In it for the long run

By Razib Khan | October 29, 2011 1:59 pm

Over the past six months we’ve seen the “Libyan revolution” stall and then succeed. There’s no doubt that the late Libyan dictator was a marginally sane megalomaniac. That being said, he’d been on better behavior over the past 10 years, dismantling his nuclear program for example. I can see the logic in wanting to overthrow him though, there’s a lot of built up historical memory in relation to the various terrorist groups he’s funded in Europe, as well as actions like bombing of Pan Am 103. But is anyone really surprised when things like this occur:

It was just a passing reference to marriage in a leader’s soberly delivered speech, but all week it has unsettled women here as well as allies abroad.

In announcing the success of the Libyan revolution and calling for a new, more pious nation, the head of the interim government, Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, also seemed to clear the way for unrestricted polygamy in a Muslim country where it has been limited and rare for decades.

It looked like a sizable step backward for women at a moment when much here — institutions, laws, social relations — is still in play after the end of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s 42 years of authoritarian rule.

In his speech, Mr. Abdel-Jalil declared that a Qaddafi-era law that placed restrictions on multiple marriages, which is a tenet of Islamic law, or Shariah, would be done away with. The law, which stated that a first wife had to give permission before others were added, for instance, had kept polygamy rare here.

“This law is contrary to Shariah and must be stopped,” Mr. Abdel-Jalil told the crowd, vowing that the new government would adhere more faithfully to Shariah. The next day he reiterated the point to reporters at a news conference: “Shariah allows polygamy,” he said. Mr. Abdel-Jalil is known for his piety.

The Libyan nation is a pretty religious one. Even the women who oppose polygamy out of straightforward self-interest admit its religious validity: ‘Rehab Zehany, 20, who said Mr. Abdel-Jalil was merely following the dictates of the Koran, added, when asked if she would accept her husband taking a second wife: “Of course not! I would kill him!”’ As I’ve asserted many times: attitudes considered extreme or benighted in the West are relatively widespread in much of the Islamic world. When you democratically empower people who have these attitudes, you’re going to get some sloppy regress back to positions that in the West might be considered backward. Some Americans do garnish their arguments about public policy with references to the Bible, but they’re in a minority. Not so in many of these Middle Eastern Muslim nations.

Consider Tunisia, where relatively milquetoast Islamists just came to power. Tunisia Liberals See a Vote for Change, Not Religion:

The message to Islamists, he added, was: “ ‘We are for Islam to be the religion of the state, but you must be very cautious. We are not going to give up our fight for civil freedoms.’ I am profoundly convinced that we can promote human rights and women’s rights, etc., without fighting against Islamists.”

Observe that self-described liberals in Tunisia want Islam to be the religion of the state! Having a state religion isn’t necessarily incompatible with democratic liberalism (e.g., Norway). But in general in most societies which are democratically liberal the secularists are not proponents of an established state religion. I am moderately optimistic that Tunisia can make a transition toward a pluralistic democracy, because it doesn’t seem that the religious conservatives are the overwhelming majority, and so could not impose their vision without major backlash and possible revolt from the more liberal segment of society. This may not be the case in far less developed nations, such as Egypt.

As far as Libya goes, it might be best to avert our eyes. Liberal internationalists and neoconservatives don’t seem to have learned anything from the past 10 years of American foreign policy intervention in their hearts. They see only the immediate justice that they can mete out before their face, and don’t think about medium to long term consequences. They saw the revolution in Libya as a clean abstraction. But the past 6 months have seen something of a ‘race war’, as anti-Qaddafi forces turn against black Libyans and Sub-Saharan Africans who were favored by the old regime. The future may see the rise of a conservative illiberal democracy. That’s not the end of the world by any means, but people should have had their eyes open to the range of possibilities beforehand.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: International Affairs

Comments (7)

  1. Prasad

    Hi Razib
    Does this show an oversell of the intervention rather than lack of foresight ?
    E.g. The possibility that a “secular” saddam is replaced and elections bring in an “islamist” party is one nuance too many on campaign trails and news shows. Was the possibility recognised amongst policy/ decision makers? Likely, yes.
    The calculation may be that a participative democracy in libya would be more amenable to international opinion and, thus, marginally better. Am thinking of Fareed Zakaria’s defence of american interventions here :

  2. #1, the libya intervention in a specific sense is less important than the principle that we can intervene all the time. i really hope its ‘success’ doesn’t encourage more future foolhardiness. even if it turns out well it’s only an N = 1.

  3. Darkseid

    yeah, it seems as though libs and neocons don’t quite understand that it’s not just the Arab/Persian governments that are “backward” but that they are backed by a substantial portion of the population they represent. it’s similar to the U.S. in that many cons back the military no matter what – rural areas in these countries are quite conservative as well and fully back Iran or whomever to establish themselves on the world stage or live under Sharia law. we’re dealing with some backward mentalities here that’d be better off left alone. many of the youth want to leave or change to a more progressive nation and we should just let that happen on its own. there’s a reason why the U.S. gov’t is the way it is – because many people here want it that way. the Middle East is no different.

  4. rural areas in these countries are quite conservative as well and fully back Iran or whomever to establish themselves on the world stage or live under Sharia law.

    in 19th century europe expanded suffrage was sometimes a pragmatic move by aristocratic conservatives because the high bourgeoise was a reliable liberal votebank, and the rural peasant elements were perceived to be possible allies against this liberal elite. in particular, the 19th century liberals tended to be anti-clerical, while the rural segment was generally more attached to the church.

  5. Darkseid

    wow, good info, that is really weird. i’m thinking about the neurological underpinnings of this now. being around large groups of extremely varied people must release the brakes on ones’ inhibitions. you’ve been exposed to more stimuli so fewer things scare you and your fear circuits are less active? agree? i’d never thought about the rural/urban thing outside of the modern context until now but, clearly, it’s probably been happening forever.

  6. Brian Too

    I don’t know, this could be a simple case of wanting the old dictator out and accepting any imperfect replacement so long as the new system is incrementally better than the old.

    For instance, did you notice that the NATO allies far exceeded the UN mandate and resolution, even as they insisted that protection of civilians was their sole goal? There was a game of nudge and wink being played there.

    Ghaddafi did plenty to make himself hated both at home and abroad. Once a domestic uprising took hold and with the examples of Tunisia and Egypt at hand, the option to roll the dice on a new leadership system starts to look appealing. To outsiders I mean. The counterargument was the almost total lack of profile, visibility, and track record for the opposition forces.

    I thought the backlash against Sub-Saharan Africans was rooted in the fact that Ghaddafi hired lots of them as mercenaries? A simple racist or tribal suppression of blacks would obviously be bad. However if the rebels learned to associate a black person in uniform with Ghaddafi, then this is simply retribution against the former dictator and his forces. Sorry but the mercenaries picked the wrong side.

    I’m willing to cut the Libyan rebels a bit of slack. They got way farther than I expected and although they have made some mistakes they seem ready to change course when criticized enough. They strike me as a nascent political force, formative and relatively untested.

    And the realpolitik equation is, as long as they are better than Ghaddafi, progress has been made.

  7. BEN

    Hi Razib, I have a friend who is working on human genetics and need a help in linkage disequilibrium / haplotype analysis. I have the feeling that you can help us out. Please,will you be wiling to help out? I did be glad to hearing from you soonest.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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