Libyan preachers attack Gadhafi from pulpit

AP News
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Posted: Apr 20, 2011 2:50 AM
Libyan preachers attack Gadhafi from pulpit

Libyan ruler Moammar Gadhafi's secret police once haunted the country's mosques, locking up, torturing and killing Muslim preachers whose talk they considered a threat.

Now that rebels in the country's east have shaken off the regime's control, those same clerics are using the newfound freedom of speech here to attack Gadhafi from the pulpit while defining the society they'd like to see if he falls.

Contrary to efforts by Gadhafi's regime to depict the uprising as led by al-Qaida seeking to impose an Islamic state, many of the newly liberated clerics are telling their flocks that the country needs a civil democratic government.

"We demand our rights, for this is just. We demand to know where our country's wealth is, for this is just. And we demand our dignity!" preacher Mohammed Taeb roared to a crowd of 500 at his Benghazi mosque in a recent Friday sermon. "We demand a civil and civilized state ... We want what all free people want!"

Taeb, who was jailed for seven years by the regime, urged his congregation to work for a civil state with strong institutions and freedoms of speech and association. He also clearly enjoyed lashing out at Gadhafi, calling him a "one-of-a-kind lout, a bizarre weirdo."

The call, made in many mosques in the east, mirrors the stance of the political leadership of the two-month old rebel movement based in Benghazi, Libya's second largest city, which says it seeks a civilian democracy in which religion will have a limited role in government.

It has taken over the local religious affairs office _ once an agent of Gadhafi's control _ and staffed it with clerics who say they'll monitor preachers for extremism.

Religious feeling is strong among Libyans _ Quranic phrases dot conversations and ubiquitous mosques overflow during Friday's prayers, the spiritual focus of the Muslim week. Now imams in the east are enjoying their freedom to actually express their religious after the long, troubled relationship with Gadhafi's regime, said Ghaith al-Fakhri, a local Islamic law professor who recently told a crowd of thousands that Gadhafi had violated his "social contract" with the people and must be overthrown.

Gadhafi couldn't destroy the mosques like he did other social institutions, so he tightly controlled them. Preachers were required to boost Gadhafi's jumble of socialist, anti-colonialist thought. To ensure obedience, secret police monitored sermons, sometimes delivering texts to be read word for word, lauding Libya's "achievements" or insulting the U.S. or other countries, said al-Fakhri.

"All religious talk was directed to serve the politics and ideas of Gadhafi," he said.

Otherwise, they stuck to issues like patience and cleanliness or stories from Islamic history _ topics unlikely to alarm government monitors, al-Fakhri said. Any deviation or sign of independence could lead to arrest.

These rules still reign in parts of Libya that Gadhafi controls. Since the uprising started, residents of the capital Tripoli have reported heavy police presence near mosques on Fridays, with gunmen ready should the devout decide to protest.

The tensions between religious leaders and the regime escalated in the 1990s with the rise of the militant Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which carried out attacks on Gadhafi's regime and aimed to establish an Islamic state. The regime responded by arresting thousands of suspected Islamists, sweeping up many men who say they had no links to the group but merely wore long beards or the short pants favored by some conservative Muslims.

The crackdown struck a heavy blow to the group, with many of its leaders dying in prison. Other members fled to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2007, al-Qaida announced the group had formally linked with it, though most of its Libyan-based membership at the time denied any alliance.

The group's leadership inside Libya renounced violence in 2009 and negotiated the release of hundreds of its prisoners, according to Human Rights Watch.

During the crackdown, Muslim preachers were especially suspect.

Taeb said the regime accused him of Islamist ties when he was arrested in 1999. He said he belonged to no group, and that the real reason for his arrest was that he used to indirectly criticize the regime by discussing social inequality and asking why a country with so much oil had such bad roads and health care.

"If you gave any sermon that had the slight odor of politics, they'd summon you right away," said Khalid bin Rashid, a cleric who said he was jailed in 1995 for giving money to the poor. His captors told him doing so violated Libya's socialism, he said.

Bin Rashid said he was held for months in a filthy bathroom with 15 other men before being transferred to a prison, where his captors beat him with thick wires for reciting the Quran. Others with him died under torture, he said.

He was freed a year and a half later, and then _ in a reflection of Libya's chaotic bureaucracy _ he was appointed a state imam with a modest government salary. Four days after his appointment, he was arrested again and jailed until 2002.

While the east's religious leaders didn't help organize the anti-Gadhafi uprising that started Feb. 15, many quickly joined in, preaching at funerals for "martyrs" killed by security forces and calling for further protests. Also, many protests began in mosques.

Not long after Gadhafi's forces fled Benghazi in mid-February, bin Rashid delivered a sermon for the first time in years with a fiery call for Libyans to stand together to oust Gadhafi. "It was an amazing feeling that I'll never forget," he said. "We could never talk like that before."

Bin Rashid said Islam will always be important for Libyans, but that he wants a civil-based democracy.

Zahi Mogherbi, a political science professor and adviser to the rebels' National Transitional Council, said the body has yet to draft a constitution, but that he expects Islamic rules to guide personal status law governing marriage and inheritance, as it does in almost all Arab nations.

"For everything else, the state will be civil and religion will not interfere," he said, adding that the basis will be "a civil, democratic framework."

He said women won't be forced to veil and that alcohol might be permitted, as it was before Gadhafi.

Rita Katz, head of the U.S. based SITE Intelligence Group, said al-Qaida views the Libyan upheaval as a "valuable opportunity" to establish a regional foothold and that other groups are encouraging jihadists to go there.

Mogherbi acknowledged such fears, saying only establishing a stable, democratic Libya would prevent this.

"Once we have a democratic system and they can express themselves in political life, there will be no need for radical behavior," he said.