Libya is not the same place it used to be yet it’s hard to pin down a single thing that has actually improved. During my recent visit I saw people more than I saw places. Mentalities were well engraved. Matters must rest with one man, at any one time. These men of the moment dominated society’s common outlook. Many people seemed oblivious to what being free could mean. The lines between rights and aspirations remained blurred. Talk of generous government handouts was the source of much excitement.
Recent spouts over the initiation of federalism into the new political sphere revealed how stuck many people are in their old ways. Disagreement justified accusations of treachery and a barrage of rumours and character annihilation. Most surprisingly, perhaps, was the role of religion in settling such political scores. The NTC’s self-appointed, though widely adored, ‘grand-mufti’ called on the masses to take to the street in opposition to federalism. It was declared a religious duty, and so, many obeyed his call.
This particular Muslim Scholar rose to fame during the first half of the revolution. He provided Islamic authority for Libyan citizens to disobey Gaddafi’s authority and to take part in overthrowing the regime. Libyans were delighted that a religious figure from Tripoli had found the courage to speak out against the dictator; on Facebook and YouTube before appearing in Qatar. However, two points seemed to attract little attention:
Firstly, the notion of absolute obedience, implied by Islamic ideology, and the extent to which such a rule has gone unchallenged. Must we now obey the NTC, religiously?
Secondly, the religious credibility of Libyans that considered it sinful to stand-up to the tyrant that was ordering the killing of their fellow citizens. Are they, really, our brothers and sisters?
During the 3 weeks that I spent in Libya at the start of the year, I could not help but walkout during a Friday prayer speech. The previous two that I attended, both in separate mosques carried generic messages of togetherness and determination in the aftermath of the revolution. Nonetheless, at the first speech I attended, I was shocked when the Imam slipped in a prayer for the Sunni Muslims to defeat the Shi’a Muslims in Iraq. A tad insensitive, or completely unnecessary? Perhaps, a prayer for peace, unity and progress for all the people of Iraq would’ve been better suited for such an occasion?
Worse still, on the last Friday before, my return to the UK, another Imam in another mosque went on about how sinful it is for Muslims to adopt any aspects of the “infidel” West’s democratic process. The man was deterring his listeners from democracy as though his life counted on it. His speech was seasoned with the stigma of Muslims’ distancing themselves from who they should be and how they should live. All blame lay on the “infidel” west and its no-good democracy. Israel’s expansion was all down to how Muslim men no longer grew their beards, covered their women and wore their traditional clothing.
I grew conscious of how much I was shaking my head, to the disbelief of what I was hearing. That was when the Imam arguably misinterpreted a quote by the Prophet Mohamed (peace upon him and upon all of God’s prophets). The quote suggests that “those who try to be like a people are of that people.” The Imam, in praise of the ‘Salaf’ (righteous predecessors), whom he regarded as the greatest men among our nation, advised the several hundred listeners to, at least, imitate the historic image, that of the long beard, robe and short trousers, if Islamic scholarship was beyond our capacity.
And there it all was, the prophecies, the legacies, the science, the might, the mercy, the wisdom, all at once. I stood, I walked out and I did not look back.
The mosque was within walking distance from my parent’s house. On 19 March 2011, grad rockets destroyed two buildings next door to them. I am grateful that they survived the attack. Fortunately, the neighbouring buildings were used as storage space by local businessmen and no casualties occurred there either. Further down the road, however, hundreds died preventing Gaddafi’s army from entering Benghazi on what came to be known as Black Saturday.
As I walked out of the mosque pictures of Gaddafi’s victims rushed through my mind, entangled with mundane recollections of UK Parliamentary Debates and UN Security Council meetings on Libya. The Imam’s speech drained life out of a nation’s longing for intellectual being. It hurled me into the centre of a political maze engulfed in flames. For a moment, I felt like an outcast. I did not have a long beard, and I was wearing jeans. Still, I thought of the dear relatives and friends that I knew so well and I pondered over the fact that they fought and died for freedom. They fought and died alongside courageous men and women, and these are the people that I will try to be like.
Memorial Poster of Martyrs, Al-Shareef Street, Benghazi, Jan 2012