international analysis and commentary

Libya’s transition: the threat of religious extremism


Libya is wiping off the dust of its revolution only to find the specter of a new type of authoritarianism lurking in its midst. The rise of political Islam in the Middle East is not to be seen as a threat to the fruits of the Arab Spring as most Islamic or pseudo-Islamic parties in power are liberal in their approach to nation building. However, a region that has been continuously subjected to oppression and suffers a dire economic situation easily becomes home to religious extremists intent on destabilizing the transition toward a liberal democracy.

Just two months after the election of a new government notable for its liberal political inclinations, Libya has witnessed an increase in sectarian violence. Two of the country’s oldest Sufi shrines were attacked by militants, an episode that culminated in the resignation of Interior Minister Fawzi Abdelal after he admitted that the government is unable to quell the activities of religious fanatics.

Roman statues of ancient deities in one of the nation’s most renowned archeological sites had to be removed because of fears that they also would be assailed. Most notably, the death, on September 11th, of US Ambassador Christopher Stevens during a mob assault on the American consulate in Benghazi has sent shockwaves across Libya and the world. Unidentified attackers, possibly belonging to a jihadist group, hit the consulate with rocket-propelled grenades after a movie defaming Islam, produced in the US, surfaced on the Internet.

Although radical Islamic parties are a minority in Libya, their populist rhetoric may prove to be appealing to a growing  crowd if certain measures are not taken to stifle their influence and save the revolution from being hijacked by autocratic religious figures.

Three main areas need to be addressed to help overcome the challenge of sectarian conflict and religious extremism in Libya.

Primarily, drafting the new constitution is of paramount importance for the political future of the country. The constitution should strongly support the rights of minority groups and offer clear protection against sectarian and ethnic violence. Libya’s new political ethos should be constructed based on a majority consensus that respects the ethnic and tribal diversity of the country and promotes freedom of expression with peaceful means. The country’s civil society should be supported and allowed to flourish, because it offers more civilized means of expressing populist sentiments than extremist political parties.

Secondly, the state security apparatus needs to be rectified in a way that allows the country to move towards a unified national army with a centralized leadership under the supervision and command of the government. The revolution has left Libya with various armed factions whose political allegiance is swayed by regional, ethnic and tribal considerations. In many instances, the country’s armed forces fear engaging religious extremists because it may lead to enhanced political and sectarian conflict. As difficult as it may prove, in the short to medium term, to unify Libya’s dispersed military leadership, it is vital to promote a more rule-based military council that can serve as the country’s sole military institution during transition.

Third, Libya is in need of jobs. The most potent solution to extremist religious rhetoric is job creation, since it provides impoverished communities with the means to overcome idleness and economic dependence. With high rates of youth unemployment and low income levels, a social structure of economic dependence on religious institutions that subscribe to extremist views develops in certain areas, which in turn helps to extend the influence of radical Islam. Empowering people by providing them withjobs and allowing them to make their own living permitss them to buy into the concept of the state and the legitimacy of its institutions, something that Libya desperately needs.

Ultimately, violence fueled by prejudice is a phenomenon present in all countries, liberal and non-liberal, transitioning and not. Thus, conflicts caused by religious extremists in Libya should not be viewed as an end-product of the Arab Spring but rather as a dormant tendency in any emerging society. What matters is that social and political structures are created in Libya in order to quell such tendencies and provide room for enhanced tolerance and personal freedom. As Libya undergoes its bold transition, these structures are yet to materialize.