LIBYA’S MILITANT ISLAMISTS
They were so proud of their act of vandalism that they broadcast their mobile phone images around the world last Monday. They desecrated the graves of the British and Commonwealth Second World War dead in the Beloun Farm Cemetery in Benghazi and symbolically attacked its monumental cross with a sledge hammer. This was no spontaneous vandalism. The group was armed, well prepared and clearly felt that it was both right and righteous.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission had maintained this and other cemeteries in Libya throughout the reign of King Idris and the dictatorship of Gaddafi. The soldiers buried there had given their lives to free Libya from the Italian colonists whose rule was often brutal. The vandals were obviously ignorant of this crucial fact. The British role in freeing their forebears was written out of Libyan history by Gaddafi.
The Transitional Government in Libya was embarrassed by the distressing images, not least because British serviceman had once again risked their lives, this time to release ordinary Libyans from Gaddafi’s oppressive regime. However, the act of vandalism by an armed group, one of many such still active in Libya, is one aspect of a difficult problem that needs urgent attention. The inability of the Libyans to deal with these armed groups, called Thwars, is troubling friendly foreign governments as well as peaceful Libyans.
The armed group which attacked the Commonwealth war graves is of a different ilk. It calls attention another problem which should excite the interest of all observers of the Arab Spring and its aftermath. The group belongs to an Islamic equivalent of the Puritans who cleared English churches of paintings, statues, and who smashed precious stained-glass windows long ago. They are the fundamentalists who would take Islam back to its earliest roots and they have recently smashed the shrines of Libyan ‘saints’ and holy men in a similar acts of puritan violence.
One estimate is that there are around 2,000 of them in Libya. That is not many. They are, however, significant because they are ruthless and they practice what the old Militant Tendency was so good at in Britain – the process of entryism. They hijack groups of well-meaning local activists – and have done so with notable success in Egypt.
In Tunis, Egypt and Libya there is a struggle between three schools of Islamic thought. There are the ‘Modernists’ who call for a modernisation of Islam, the ‘Secularists’ who call for the separation of religion and politics and the ‘Fundamentalists’ who are unwavering in cleaving to traditional Islam and who are fervently anti-Western.
We will see the battle between these three for the hearts and minds of Libyans, Egyptians and Tunisians fought out in the ballot boxes and mosques and the outcome will have profound importance for the West.