In the United States, the term Islamist is often one small step away from al Qaeda. The idea that someone could be an Islamist and not an extremist seems barely conceivable. And the existence of pro-Western Islamists sounds about as probable as the discovery of unicorns.
When the New York Times declares, in one of its typically meal-mouthed headlines, “Islamists’ Growing Sway Raises Questions for Libya” we know that “questions” is an oblique way of saying fears.
Yet Jeffrey D. Feltman, the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs and the first high-level US official to visit Libya since the fall of Gaddafi, says:
“We aren’t concerned that one group is going to dominate the aftermath of what has been a common struggle by the Libyan people to open the door to a better future.”
He added: “I think it is something that everybody is watching; first of all, the Libyan people themselves are talking about this.”
But based on what he has heard from Libyans across the political spectrum, Mr. Feltman said, there is “a shared desire for a different type of Libya that is going to have to take into account a lot of political trends.”
One of the most commonly voiced fears about the Islamists is that they are well organized — as though their organizational skills give them an unfair advantage.
“There will be attempts by some parties to take over; it’s only natural,” said one prominent official with the Transitional National Council, who spoke anonymously so as not to alienate Islamists. “And definitely [the Islamist umbrella group] Etilaf is trying to increase its influence. And we’re hearing much more from the Islamists in the media because they are more organized and they are more articulate.”
Aref Nayed, coordinator of the Transitional National Council’s stabilization team and a prominent religious scholar, responds:
“My answer to anyone who complains about that: You must be as articulate as they are and as organized as they are,” he said. “And I think we’re starting to see that among various youth groups.”
The inclination of journalists and other Western observers to see in Libya the makings of a potentially violent power struggle seems to say more about their own preconceptions than it does about what’s actually happening.
Rory Stewart, who had been critical of NATO for, in his opinion, moving well beyond its mandate, nevertheless saw, during his recent visit, evidence that the power dynamics in the new Libya are refreshingly healthy.
Since Gaddafi’s state was not powerful, its fall may have comparatively little effect. Security in the streets was provided almost from the start by neighbourhood committees, many organised from mosques; their effectiveness and legitimacy was taken almost for granted and they did not seem (yet) to be abusing their power. The lack of foreigners allowed Libyans to feel that the revolution was theirs, not an international production. It also meant that our curious priorities and processes were not imposed on Libyan politics. The Islamists and the Gaddafi loyalists couldn’t portray the new government as a puppet, or market themselves as fighting for Libya and Islam against a foreign military occupation.
Even the improvisatory, passive nature of the opposition may have been constructive. It included many members of Gaddafi’s government who were working from the very beginning to make links with their former colleagues. When the politician Abdul Hafiz Ghoga arrived in Benghazi and criticised the council, they invited him in. They seemed to be able to incorporate Islamists with equal ease. Every time they described their strategy, they talked about compromise and negotiation. Sometimes people spoke like this in Afghanistan and Iraq too – explaining how easy it would be to cut deals with the Taliban or the Sunni insurgency – but the US-led coalition rarely let them try.
And then there was their attitude to the West. I expected the minister of health – a British-Libyan doctor who knew I was an MP – to present a shopping list of demands. But when I asked him about foreign support, he said that Libya had been ‘well-supported by Qatar and the UAE, by Turkey and Tunisia’. And there he stopped. When I asked about the UN agencies and NGOs, he said he had seen a bit of them in ‘stake-holder meetings’ held on Tuesdays in Benghazi, but the meetings had petered out. He implied that the processes for getting support from Western aid agencies were far too bureaucratic, that he would stick with Middle Eastern cash, confident that Libya would get what it needed. The mixture of self-importance and desperation that created the destructive, co-dependent marriage between foreigners and locals in Afghanistan seems to be entirely absent in Libya.
Abdul Basset Haroun al-Shahaidi, a top rebel commander, tells the Washington Post: “The Islamic groups want a democratic country, and they want to go to the mosque without being arrested. They’re looking for freedom like everyone else.”
What concerns many Libyans now, more than Western fears about Islamists, is the ability of remnants of the old regime to incorporate themselves into the new government.
“I’m not an Islamist, but I feel like I have more in common with the Islamists than I do with the secularists who are in the picture right now,” an NTC official tells a correspondent for Time. “Why? Because I think the Islamists have no connection with the old regime. They’re more nationalist. And they have no frozen assets, that’s for sure.”