moammar gadhafi

Christians in Libya Cast Anxious Eye at Religious Freedom

A Catholic priest converses with an Anglican pastor at Christ the King Anglican Cathedral in Tripoli. Photo: Fredrick Nzwili/RNS

Church leaders in Libya remain hopeful that Christians in the mostly Muslim country will be allowed to practice their faith, even as the country appears to be moving towards Shariah law.

In December, Libya’s General National Congress voted to make Shariah the source of all legislation and institutions. The vote came amid international concerns over the diminishing Christian populations in North Africa and the Middle East, and increased Islamist influence in countries engulfed by the Arab Spring revolution.

Libya has undergone a two-year transition since 2011 when demonstrations toppled Moammar Gadhafi. Before the revolution, Christians were granted religious freedom, but with the change of power, they have been arbitrarily arrested, attacked, killed, and forced by the Islamist groups to convert to Islam.

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Libya's Revolution: A Model for the Region?

Recent analyses of the Arab Spring have questioned the efficacy of nonviolent resistance compared to armed struggle in ousting authoritarian regimes. The relatively expeditious victories of the nonviolent uprisings (not "revolutions," as some suggest) in Tunisia and Egypt stand in stark contrast to Libya, where a disparate amalgam of armed groups, guided politically by the Libyan Transitional National Council (TNC) and backed militarily by NATO, are on the verge of removing Moammar Gadhafi from power. As someone who has written extensively about civil resistance, notably in the Middle East, while at the same time working on the Libya portfolio within the State Department, I've been grappling with the meaning and significance of the Libyan revolution and its possible impact on the region.

First of all, like most people, including my State Department colleagues, as well as democrats and freedom fighters around the world, I am delighted that an especially odious and delusional Libyan dictator is getting the boot. I applaud the bravery and determination of the Libyan people, who have endured four decades of a despicable dictatorship and have made great sacrifices to arrive at this point. I hail the extensive planning that my U.S. government colleagues have undertaken over the past five months, in concert with Libyan and international partners, to support a post-Gadhafi transition process.

What About Gadhafi?

The overwhelmingly nonviolent pro-democracy revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt followed scores of successful unarmed civil insurrections over the past few decades that have brought down dictatorships from the Philippines to Serbia, from Chile to Poland, and from Bolivia to the Maldives. Nonviolent pro-democracy protests subsequently have erupted in other Arab countries as well, including Yemen, Bahrain, Morocco, and Oman.

Yet in Libya, the pro-democracy struggle deteriorated into a bloody civil war and massive Western aerial attacks. Some analysts tried to attribute this solely to the repressive and mercurial Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi, arguing that nonviolence “can’t work” when faced with such a ruthless tyrant.

History, however, has shown repeatedly that dictators quite willing to unleash massive violence against unarmed citizens were, nevertheless, overthrown through large-scale nonviolent action.

From the Philippines to East Germany, autocratic rulers facing nonviolent civil insurrections ordered their troops to fire on unarmed crowds, only to have the troops refuse. On Jan. 14, Tunisian dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali declared a state of emergency and banned gatherings of more than three people, threatening that “arms will be used if orders of security forces are not heeded.” In response, thousands of Tunisians defied the regime, bravely marching upon the dreaded Interior Ministry, and a general strike effectively shut down the country. When the head of the armed forces informed the president that he would refuse orders to attack nonviolent protesters, Ben Ali and his family fled the country.

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A Policy of Deception

On October 2 the Washington Post published a story describing a Reagan administration campaign of deception designed to make Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi think that, among other things, he was about to be attacked again by U.S. bombers. The story revealed a plan that was adopted at a White House meeting August 14 and detailed in a three-page memo from national security affairs adviser John M. Poindexter to President Reagan.

According to the Washington Post, the Poindexter memo said "one of the key elements" is that the strategy "combines real and illusionary events--through a disinformation program--with the basic goal of making Gadhafi think that there is a high degree of internal opposition to him within Libya, that his key trusted aides are disloyal, and that the U.S. is about to move against him militarily."

On August 25 the Wall Street Journal printed a front-page story detailing as fact much of the false information generated by the administration plan. For the next few days, U.S. TV stations, newspapers, and radio contained many reports describing renewed Libyan backing for terrorism and an almost certain U.S. military response. The false reports were based on information provided by administration officials. White House spokesperson Larry Speakes, speaking on the record at the time, called the false report in the Wall Street Journal "authoritative."

After the campaign of deception was revealed by the Washington Post, administration officials began denying and justifying their action at the same time. The president said, "Our side is not lying about anything." Secretary of State George Shultz said if he were a private citizen and heard about the administration's disinformation campaign, he would say, "Gee, I hope it's true." Shultz went on to quote Winston Churchill, saying, "In time of war, the truth is so precious, it must be attended by a bodyguard of lies."

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