The end of the Gaddafi cult

Juan Cole writes: The final weeks of Muammar Qaddafi’s violent and coercive life reminded me vividly of Jim Jones and the People’s Temple Cult. It was obvious from late last August that Qaddafi had lost. The people in his own capital of Tripoli rose up against him in all but a few small neighborhoods, courageously defying his murderous elite forces.

Qaddafi had on more than one been occasion offered exile abroad, but sneaked off to his home town of Sirte to make a suicidal last stand. His glassy-eyed minions determinedly fired every last tank and artillery shell they had stockpiled right into the city that sheltered them in order to stall the advancing government troops. This monumentally stupid last stand turned Sirte into Beirut circa the 1980s, as gleaming edifices deteriorated into Swiss cheese and then ultimately blackened rubble. Qaddafi had favored Sirte with magnificent conference centers and wood-paneled conference rooms even as he starved some Eastern cities of funds, and in his death throes he took all his gifts back away from the city of his birth, making it drink the tainted Kool-Aid of his maniacal defiance of reality.
The last stand at Sirte was very like Jim Jones’s last stand in the jungles of Guyana. Jones was an American religious leader who gradually went mad, demanding more and more sacrifice and obedience from the members of his People’s Temple congregation, which then gradually became a cult. I define a cult as a group wherein the leader makes very high demands for obedience and self-sacrifice, and the values of which diverge from those of mainstream society. When the outside world seemed clearly to be pursuing the People’s Temple into Guyana, with a Congressmen showing up in Jonestown to rescue a handful of adherents who wanted to go home, Jones reacted with fury, first sending a militia to kill the congressman and the defectors, and then instructing his followers to drink poisoned Kool-Aid. Many were injected with cyanide laced with liquids or shot. Those who would not agree voluntarily to be “translated” to the next world together with their messianic leader would be subjected to the ultimate coercion.

Qaddafi’s stand at Sirte underlined the cultish character of his politics, with the Revolutionary Committees and Khamis Brigades resembling the enforcers in Jim Jones’s encampment. The tragic episode highlights the irrationality, fanaticism, violence and tyranny of his acolytes.

It would have been better had Qaddafi been left alive to stand trial. The exact circumstances of his death are murky, but it appears that some of his loyalists may have attempted to rescue him from government troops and he died in the firefight or was dispatched lest he be sprung from captivity and serve as a rallying point for the remaining handful of cultists.

Those who expect Libya now to fragment, or to turn into a North African Baghdad, are likely to be disappointed. It is improbable that Qaddafi’s cult will long survive him, at least on any significant scale. Libya has no sectarian divides of the Sunni-Shiite sort. Almost everyone is a Sunni Muslim. It does have an ethnic divide, as between Arabs and Berbers. But the Berbers are bilingual in Arabic, and are in no doubt as to their Libyan identity. The Berbers vigorously joined in the revolution and more or less saved it, and are very likely to be richly rewarded by the new state.

The east-west divide only became dire because Qaddafi increasingly showed favoritism toward the west. A more or less democratic government that spreads around the oil largesse more equitably could easily overcome this divide, which is contingent and not structural.

Libyan identity is not in doubt, and most Libyans are literate and have been through state schools. Most Libyans live in cities where tribal loyalties have attenuated.

There will be conflicts, and factionalism is a given. The government is a mess, with only a small bureaucracy and limited pools of persons with management skills. But oil states in the Gulf facing similar problems back in the 1960s and 1970s just imported Egyptian bureaucrats and managers, and Egypt and Tunisia have a surplus of educated potential managers who face under-employment of their skills at home. Oil states most often generate enough employment not only for their own populations but for a large expatriate work force as well. Just as the pessimists were surprised to find that post-Qaddafi Tripoli was relatively calm and quickly overcame initial problems of food, water and services, so they are likely to discover that the country as a whole muddles through.

One of the most perverse features of a strand of “progressive” attitudes towards the war in Libya (evident among quite a few commenters on this site) is that if post-Gaddafi Libya turns out not to fall apart, this will be a cause of secret disappointment to those who invested so deeply in their own apocalyptic predictions. As I’ve said from the outset, this isn’t an argument worth expending much energy in, proving one side is right and the other wrong, since it’s an argument that doesn’t need to be won — events themselves will be the proof.

Having said that, I want to say more about the issue of cultism, because like Juan Cole, many other observers have noted the cultish features of Gaddafi’s rule.

Cults tend to be associated with religious belief rather than political rule and for that reason what could be seen around Gaddafi is more often described as cult-like rather than as being unambiguously a cult.

Cole provides a reasonable working definition of a cult: “I define a cult as a group wherein the leader makes very high demands for obedience and self-sacrifice, and the values of which diverge from those of mainstream society, and the values of which diverge from those of mainstream society.”

But what needs to be underlined is that cults are not defined by exotic belief systems.

The stereotypical image of a cult would be a group like Marshall Applewhite’s Heaven’s Gate whose members committed suicide in 1997 with the expectation that they would thereby board a spacecraft and escape from Earth.

The problem with associating cults with such belief systems is that the weirdness of these beliefs are really a distraction from the underlying social psychology that binds the cult together.

Cults have two core attributes:

1. Cult members surrender their own autonomy by submitting themselves to the rule of a charismatic individual who has some kind of messiah complex. This is different from obedience to rule by say a monarch, because whereas there is a sharp divide between the king/queen and his/her subjects, cult members and cult leaders are bonded in the experience of merging in a supra-personal identity. Gaddafi didn’t simply rule Libya — he became Libya and his closest devotees could no longer differentiate between their love for him and their love for their country.

2. As a social entity, a cult depends on a rigid boundary between the inside and the outside. From the inside, outsiders are viewed as being so other and so lost that the outsiders’ word and the world they inhabit become worthless in the eyes of the cult. Communication only flows inside a closed and self-reinforcing system and as this closed society evolves, the contagion of unchallenged delusion infects the cult leader as much if not more than the cult followers. As rational as it might have been for Gaddafi to surrender or engineer a safe exit, he couldn’t do so without losing his identity — an edifice of such giant proportions that it became impossible to deconstruct.

The inherent structural weakness of every cult offers a lesson to society at large: a healthy society does not merely tolerate dissent; it recognizes dissent as an essential attribute of social vitality.

Dissent is the king’s fool. Without dissent there is no engine of adaptation.

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8 thoughts on “The end of the Gaddafi cult

  1. scottindallas

    To y0u and Juan Cole, I say, for shame. How dare you condemn Ghaddafy and fail to describe the pincers the US and NATO put these house niggers (Arab Rulers) into. You were quick to latch on to the Libyan war. Juan Cole writes of the largess that the Berbers will enjoy. Well, I’m not sure Libyans weren’t under a fairly benign despot. You don’t know either. Nor does Juan Cole.

    But, when thinking about these issues, foreign leaders of resource rich countries, a bit of empathy is needed. Would the US allow a foreign leader to drive a hard bargain for his resources? That is his duty to his people. But, we’ve reacted violently to such attempts by other leaders, and there is reason to believe that Ghaddafy was caught in this vice. The need to challenge the West, while needing the West of grant him legitimacy. No one can serve two leaders, and we can’t keep forcing this dilemma on sovereign states.

    I find it disappoints, and negligent that no mention was made of this. This is a question every American must answer, especially since Smedley Butler wrote his book, exposing this for all who have the temerity and the sense of fairplay that so challenges our foreign policy. I’m disappointed in both you, Paul and Juan Cole.

  2. bobs

    Paul, perhaps there will be disappointed “progressives” who’ve been secretly invested in apocalyptic predictions, but for the vast majority of progressives who opposed NATO support this is a strawman. I observe that the war has taken longer and has been more brutal than had been anticipated by NATO (remember “it’ll be a matter of weeks, not months”). That said, I am relieved it is coming to an end (let’s hope) ; the minute NATO got in, while I opposed it, I was also rooting for them to win as quickly as possible. No one even half-sane could be rooting for Gaddafi.

    The reason I have no conflict is that my opposition had nothing to do with the outcome. I didn’t oppose NATO because I thought it would make things worse in the short term. In fact, I was hoping it would not. I opposed NATO because its involvement was straight out of the same old neocolonial playbook we’ve seen a hundred times before: the place has oil so we must control it; when the local tyrant no longer does our bidding we allege a humanitarian catastrophe and we move in.

    I am too old to be moved by the eternal words: “This time, it’s different.” Same old, same old.

  3. Colm O' Toole

    “is that if post-Gaddafi Libya turns out not to fall apart, this will be a cause of secret disappointment to those who invested so deeply in their own apocalyptic predictions.”

    What a moronic comment. Libya has already fallen apart. What was supposed to take “days not weeks” is now in its ninth month. You remind me of one of those people who say that Iraq was a success because Saddam was removed and the US didn’t leave via helicopters from the rooftops like Saigon. You and the tool Juan were the people who cheered on the bombs that destroyed Libya.

    Have you thought of the 10’s of thousands dead in Libya? The rebel government themselves admit that 50,000 died (which probably means 100,000 since in the 9 months I’ve heard nothing but lies on top of lies from them rebel camp).

    Have you thought of the women of Libya now that Islamic militias are roaming the streets. Or Black Libyans that are being persecuted, killed, forced to flee? Or the damage to cities and towns that will take a decade to rebuild? Or the damage to International Law?

    But in all of that the most infuriating thing about it is the knowledge that you actually should know better. On your coverage of the entire Middle East, excluding Libya, you seem to know what you are talking about.

    You know full well from your coverage of Israel-Palestine that the US cannot be trusted and always has an agenda yet you trust them on Libya. You know from your coverage of Bahrain and Yemen that Saudi Arabia is a counter revolutionary force that doesn’t give a damn about real freedom yet you cheer side by side with the Saudi’s at Gaddaffi’s demise. You know that Sarkozy represents some of the most Islamophobic and bigotted interests in French politics and yet you believe him to have good intentions while bombing Libya.

    You should know better.

  4. Susan

    I won’t be secretly disappointed if Libya does not have a horrible civil war that will further destroy the country, nor will I be disappointed if the next government in power in Libya is not corrupt and probably Islamic.

    I will be stunned.

    Because, this result would be the polar opposite of what has happened under such circumstances in the past. If these things do not happen, I will be happy for the Libyan people.

    But what I SECRETLY HOPE is that you and Juan Cole both get to have everything in your life that the average Libyan citizens has had for the past six months and for the coming ten years. I wish that you and Cole could both have your hometown bombed, and see lots of dead people in the streets and know the fear and horror that the people of Libya have lived under…. and I wish that whatever happens in the future to these people also happens to you both.

    Because you too FOOLS deserve it and the people of Libya DO NOT.

  5. Laurie K

    A legal team including Franklin Lamb is reportedly headed to Libya in an attempt to defend Saif Gaddafi. Hopefully, they will rescue him for a trial that would expose NATO etc. They will be joined by Gaddafi’s daughter, Aisha, who is also a lawyer. We do know that Gaddafi was guilty of insistence on managing his own oil production, pro Palestine, and getting very hostile following targeted bombings against him. Like others, I am not satisfied with the above reports of Cole/Woodward.

  6. Paul Woodward

    In response to one of the comments following his post, Juan Cole succinctly writes: “Orientalist erasure of the agency of the Libyan people.”

    This gets to the core of the issue.

    Anyone who has followed my site for some time would be aware that I don’t exactly belong to the pro-war camp. So the fact that I supported the Nato intervention in Libya did not spring from some desire to see Libyans — or anyone else — get bombed.

    The crucial issue in my mind was the agency of the Libyan people.

    If the uprising and the war that followed had been brought about by a small faction among the Libyan people then I believe Gaddafi would still, rightly, retain power.

    One could reasonably argue that the Libyans should have been left to suffer their own fate; that if they lacked the power to thwart a despot who turned out not to be benign then that was their problem. There would be a kind of brutal honesty in this kind of isolationism.

    But to portray Libyans as nothing more than victims of Western hegemony suggests a conviction that either most Libyans were truly content with Gaddafi as their leader, or, that their aspirations were unworthy of consideration.

    Those who have become fixated about Nato’s role in Libya gloss over the fact that this conflict did not begin on March 19 — it began with a Day of Revolt on February 17.

    At that time two lessons were being drawn from Egypt: that “people power” has the capacity to topple dictators, and that any dictator who wants to stay in power should show no restraint in his effort to crush the political aspirations of his own people.

    No doubt Western leaders are ambivalent about the idea of “people power” — it’s clearly not the source of their own power. At the same time, for reasons more pragmatic than principled, they largely understand that in the Arab world they can no longer afford to remain resolutely on the side of all the dictators.

  7. dickerson3870

    RE: “Those who have become fixated about Nato’s role in Libya gloss over the fact that this conflict did not begin on March 19 — it began with a Day of Revolt on February 17…” ~ Woodward

    MY COMMENT: A “revolt” that we now know was planned well in advance in Paris, not Libya!
    I supported protecting Libyans from being massacred, but I feel like a victim of the old bait-and-switch. Obviously, it was all about regime change from the very beginning. So, I was snookered.
    Snooker me once, shame on me. Snooker me again, shame on me. Consequently, I will never, ever support so-called humanitarian intervention again. Never! Ever! Under any circumstances!
    The U.S. and NATO (in reality, the neocon’s League of Democracies) just can’t be trusted. And I wouldn’t even buy a used car from the thoroughly obnoxious Anders Fogh Rasmussen!

    SEE: Qaddafi’s Death: Barbarism and Hypocrisy ~ by Matthew Rothschild, The Progressive, 10/21/11
    Just as the United States was wrong to rub out an unarmed Osama bin Laden, so, too, the Libyan rebels were wrong to murder the captured Qaddafi.
    Link –

    P.P.S. VIDEO (07:21) ~ Pepe Escobar: NATO wanted Gaddafi dead all along [Uploaded by RTAmerica on 10/21/11]
    Gaddafi at one point was a hero to the Western world, but for the last year Gaddafi was looked at as a villain. There are many reports explaining the reasons why the change of heart from the Western powers. Pepe Escobar, correspondent for the Asia Times, helps us understand what happened and what lies ahead for Libya.
    LINK –

  8. Susan

    I think the biggest lesson anyone can draw from this war on Gaddafi is that dictators better keep their nuclear weapons — in order to keep the USA away.

    And I see one major difference between Libya and Egypt/Tunisia – Libya turned violent EARLY on, while Egypt & Tunisia stayed non-violent. Even Syria after all these months is not as violent as the Libyan “rebels” were – and those “rebels” knew where the weapons were stored.

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