I’m back in Washington and pretty much recovered from traveling to and from Libya for a conference on that country’s terrorist rehabilitation program. I should note that the trip would have been impossible until 2006, when the United States restored diplomatic relations with Libya after a 27-year break and following a two-and-a-half year diplomatic process. While the trip itself felt like an extended advertisement for Libya’s heir apparent, Saif al-Islam Qaddafi, it’s worth noting that the terrorists who have gone through Libya’s rehabilitation program don’t seem to have de-radicalized so much as they have simply made a deal with the Libyan government not to fight against Tripoli anymore. There was no categorical renunciation of violence, rather one limited to a renunciation of violence against the Qaddafi regime and the Libyan state.
For one, the religious scholar who oversees the rehabilitation program, Sheikh Ali Salabi, evaded questions from the assembled group of foreign scholars and think-tankers about the new religious views he had promoted among militants on the permissibility of fighting against the United States or any other “occupier” in Iraq, Afghanistan, or elsewhere.
Second, for the most part, the militants we were able to talk to did, in fact, have conditions that would lead them to take up violence against the Libyan state again. Combined with Salabi’s evasions on the question of fighting elsewhere and their own familiar criticisms of U.S. policy in the Middle East, I got the impression that these militants haven’t so much as made some sort of intellectual conversion into renouncing violence as a method of political change as they have constructed an intellectual edifice justifying a deal with the Libyan government.
This perception seemed to be confirmed by the rambling lecture given us by the head of Libya’s internal security organization, where he claimed that the militants had recognized the error of their interpretation of Islam and the truth of Qaddafi’s own interpretation. Also included in the security chief’s remarks were several gratuitous attacks on secularism, as well as bizarre claims that there were no “infidels” in Libya and that Libya had ideal religious freedom since it is governed by Qaddafi’s correct interpretation of Islam.
There’s a certain irony to the way the Libyans presented their claims to fronting a successful terrorist rehabilitation program – they were employing the very means the terrorists used to justify violence against the regime. That is, the presenters claimed that the group had an incorrect and false interpretation of Islam – which is exactly what the militant group claimed of the Libyan government to justify rebelling against it. So the program remains stuck in a narrow and futile debate of what is or is not “true Islam.”
This view was confirmed, to me at least, by the press conference marking the release of some 200-plus prisoners from Libyan prisons we were trucked off to following the security chief’s presentation. Both Saif al-Islam Qaddafi’s opening remarks and the militants’ were conducted in the same narrow space of religion, and the militants included some remarks on the Danish Mohammad cartoon controversy that could only be interpreted as blackmail – i.e., don’t offend us or we’ll start blowing things up again.
Combined, these remarks signaled to me a narrowing of the ideological distance between the regime and the militants. It’d be wrong to say the regime is “giving in” in some sense to the religious ideology of the militants since Qaddafi has always incorporated religion into his eccentric and idiosyncratic ideology, but I did get the sense both the government and militants were determined to keep acceptable political discourse in the narrow confines of religion.
Finally, the next day we went to the Libyan prison where a large number of these prisoners were being held to witness their release. Of the 200-plus prisoners released, an official told us, some 85 had been detained either in Iraq or in transit to fight there. Combined with the previous day’s experiences and evasiveness we received on the question of Libyans fighting abroad, I came to the conclusion that these prisoners haven’t been de-radicalized at all; rather, they have simply been induced by means unknown to give up (at least for now) violence in Libya and against the Qaddafi regime. (As Human Rights Watch noted, a number of the prisoners released had been held arbitrarily by the Libyan regime even after formal acquittal by the court system.) They still hold radical political views but have decided, temporarily at least, not to implement those views by violence domestically.
Labeling this rehabilitation program a “deradicalization” program is a misnomer that plays upon the faulty and quite frankly bigoted division of people of Muslim religious background into “radicals” (people who blow stuff up) and “moderates” (people who don’t blow stuff up). Either way, if you’re born into a Muslim religious background, this view implies, we view you as intrinsically and essentially conservative and concerned above all else with your presumed religion.
This view is reactionary, and cedes the political playing field to religious conservatives and regional dictators. Neither the United States nor progressives should make such a concession to the agendas of these players.