The Arab world is like a genie out of the bottle right now—it just won’t be put back in. First it was Tunisia, then it was Egypt, and now it’s as though the entire Arab world is stirring.
Nothing is certain in Libya, except that violence will continue. But in a country that bred the likes of Omar al-Mukhtar, the famed 20th century resistance leader who struggled against Italian fascist occupation for so long, there’s no lack of courage or a taste for defeat.
One interesting aspect of the revolt in Libya is how different the public perception of the religious establishment has been. The Network of Free Ulema, a recently formed group of Muslim scholars, has wasted no time in ensuring that it is on the side of the people.
To begin with, it was clear in its support of the right of people to protest against, if not overthrow, the regime. As the regime-backed violence escalated, the Network denounced it; and when the regime went beyond a certain point, the Network took the remarkable step of withdrawing completely from tolerating the very legitimacy of the state, issuing a fatwa telling Muslims that it is their duty to rebel.
External observers to the Muslim world may not quite see how significant this is. Its not entirely clear what difference it made to the people of Libya on the ground, who probably would have revolted regardless of what their religious leadership had or had not said, but those who take institutions of spiritual authority seriously, this was something that has very little precedent in Islamic history.
Traditionally, Muslim scholarship has been overwhelmingly in favor of tolerating a less than perfect regime, in order to avoid chaos and anarchy. There are, nevertheless, some cases, at least from a theoretical, dogmatic point of view, where religious authorities will recognize the right to overthrow a ruler. It just happens very, very rarely.
And while we’re discussing Libya as one of those rare cases it should be pointed out that these figures are not al-Qa’eda, or radicals of any stripe, but count among their ranks some of the most noted Sufi shaykhs of the country. But is this such a rarity in Libya? One could argue not. After all, Umar al-Mukhtar was not a forerunner of the likes of al-Qa’eda, but a shaykh in the Sanusi Sufi order. Its hard not to be able to predict on which side of this rebellion he would be.