When Libya’s interim government announced the official “ liberation” of the country on October 23, it also declared that a system based on the Islamic sharia, including polygamy, will replace the dictatorship that Col Muammar Qaddafi ran for 42 years.
“We as a Muslim nation have taken Islamic sharia as the source of legislation, therefore any law that contradicts the principles of Islam is legally nullified,” declared interim leader Mustafa Abdul Jalil.
Swapping one evil for another may seem a cruel political comedown after seven months of relentless NATO air strikes in the name of promoting democracy in Libya - an air war that enabled the ragtag rebel militias to triumph but left a vast trail of death and destruction.
The Western powers that militarily effected the regime change in Libya, in fact, have not sought to stop its new rulers from establishing a theocratic system founded on Islamic jurisprudence. For these powers, such a political turn is an unavoidable price to pay to have their own men in power. The Islamist embrace indeed helps protect the credibility of men who otherwise may be seen as foreign puppets in their own society.
This is the same reason why the US, Britain and France have condoned the rulers of the oil sheikhdoms for their longstanding alliance with radical clerics. For example, the US-backed House of Saud not only practices the century-old political tradition of Wahhabi Islam but also exports this fringe form of Islam, with the result that the more liberal Islamic traditions elsewhere are being gradually snuffed out. The plain fact is that the US-led strategy is driven by narrowly defined geopolitical interests. The imperative to have pliant regimes in oil-rich countries trumps other considerations.
With the US support they enjoy, the most-tyrannical regimes – the monarchies – have been able to ride out the Arab Spring, emerging virtually unscathed. Libya has the world’s largest reserves of light sweet crude – the top-notch oil that American and European refineries prefer – and the NATO-scripted regime change there was clearly not about ushering in an era of liberal democracy. Having been born in blood, the new Libya faces uncertain times. The only certain element is that its new rulers will remain beholden to those that helped install them.
More fundamentally, America’s troubling ties with Islamist rulers and groups was cemented in the 1980s when the Reagan administration openly employed Islam as an ideological tool to spur the spirit of jihad against the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan . It was at a White Houseceremony attended by some “holy warriors” from the Afghanistan-Pakistan belt in the mid-1980 s that Reagan proclaimed the mujahideen as the “moral equivalent of America’s Founding Fathers.” Two such moral equivalents, Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar, later became America’s nemesis.
Make no mistake: international terrorism and the modern-day Frankenstein’s monsters are the haunting byproducts of the war against atheism and communism that the US was supposed to have won. Yet the lessons from that war have already been forgotten, including the need to keep the focus on long-term goals and not be carried away by political expediency. The current attempt to strike a Faustian bargain with the Taliban, for example, ignores the very lesson from the creation of this evil force.
It has been argued by exponents of the US policy approach that because a war runs on expediency, with strange bedfellows involved as partners, unsavory allies are unavoidable. Paradoxically, the US practice of propping up malleable but Islamist rulers in the Middle East creates a street-level situation not only laden with strong anti-US sentiment but also support for more authentically Islamist and independent forces. So, if elections are held, it is such autonomous Islamists that often emerge as winners, as the diverse cases of Gaza and Tunisiaattest.
Let’s be clear: The global fight against terrorism can succeed only by ensuring that states do not harbour militants or contribute in any way to the rise of virulent Islamic fundamentalism extolling violence as a sanctified religious tool. Yet today, history is in danger of repeating itself.
The brutal killing of Gaddafi by his NATO-backed captors and the macabre public display of his body for several days were redolent of the manner former Afghan President Najibullah was dragged out of the UN compound in Kabul by the Taliban in 1996 and hung from a traffic barricade. What followed was unending bloodletting. So, it is fair to ask: Will Libya become another jihadist haven?
Brahma Chellaney is the author of ‘Asian Juggernaut’ and ‘Water: Asia’s New Battleground’