A key figure in the Libyan uprising shares frank opinions about the perilous state of the country five years after that hopeful time and why the Islamic State organisation is not about Islam.
LIBYAN scholar Dr Aref Ali Nayed joined the Arab Spring uprising in early 2011 to oust leader Col Mua-mmar Gaddafi from power. Once the “deed” was done, Dr Aref was the lead coordinator of the Libyan Stabilisation Team and someone people saw as a potential prime minister.
But five years down the line, Dr Aref is not PM, Libya is still in turmoil with two governments in the country instead of one, leading to the rise of the Islamic State (IS) militants, who have been running wild creating havoc everywhere.
Dr Aref – who has been acknowledged as one of the 50 most influential Muslims in the world – says never in his wildest imagination did he think Libya would be in the state it is in now.
He has regrets and admits life in Libya today, five years after the revolution, is worse in some ways than during Gaddafi’s time. He blames this on the ideologues and Islamists who hijacked and “mutilated” Libya’s revolution.
Still, he believes Libyans have some hope because there is an “open horizon of freedom and dignified life” they can work towards.
Dr Aref, Libya’s ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, is the founder and director of Dubai- and Tripoli-based Kalam Research & Media, a think tank on Islamic study and philosophy in various fields.
He was in Kuala Lumpur recently when we met at Ikim (Institut Kefahaman Islam Malaysia) for this interview.
In an exclusive interview with Sunday Star, Dr Aref talks about Libya, the rise of IS and what is being done to solve the ongoing crisis.
The Arab Spring started off so hopefully – what went wrong?
The Arab Spring was a spontaneous outburst of energy from young women and men who were seeking freedom after many decades of tyranny. It had the basic longings and hopes that every community and every human being has, which is to live a dignified life and thrive as a human being. It was a very worthy and respectable phenomenon but because it was spontaneous, it was also chaotic.
By chaotic, I mean it didn’t have centres of command and control. The only people who had centres of command and control during this amazingly important historical phenomenon were the ideological groups, who for decades had refined the methodology not only for organising but also mobilising the art of propaganda and the art of controlling situations.
And, unfortunately, these ideological groups realised from the beginning that there was a golden opportunity for them and they very rapidly managed to control many nodes of the structures that began to emerge.
At least that was the case in my country, Libya.
In other countries, however, where there were institutions and structures that were strong and survived the Arab Spring – like in Egypt where there was the army, and Tunisia where there was the interior ministry and police – these structures managed to exert control.
In the case of Libya, Gaddafi’s regime depended on a very specific security apparatus that was not actually a kind of army of the state but rather a kind of personal protection force for Gaddafi and his sons.
So because there was a lack of institutions, the ideological groups unfortunately managed to control the state in the post revolution period that emerged.
But they kept losing elections. They tried to manipulate every election but they kept losing and losing.
They lost three times. And when they lost the elections, they attacked the capital, took it over and made the artificial phenomenon of two governments in Libya – which is not really two governments! It is actually one government and a pseudo-government that took over the capital by force.
Would you say that life for the people in Libya is better now than under Gaddafi?
Life under Gaddafi had set the conditions, the kind of de-institutionalising of the country that made Libya – once it got rid of Gaddafi – quite vulnerable to what we are seeing today.
If we look at the vital statistics of the numbers of deaths, imprisonment, vicious acts, act of tortures and attacks on human dignity, I think these attacks have happened in more numbers in these last five years of post-revolution than during all the time of Gaddafi combined!
People are worse off if you look at the statistics. But people are better off in the sense that there is an open horizon of freedom and dignified life that they can work towards.
However, it is going to be a lot of hard work and it cannot be something that will happen simply.
Do we have regrets about the Libyan revolution? Yes, I have regrets about the results and the suffering that has happened to the Libyan people. However, I have no regrets in feeling that tyranny should not have been inflicted upon our people for so many decades.
It was 42 years of oppression that left our country quite desolate at all levels. And it is this desolation that has set the conditions for the kind of chaos that we have today.
I blame the ideologues, the Islamists – who, instead of participating with everyone else in a country that was equitable to all – moved very quickly to use the Arab Spring as an opportunity to take over power and inflict upon us a tyranny even worse than Gaddafi’s.
Surely someone would have foreseen the chaos and turmoil that would emerge when there is a power vacuum. Why didn’t Libya learn lessons from what happened in Iraq, for instance?
I was the head of operations for the Libya Stabilisation Team. We wrote a stabilisation plan based on lessons from Iraq, Bosnia, Kosovo and other places. Unfortunately, all our plans were set aside about three weeks after we entered Tripoli because the Islamists simply took over.
They took over through sheer aggression – and a couple of countries in our region saw to it that they were well-funded and well-placed.
We are still suffering from this mutilation of the Libyan revolution. It is actually the hijacking of the Libyan revolution. But the solution is not to say that we should just go back to tyranny. The solution is actually to complete the revolution, take it to its logical conclusion.
And not stop until the safety, freedom and dignity of all human being are upheld.
But why should the Islamists co-operate? After the Arab Spring when there were elections in Egypt and (the Muslim Brotherhood’s) Mohamed Morsi was elected president, he was toppled in a coup that the whole world supported?
I have a difficult enough time commenting on my own country. Other people’s countries are their business. However, what I can tell you is that you should look at what Morsi did with that one year, when he used his rule to displace all his opponents completely and eradicate all key positions and give them to people from his own party.
When a president actually has to answer to a party head who is higher than a president, this sets the condition for popular anger.
What happened in Egypt was not simply the army acting but also massive demonstrations. How things were managed in Egypt is not something I am ready to comment on right now, but what I can tell you is that it is a lot more complex than it seems.
It is very simple for the Islamists to play the victim-hood game, which they are very good at!
But when they were in power, they victimised everyone else. That is the real reason for their failure. And the real reason which set the condition for the rejection, be that by popular demonstration or the army .
As for Tunisia [where the Arab Spring began in December 2010], it is in a better situation than other countries. But the credit actually goes to the very wise and gentle way in which the Tunisian army and the police dealt with things. Let us not forget those institutions survived and they contributed to the peaceful departure of [Tunisian president] Ben Ali.
They also contributed to the checking of early attempts by the Islamists to effect a complete takeover and they, in a way, guaranteed democracy in a very interesting way.
Unfortunately, people attribute all good things in Tunisia to certain personalities, like [acting president before the 2014 elections, Rashid] Ghannouchi. But I think the Tunisian army and the police deserve a lot more credit than they are given. Furthermore, the ambivalent attitude of the Tunisian Islamists to Islamists in my country is most disturbing.
While we find them preaching peace and coexistence in Tunisia, we find them complicit with and in total support of Islamists in Libya who are very aggressive and who have actually contributed to the rise of radical Islam in my own country.
Is there political space in Libya to discuss statehood with the Islamists?
We have been going through a protracted process to reach the Unity Government. As part of that process, all parties, all stakeholders and actors, have been invited, and they are participating.
What I can tell you personally is that anyone who believes in a nation state and respects the nation state and is willing to defend the nation state is a worthy citizen who has the right not only of coexistence but also co-participation with everyone else.
Anyone who believes in transnational structures that cannibalises the nation state to have a transnational structure at the cost of a nation state should be rejected.
Just as Italy would not tolerate fascists as part of Italian democracy and Germany would not tolerate Nazis as part of German democracy, I do not think movements that believe in the transnational structure beyond the state and who do not have sufficient respect for the nation state should be accommodated in democratic systems – especially not those who want to use violence against the nation state.
Are you equating the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamists to fascists and Nazis?
It all depends on them. If they choose to conduct themselves as co-citizens in a nation state, they are more than welcome by all Libyans. But if they choose to conduct themselves as scavengers of the nation state, to take Libyan money to build terrorists organisations in Syria and other places, then they are not welcome. So it all depends on their behaviour.
I don’t think it is the labels or classifications that matter. It is conduct and action that matter.
The Islamic State (IS) seems to be a by-product of the Arab Spring, and their threat is everywhere – hasn’t the Arab Spring made the world today less safe ?
Most people who die of HIV/AIDS don’t die of the virus itself, they die because the body’s resistance is destroyed and they succumb to a multitude of other diseases. IS is a disease that has managed to infest the Middle East because the resistance of this entire region was reduced by the turmoil and chaos of the Arab Spring.
There are many factors that has led to its rise. I personally believe that IS has more to do with fascism than Islam. Their conduct and behaviour is more like the fascists of the 1920s and 1930s in Europe.
They are disrespectful of all that is sacred, be it material – as in material culture, libraries, monuments and so on – or human – as in great scholars. Their eradication of everything that celebrates the human spirit, human life and human dignity is indicative that they have nothing to do with Islam.
It is a new form of fascism with a new label.
You are one of the 50 most influential Muslims in the world – why are scholars like you not able to take back that psychological ground in Islam from extremists like IS?
When networks, structures and institutions are ruptured, it takes some time for them to restore themselves and to heal. It is through no lack of effort but maybe we are not doing enough. We need to work together.
The phenomena of radicalisation and violent extremism are not things that can be resisted and defeated in an isolated way. It is not enough to use the army and the police to resist terrorism.
It is very important to develop think tanks, universities, graduate programmes, exchange programmes, publishing programmes and also digital content. The media is extremely important.
And let us not forget economic development and opening up opportunities for young people in terms of employment and dignified ways of living.
Humankind thriving and the respect for human life is the best way to resist ideologies of nihility and death, which is all that IS is.
Theirs is just basically an ideology based on darkness and death. It may seem irrational and quite crazy – it is for the same reason that Europeans were attracted to Nazism and fascism.
When people feel powerless and alienated, feel they have no meaning in their lives, feel aggrieved and pushed around, these combined feelings of anger, trauma and lack of meaning make people very vulnerable to peddlers of cheap meanings!
Philosopher, psychologist and psychotherapist Viktor Frankl has written about how people seek meaning, and what IS has done – through the use of media, social media and the clever use of info graphics – is that it has managed to deceive people into thinking it can give them meaning, quickly.
So if someone with a totally wretched life is suddenly given a clear goal, a set of tools and the assurance there are others in solidarity with them ... people are naturally deceived by all this.
This is because the traditional “meaning givers” in our lives – be they religious leaders or cultural or communal standard setters – because of various factors are currently not able to convey the meanings that are conducive to a good life and a life of dignity.
IS seems to consist of Sunni Muslims but they target Sunni as well as Syiah communities, so why can’t Sunnis and Syiahs work together against IS, which is tarnishing Islam for everybody?
I completely disagree with the thinking that IS are Sunnis. IS are Khawarij [a sect that deviates from mainstream Islam, that kills its opponents and supposedly distorts Islam and the meaning of the Quran to justify their actions].
They have nothing to do with Sunni Islam. Just because they sometimes fight the Syiahs in Iran does not mean that they are Sunnis.
They are fascists who happen to fight Sunnis and Syiahs. As a matter of fact, they fight every human being, fight animals, trees and even monuments and dead buildings!
As for the Sunni-Syiah divide, it is centuries-old, I don’t think we can resolve it in any simplified way. There were aggressive Iranian policies after the “Velayat e-faqih” concept was established by Ayatollah Khomeni. This is a concept rejected by many Syiah scholars in Iran itself. After the rise of this concept, which it is a kind of politicising of the Syiaism, and after the adoption of policies of expansion of Syiaism, we began to have confrontation. This is understandable because Sunni communities felt threatened.
On March 23, UN envoy Martin Kobler said he was not allowed to land in Tripoli. As ambassador to the UAE, can you shed some light about why that happened and what is going on there?
The National Unity Government is attempting to enter the capital but the aggressive ideologues that we have been talking about have been subverting this again and again and again and again despite all the concessions that the UN process has given to these Islamists, and despite the fact that they have seats on the presidential council. That is still not good enough for them. And they are preventing the Unity Government from entering.
People will one day have to realise that it is difficult to practise democracy with those who are fundamentally anti-democratic, who only use democracy to achieve power but who will be absolutely disinclined to give it up when they lose elections.
You had ambitions to be PM – would you still want the job?
I did allow my name to be fielded among 12 names by the House of Representatives. The UN chose a name that wasn’t among the 12 names. And he happens to be a friend and someone I respect, and whom I support with all that I can, by giving advice, media support and in whatever way that I can. Let us see if there are general elections and who will be fielding names. If there are convincing personalities out there who I feel comfortable voting for, it is definitely not my first choice to run.
However, if I see that I can be of help to my country, I may run in the future – if we ever get there!
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