Islamists emerge in force in new Libya

The Washington Post reports:

In the fight against Gaddafi’s forces, the Islamist militants played an important role among the rebels’ rag-tag forces because of their experience in battles abroad. With a place in the new Libya, most have said that their days as militants are over. The largest of the organizations, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, has re-branded itself as the Libyan Islamic Movement for Change.

Some Islamists are blunt in expressing resentment about fellow rebels.

“Secularists don’t like Islamists,” said Ismail Sallabi, an influential cleric who is among nine leaders commanding rebel forces in eastern Libya. Before the revolution, he said, he had never held a weapon. “They want to use Islamists in the fighting stage and then take control.”

“I’m proud to be an Islamist, and this is a historic chance for the West to understand Islamists up close,” Sallabi said.

Libya is a conservative Muslim nation, and its future government will probably reflect that; the governments of Egypt and Iraq are among Arab states that base their governance on Islamic law. While Gaddafi’s government tolerated little in the way of activism, Libya’s Islamist groups appear to have emerged from his reign as the best-organized among political groups, and secularists among Libya’s new leaders appear determined not to alienate them.

One early step intended to rein in Islamists is the creation of a Supreme Security Committee, which has put the most powerful rebel commander, former militant Abdelhakim Belhadj, under civilian control. But in an interview, Ali Tarhouni, a liberal who heads the committee, also sounded a conciliatory note.

The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group is “not al-Qaeda. They don’t have any intention of fighting the West or Europe. This is a group that basically carried arms to topple Gaddafi’s regime,” Tarhouni said. “Their brand of thinking is not geared towards the instability of the rest of the world.”

Even before Gaddafi was ousted from power last month, Islamists and secularists on the Transitional National Council had clashed this summer on whether Islamic law should be the primary source for legislation. Initially, secularists prevailed, winning approval of a provision that established Islamic law as one guidepost for a future Libya, but not the dominant one.

Days later, however, Islamists led by the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood took advantage of the absence of secularists from Benghazi to win passage of a revised provision that made Islamic law the principal law of the land, said a council member involved in the process. He spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the fraught subject.

One prominent Islamist, Abdul Razag el-Aradi, a nationalist who is close to the Muslim Brotherhood, described that approach as a compromise intended to appease more conservative Islamists while stopping well short of an approach that would transform Libya into an Islamic country.

“There are two kinds of people we in Libya will completely reject: extremist Islamists and extremist secularists,” Aradi said.

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