Conversion Perversion: Gaddafi’s Attempt at Dawah

While in Rome for the U.N. World Food Summit last week, Libyan leader Muammar al Gaddafi engaged in an unusual form of dawah:  inviting 500 Italian escorts to convert to Islam.

The women, employed by Hostessweb agency, were under the impression they were attending a party. The agency advertised for “…500 attractive girls between 18 and 35 years old, at least 1.70 meters (5 foot, 7 inches) tall, well-dressed but not in mini-skirts or low cut dresses.” Those who replied were offered €60 euros ($90) to attend an evening at the Libyan ambassador’s villa for an “exchange of opinions” and to “receive a Libyan gift”, which turned out to be a copy of the Qur’an, Gaddafi’s own Green Book on the Libyan revolution, and a pamphlet entitled How to be a Muslim.

The escorts were given copies of the Qur'an. Image via

The escorts were given copies of the Qur'an. Image via Massimo Percossi/EPA.

The women were lectured for about two hours on varying Islamic topics, including the role of women in Islam, sexism in the west, and Islam’s belief about Jesus’ crucifixion. The second meeting was less formal, and the new batch of women were allowed to ask him questions.

Gaddafi has held similar lectures before and sees himself as a self-proclaimed savior of European women. Whatever his intentions, it is important to note that his recent effort was a result of individual inclination, not supported by The Arab League or any sort of Muslim council.

So aside form being a typically wacky Gaddafi publicity stunt, was there any benefit in the meetings? What did Gaddafi say? And what did he wear?

Well, according to this Times Online article (which runs a photo of him clad in a sleek beret, female bodyguards in the shadows), his message was coherent and consistent with the teachings of Islam, if not a little uplifting.

After claiming he was “for and alongside women,” Gaddafi said it was untrue that Islam is against women and then criticized the way they were treated in eastern countries, likening them to pieces of furniture:

“Women have often been used as pieces of furniture, changed whenever it pleases men. And this is an injustice.”

He pointed out that whereas there were four different Gospels, there was only one Quran. And since this is Gaddafi, he wasn’t shy about bluntly stating his objective:

“Convert to Islam. … Whoever goes in a different direction than Mohammed is wrong. God’s religion is Islam, and whoever follows a different one, in the end, will lose.”

Why an Arab leader feels the need to  preach about Islam is bizarre in itself. But consider his audience: for a report of what happened next we have to thank an ingenious Paola Lo Mele, a reporter from the Ansa news agency  who snuck into the Sunday event by posing as a hostess. She said the women, “expecting a party with gala dinner,” gathered at a hotel in Rome, where those “inappropriately attired or not tall enough were weeded out.”

If one’s intention is to convert women to religion, which in essence focuses on modesty and not outward appearance, why does it matter what they look like? Or more specifically, since inappropriately attired probably means too much skin (in this context), why care about the height?

That Gaddafi invited these women, specifically chosen for their youth and beauty, speaks volumes about his impressions of Western women. Why not preach to housewives, mid-age professionals, or men? He specifically chose beautiful young women, whose job it is to mingle and provide hospitality at social events, to make a statement. A rather disheartening one at that, because it implies Islam is mostly against women who dress up, but is only for women whose outward appearance fits within societal beauty norms. It once again puts the problem on women by focusing on the way they look.

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