What would take the place of Gaddafi’s semi-muslim, semi-socialist regime if he fell? That’s what a lot of people were wondering six or seven months ago when the Arab Spring uprisings reached Libya. Some, bloggers and journos mostly but I think maybe some politicians too, saw parallels with Iran in the late 70s and wondered if it could lead to Libya becoming another Islamic theocracy. Some wondered if Gaddafi’s exit would leave the door open for Alky Ada to move in and start flicking middle fingers across the Med at Europe. Such thoughts might have given governments pause before choosing to support and even fight on the side of the rebels but it seems that for the most part those presidents and prime ministers expected something else. Because there’s a tendency among western governments to equate freedom with western democracy I think they assumed that repressed people fighting against a dictator are freedom fighters, ergo they’re fighting for regular elections contested by depressingly similar parties, crippling national debt and a Starbucks on every other corner. The thought that freedom necessarily means people making choices they might not like seems not to have occurred to them, which I imagine means that Libya’s recent moves towards a more Islamic state is probably coming as an unpleasant shock to some. Take, for example, the reaction to Libya’s pro tem leader Mustafa Abdul-Jalil’s remarks on sharia law and polygamous marriages.
In his speech, Mr Jalil declared a Gaddafi-era law that placed restrictions on multiple marriages, a tenet of Islamic law, or sharia, would be done away with. The law, which stated that a first wife had to give permission before others were added, had kept polygamy rare.
”This law is contrary to sharia and must be stopped,” Mr Jalil said, vowing the new government would adhere more faithfully to sharia. The next day he reiterated the point: ”Sharia allows polygamy,” he said.
The reaction was one of dismay among allies whose military firepower ensured Gaddafi’s fall. The French foreign minister, Alain Juppe, said: ”This is a problem for us, especially in regard to respect for the dignity of women.”
Sorry to break it to you, Alain, but the Libyans weren’t fighting for women any more than they were fighting for Vive la République or Mom’s apple pie or warm beer and football or any other facet of life in any western nation you care to pick. The Libyans just wanted rid of a weapons grade fucking madman who sent aircraft out to strafe them when they got uppity, and a lot of them probably hadn’t thought much beyond fighting until someone had slotted the bastard. It’s a certainty that among them were a few guys fighting for having a wife at the sink and another putting the hoover round while they nail the youngest and prettiest in the bedroom, and I reckon only people arrogant enough to assume the whole world would embrace western democracy if given the chance (which is right up there with the worst tyrant’s assumption that his people love him) would think otherwise.
Freedom doesn’t mean western democracy – it means people making their own minds up. And since western nations aren’t actually a hell of a lot keener on people making their own minds up than Islamic theocracies, banana republics or despotic communist states they wouldn’t be free even if western democracy was what they were aiming for. Tyranny of the majority will almost always be more genteel than tyranny of a single maniac, but at the end of the day it’s still tyranny. Libyans might well understand that now better than many of us.
Some Libyan women see the remarks of the chairman of the Transitional National Council as a menacing sign that the new Libya will mean new repression.
And regrettably part of that is our fault, or at least the fault of our “leaders”. Whatever the goals of the Libyans who were on the ground shooting, the goal of the various government leaders thousands of miles away who sent planes to drop bombs was simple: get rid of Gaddafi. They thought that the existing regime was repressive, which clearly it was, so just as they did in Iraq and Afghanistan they helped knock it down and expected that the result would automatically be better. They thought that the regime itself and the loonies at the top of it were the only obstacles to “freedom” – not actual freedom you understand, but the democracy that is so often mistaken for freedom. They thought that
freedom democracy would take hold, perhaps because unlike Iraq and Afghanistan the move to overthrow the existing regime came from within, but instead the new country began with a summary execution without trial and is continuing to worry people with talk of adopting a repressive legal system, or rather the wrong kind of repressive legal system.* And the reason is because our politicians are just as incapable of learning as they are of understanding what freedom actually means.
Those who don’t remember the lessons of history are going to repeat the mistakes, and I’m sure this is doubly true when it’s extremely recent history and the end of lesson bell hasn’t even rung yet. Don’t be too surprised if your kids are either dropping bombs on Tripoli or paying someone else to in twenty-five years’ time.
* I’m sure a lot of people would have been just fine with the idea of Libya adopting a legal system which bans burqas and similar items of clothing, won’t allow you to defend yourself, demands payment for state TV and levies swingeing fines for non-compliance, covers the places with largely useless CCTV, locks people up for getting high even if doing so didn’t affect anyone else, and won’t allow you to do a thousand different things because of Health and Safety regulation. Not being allowed to do things because the legal system thinks it’s bad for you is not the same as not being allowed to do things because the legal system thinks a god doesn’t want you to. Look, it’s different, okay? It just is.