Jihadis, but no models, in Libya

One of those news outlets that does consistently great religion coverage, most of it of the global variety, is Reuters. Its Faith World blog is one of the best ways to stay on top of big news from around the world. Case in point — this fascinating story about Macedonians being pressured to convert to Islam in Pakistan. Elswhere on Reuters is a good discussion of how newsrooms should approach graphic image distribution when it comes to showing the corpses of men who’ve died as Moammar Gadhafi did. (Confused about all the spellings for Gadhafi? See here.)

Speaking of the recently deceased, I thought Reuters did a good job of advancing the story in light of his death, with a nice inclusion of religion angles. It seemed these angles were missing in much of the coverage of Gadhafi’s demise.*

Here’s how this Reuters “exclusive” begins:

As the dust settles after six months of fighting in Libya, U.S. officials are stepping up efforts to identify Islamic militants who might pose a threat in a post-Gaddafi power vacuum.

U.S. counterterrorism and intelligence agencies have recently produced classified papers examining the strength, role and activities of militant activists and factions in post-Gaddafi Libya, four U.S. officials said. Some assessments examine the backgrounds of anti-Gaddafi leaders with militant pedigrees, and explore whether these individuals, some of whom have publicly renounced Islamic militancy, will stand by their pledges against extremism.

During the half-year campaign by rebels to drive Muammar Gaddafi from power, U.S. and NATO officials downplayed fears that al Qaeda or other militants would infiltrate anti-Gaddafi forces or take advantage of disorder to establish footholds in Libya.

Since then, however, the assessment of top experts inside the U.S. government has sharpened.

Now, you might remember that we discussed conflicting reports about the threats of Islamism in Libya about a month ago. Then, Reuters’ headline was “Libya disavows extreme Islam as world looks on” (as compared to the Washington Post‘s headline on the same day “Islamists emerge in force in new Libya”).

The article focuses mostly on security considerations and how they’ve changed in the “days, not weeks” months we’ve been involved in operations in Libay.

Why so much focus on Libya?

Bruce Riedel, a former senior CIA analyst who has advised President Barack Obama on policy in the region, said there was particular worry that Islamic militants could use Libya as a base to spread their influence into neighboring countries such as Algeria or areas such as the Sinai peninsula, where Israel, Egypt and the Gaza Strip share borders.

“There is a great deal of concern that the jihadi cadre now are going to be exporting their ideas and weapons towards the east and west,” Riedel said.

Riedel and current U.S. officials said one high-priority issue is whether militants can acquire, or have obtained, weapons from Gaddafi’s huge arsenals, especially surface-to-air missiles that could be used against commercial airliners.

We learn that Islamists have been strategizing since August as to how to establish an Islamic state in the post-Gadhafi era. We learn that militant groups have historically taken advantage of power vacuums to consolidate and expand their operations. And we learn that one new Libyan leader being watched is a former Islamic fighter in Afghanistan who now commands post-Gadhafi forces.

The article lacks any specifics about what an Islamic state might mean, what type of Islamists we’re talking about or even what is meant when someone says that Libyans are “generally moderate Muslims, with moderate ways of practice and understanding of religion.”

Obviously these specifics are needed.

*As I was about to publish this piece, I saw this interesting article on CNN.com: “Gadhafi used ‘renegade’ Islamic view for ‘purely political purposes’.” Written by Dan Merica and Alex Zuckerman, the article looks at the contradictions in how Gadhafi approached his religion. Some excerpts:

Moammar Gadhafi may have held onto power in Libya for more than 40 years, but the role Islam played in Gadhafi’s personal life and leadership remains shrouded in mystery and debated by scholars. After his death, scholars are distancing Gadhafi from Islam and characterizing his religious views as “renegade” and “dictatorial” more than Islamic.

“It should also be made quite clear that Gaddafi was no more of a Muslim leader than Slobodan Milosevic or Robert Mugabe should be considered to be Christian leaders,” said Arsalan Iftikhar, an international human rights lawyer and author of “Islamic Pacifism: Global Muslims in the Post-Osama Era.”

“My sense is Gadhafi’s religion was Gadhafisim,” said Kelly Pemberton, assistant professor of religion and women’s studies at George Washington University. “It was clear to many Libyans that his brand of Islam was purely political; it served his political purposes.”

Gadhafi’s Sunni views are explored, as were the fatwas some Sunni clerics issued calling for his death. His political pan-Arabism is detailed, as were his virulent anti-Israeli politics and his conversion of the Catholic Cathedral of the Sacred Heart of Jesus into a mosque after he took control of Libya.

According to a number of scholars, Gadhafi made contradictory statements on Islam throughout his life. While at times he disavowed himself from Islam, especially Islamists, he also told a crowd in Niger that Islam was the world’s only universal religion. Under his rule, the Libyan government granted financial aid to Islamic communities around Africa, including building Islamic schools.

Robin Wright, foreign policy analyst at the United States Institute of Peace adds more, saying that Gadhafi’s greatest fear was the rising tide of Islam as a political force.

The story ends on this odd note:

In one of the more bizarre chapters in the Libyans leader’s life, Gadhafi hired 200 Italian models in 2010 while visiting Rome and lectured them on the Quran. Additionally, he called people who did not follow Islam “losers” and said the Christian Bible was a forgery.

“When he had this ludicrous ideas of Sharia law, of everyone converting to Islam, particularly women, he definitely showed his intention or desire for Islam to rule, but he did not identify with a certain sect or thought process,” concluded [Harris Zafar, national spokesperson for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA].

There’s no “hire 200 Italian models and lecture them on Islam” sect, I guess. Anyway, nice story with a good quick turnaround.

Image via Wikipedia.

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  • Evanston2

    Mollie, Solid post. Media coverage has been quite disjointed about the realities of Libya. Perhaps because “Nobody Knows” isn’t a great headline? Obviously the future is always unpredictable but in the case of Libya we’ve tried to keep our involvement murky and I doubt even native Libyans really know the identity of the various replacement groups, no less how much political/military strength they each possess. Perhaps Gaddafi’s oddities represented in a Madonna-esque (referring to the pop star) fashion the variety of “personalities” of political interest groups in Libya, as well as the need to stay current/relevant as these changed? Overall, your selection of news articles is as balanced as we can hope to obtain at present. I’d add the point that whoever controls access to oil revenue controls the country. Beyond that, I just wish headlines wouldn’t declare “victory” when we don’t even know if Libya may change for the worse. And I would hope within journalism that the headline “Nobody Knows” would be acceptable when nobody truly has any clue about what’s going to happen next.

  • Jerry

    Evanston2 just robbed me of what I was going to say :-) So I’ll just say amen to that.

    Tunisia, Libya and Egypt are now moving into ‘phase 2′ which is the hard part, building a new system. I found this comment in a New York Times story to sum it up exactly:

    “For all of us, it is a hard road, because our battle is against ourselves,”… “We have to listen to our values, our aspirations, our present, against all the past that we have lived. It is a hard test, and success is not assured.”

    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/21/world/africa/qaddafis-bloody-end-points-to-difficulties-ahead.html

    Therefore this is exactly the time when we need the application of the highest standards of journalism including lack of sensational reporting. I suspect that there will be a fair number of blog posts here documenting failures to live up to that ideal :-(


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