Libya, One Year Later

On the eve of February 17th, the anniversary of last year’s Libyan revolution, Tripoli was a dangerous place. “Three men were shot outside my house last night,” a businessman told me. “And outside the Rixos, there was so much celebratory gunfire that I could not leave the hotel for hours”—the Rixos being the five-star hotel where many members of the transitional government live.

While Libyans are organizing political parties to compete in the June 23rd parliamentary elections, many describe the current situation as a power vacuum where there is no real law or order. Especially in western Libya, highly armed militiamen duke it out, often over disputes that have nothing to do with politics. Even in Zwara, the tightly knit Amazigh town of 50,000 that constitutes a separate cultural enclave, the police have not returned to work. Tripoli? Forget about it.

Such peace as prevails in Libya is the result of the social cohesion of a traditional society—and one where, in my experience, there is considerable fellow-feeling and a relative indifference to material goods. Libyans are inclined to give other Libyans the benefit of the doubt—and thus the omnipresent militia have not torn the country apart. The real question is what Libya will look like after the elections, as it puts itself back together.

One of the key issues here is how Libyans conceptualize freedom, and on my last trip this fall, I noticed that nearly everyone viewed freedom as compatible with sharia law. I was also increasingly sure that the best way to analyze Libya was not as a collection of tribes—though these exist—but as a collection of city-states or cultural regions. Renaissance Italy struck me as a possible analogy. But when I picked up David Hackett Fischer’s 1989 book Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America, still an excellent study of American origins, I began to see similarities here too.

While sharia strikes me, like most Americans, as problematic, it’s worth considering that our own country began as a loosely knit confederation of theocracies—Puritan, Quaker, and Anglican—where freedom of religion ranged from partial to nonexistent. As Fischer explains,

liberty often described something which belonged not to an individual but to an entire community. Samuel Adams, for example, wrote more often about the “liberty of America” than about the liberty of individual Americans. This idea of collective liberty … was thought to be consistent with close restraints upon individuals.

Fischer, a professor of history at Brandeis University, divides colonial America into four “folkways”—Puritan New England, the Quaker mid-Atlantic, Anglican Virginia, and the frontier areas—each settled mainly by immigrants from a distinct region in England.

Fischer’s analytical model—looking at each of the four American cultures in terms of their approaches to birth, child rearing, marriage, age, death, order, speech, architecture, dress, food, wealth, and time—illuminates the importance and persistence of cultural origins. To take a simple example, even today, certain idioms are common in certain regions, even as the population may have completely different ethnic roots than the original settlers.

Fischer’s framework suggests ways of looking at Libya as a collection of related but culturally distince mini-societies, rather than a single society, and as a nation that will likely turn out to be partially free, with a greater regard for community liberty than individual liberty. But as the evolution of our own country suggests, cultures are not static. Persistent yes; unchangeable, no. (Fischer’s model also makes for interesting interpretations of Afghanistan and Iraq.)

On July 4, 1777, few Americans could have imagined our country today. Libya will need a lot of luck, but Americans should not be too quick to judge how the country will evolve in the coming years.

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