Libya disavows extremist Islam as the world looks on

September 14, 2011

(A man prays in a Tripoli mosque September 7, 2011/Anis Mili)

When it comes to Islam, moderation is the keyword in Libya, a country at pains to assure the world that it will not become a center of extremism now that anti-Islamist leader Muammar Gaddafi has gone. On the eve of the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks on New York by al Qaeda, Libya’s new de-facto president made a point of addressing the future of Islam in his country, which many abroad fear could take a militant turn.

“Ninety percent of us are moderate Muslims … five percent are on the right and left sides,” said Mustafa Abdel Jalil late on Saturday, in his first public appearance in Tripoli since it fell to anti-Gaddafi fighters on August 23. He urged unity and asked those with more marginal views on religion to restrict their sparring to debate.

Many abroad point to the surge of violent Islamists in Iraq after the U.S.-led invasion and fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, but so far, Islam appears likely to have a more benign influence in Libya. Long oppressed Islamic groups and institutions are quietly renewing themselves and swelling their ranks, but they say they have little political ambition for now, and are more interested in furthering national unity and Islamic values.

“We don’t want power or position or politics,” said Mohammed Hammadi, a heavily bearded Salafist, a sect whose adherents follow what they see as a purer form of Islam as practiced by the Prophet Mohammad in the seventh century. “Look, if you’re going to drink, drink at home, don’t let it affect us,” said Mustapha al-Kikili, another bearded Salafist standing outside a Tripoli mosque.

The long beards of the devout have proliferated in Libya after the fall of Gaddafi, who clamped down hard on Islamists, seeing them as a threat to his absolute rule. Many Islamists, or suspected Islamists, were imprisoned and executed.

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