.

A former member of proscribed Libyan Islamic Fighting Group and then of the Taliban in Afghanistan, bin Qumu is believed to have been captured in 2001 shortly after 9/11. He was detained in Guantanamo Bay for a number of years before being transferred back to Libya in 2007. In 2010, bin Qumu was then released from Libyan prison as part of a dissident amnesty agreement with the regime of Muammar Gaddafi. Less than 12 months after that, he joined the Benghazi uprising, which received military and financial support from the US and other NATO powers. In the space of a few years, bin Qumu's relationship with the US swung dramatically from enemy to friend.

Over the last few months, the nature of bin Qumu’s relationship with Washington has shifted once again. The Islamist leader is strongly suspected of having been involved in the attack on the US embassy in September 2012 which resulted in the death of American ambassador Chris Stephens and three of his staff. Since then, Libyan authorities have launched a series of operations to capture (or recapture) bin Qumu. These proved unsuccessful until, in mid-April, bin Qumu was shot and then arrested by security forces while travelling as part of a convoy near the eastern city of Derna. He is currently in custody in the intensive care unit of a local hospital.

Unclear motives

The precise role played by bin Qumu in the US Embassy assault remains unclear. It is unlikely that he was actually present at the raid, but members of his group – Ansar al-Shariah – are widely thought to have been. Indeed, Washington places the burden of responsibility for Ambassador Stephen’s killing on the group’s shoulders.

Pointing the finger at bin Qumu is consistent with previous assessments by American military analysts. In 2005, for example, while still incarcerated in Guantanamo, investigators concluded that he was a “medium to high risk…likely to pose a threat to the US, its interests and allies". His extradition to Libya was part of a short-lived Western initiative to bring the Gaddafi regime out of diplomatic isolation.

Ansar al-Shariah – or ‘Partisans of Islamic Law’ – is an off-shoot of the larger, Yemen-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and its North African branch al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, both of which are among the most high-profile and controversial Islamist militant organisations in the region. Some have suggested Ansar al-Shariah planned and conducted the attack in response to the US drone offensive in June 2012 which killed of one of its leaders, Abu Yahya al-Libi, on the Afghan-Waziristan border. But the group's exact motivations are difficult to determine. Since the fall of Gaddafi it has been implicated in a number of violent incidents across Libya. In the aftermath of Stephen’s death, Ahmad Jibril, Libya’s deputy ambassador to London, said, “the group has carried out several terrorist attacks within the last few weeks. [It has also killed] some Libyan officials, [including] in Benghazi”.

The move toward political Islam

The rise to prominence of Ansar al-Shariah draws the broader question of the influence of political Islam in post-Gaddafi Libya into relief. The victory in last year’s legislative elections of the liberal National Forces Alliance (NFA) at the expense of the Islamist Justice and Construction Party (JCP) gave a false impression of the weakness of Libyan Islamism, not least because the NFA itself includes many prominent individuals with Islamist sympathies. Moreover, its leader Mahmoud Jibril – one of the key players in the overthrow of Gaddafi – is often wrongly identified as a secularist and himself openly rejects the designation: “In all my life, I have never described myself as secular…I never talked about secularism. I was accused and given this label by some people. Because secularism in the minds of Libyans is tantamount to atheism, the purpose of that accusation was to try to portray me as an atheist.”

During the 2012 electoral campaign, a consensus formed among the main parties that the country’s constitution should include a significant Islamic component. In the months that followed, one of the central debates in the national assembly was over whether Sharia should be the “only source of law” in Libya or a “principle source of law”.

There also seems to be little popular discomfort at the prospect of a more pronounced role for Islam in Libyan public. Even among women, there is no immediate evidence of entrenched resistance to the idea. This may partly be because of the extent to which Gaddafi, whose ideological roots were pan-Arabist and socialist, defined himself in opposition to Islamism and used the spectre of religious rule as justification for his frequent, draconian crack-downs.

Of course, it would be wrong to conflate the militant Islamism of bin Qumu and Ansar al-Shariah with the mainstream, constitutional Islamism advocated by the JCP and, to a lesser extent, Jibril and the NFA. They represent two distinct – even opposing – strands of a diverse political and intellectual tradition, and the latter enjoys considerably more support among ordinary Libyans than the former. Yet the ongoing deadlock of Libyan politics and the structural weakness of the Libyan state 18 months on from the fall of Gaddafi provide space for anti-democratic organisations like bin Qumu’s to breathe. The failure of more moderate Islamism in Libya could mean the growth of its more radical and violent counterpart.

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