Giving Extremists Space in Libya

There is good news today from Libya in that President Mohammed Magarief has ordered the disbanding of all unauthorized militias. While the question of who is—and who is not—authorized is not as simple as it may appear, Magarief’s move is a welcome assertion of the state’s monopoly on violence in a country where this concept is poorly understood. Still, even if the nascent state is able to bring all armed groups under control, there are aspects of the Libyan attitude toward armed Islamic extremists that remain troubling.

Perhaps the most puzzling aspect of Libyan culture is the willingness to tolerate even those who are violently intolerant, like the Islamic extremist groups who killed four Americans in Benghazi last week. I’ve tried to explain to Libyan friends that in the US, people who form militias opposing the government are killed. The state has a monopoly on violence. But in Libya, people say that they have to talk to al-Qaeda elements or other extremist militias. In Derna, locals were proud of having banished Ansar al-Sharia commandos to the mountains and caves around the city. I’d half-expected people in Derna to ask for US Special Forces help in finding and capturing them, but no. While they deplored the absence of the Libyan police and army, there was no sense that killing the extremists was a crucial point. Instead, they worried that driving out the extremists prevented a “dialogue” with them.

I’d ask what they hoped to get out of a dialogue with people devoted to the violent overthrow of Libya’s nascent democracy, and the answer would circle around the idea that “they were all Libyans.” This is monumentally naive and dangerous, of course, but it is easier to understand it if we recall that under Muammar Qaddafi, who came to power in a coup, there was no reason to view the state as legitimate, or its monopoly on violence as a good thing. In a perverse sense, the Libyan hyper-tolerance is a form of respect for the free speech Qaddafi never allowed.

What’s not easy to understand is that the Libyan mainstream seems much more willing to talk to al-Qaeda sympathizers than to, say, the equally small minority of Western-style secularists. There is some unconscious assumption that while extreme Islamists are a bad thing, their errors spring from an excess of zeal, youthful lack of judgment, or the appeal of Gulf money to the down-and-out. Very few Libyans would take the Western stance that the intrusion of religion into politics is itself baleful. 

While many Libyans mock the Wahhabis who want to return to the 7th century while keeping their mobile phones and computers, they have little interest in the right to religious freedom. Their main objection to the Wahhabis is that they seek to impose their personal beliefs on the whole society while religion is a matter between an individual and God. But it is taken for granted that everyone is a believing Muslim. Atheists and agnostics—who tend to call themselves, with an 18th-century flavor, “freethinkers”—are themselves likely to quote the Koran in support of tolerance. They whisper furtively to sympathetic foreigners but know better than to make their thoughts public.

What role can the US and other Western governments play in Libya’s transition? Before the Benghazi attack, few Libyans would have supported anything other than the softest of soft power: educational programs, visas for Libyan students to study in the US, help from the US in modernizing Libya’s hospitals, investments in the technology area. I doubt that has changed. Without our understanding of a state monopoly on violence, without our understanding of the separation between state and religion, and without our understanding of freedom of belief, there is likely to be little appetite for putting an end to Libya’s extremist militias. Their defeat, if it happens, will come when the state security forces are back on the street and can intimidate other armed groups.



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