‘Let Libyans settle their scores’ | Arsalan Alshinawi

Baghdad-born Dr Arsalan Alshinawi, a lecturer in international relations at the University of Malta, insists that the West should be wary of foreign intervention, warning it risks playing with history by not letting Libyans settle scores deeply rooted in their country’s economic, political and cultural realities

International relations expert Arsalan Alshinawi. Photo: Ray Attard
International relations expert Arsalan Alshinawi. Photo: Ray Attard

What should the West do as Libya burns?

Arsalan Alshinawi’s answer to western governments is “not to play with history”.

“In Libya they have to settle their scores on their own… the French revolution took years to complete and some say that the Russian revolution is still unfinished. You cannot fast-track processes which take decades or even centuries to complete.”

Foreign intervention may bring about stability in the short term but the results tend to be superficial when underlying fissures in society are likely to re-emerge some time later.

But how can the West not intervene when ISIS, which poses a direct threat to it, is getting stronger?

Alshinawi is taken aback by this question, noting how decisions taken by Europe and the US have affected the lives of millions in the Arab world and beyond. And it is this Eurocentric view of international relations that infuriates Alshinawi.

“WWII was fought between European countries, but we still suffered its consequences in the Arab world,” he says, reminding western audiences of Libya’s history of colonialism. “Gaddafi never lost an occasion to remind Libyans of the brutality of the Italians. Just imagine the reactions of Libyans to the return of Italian troops in their country.”

With interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan having served to strengthen Islamic extremism, Alshinawi says that Arabs remain hesitant of intervening in each other’s affairs. “We have no history of such interventions.” 

While Western nations were invited by Libyan fighters to intervene on their behalf against Gaddafi in air strikes, Alshinawi acknowledges that short-term goals may be accomplished through intervention. “But when one intervenes to help one side to win against the other, one is bound to suffer a backlash as the losers are bound to seek revenge.”

Alshinawi warns against swift judgements on Islamic State in Libya when most of their actions remain shrouded in secrecy and information about IS is so scant even in areas under their control in Iraq.

“IS thrives on instability. It thrived in Syria and Iraq and now has taken root in Libya where there is instability… Why Libya? Apart from the instability marked by factional fighting between rival militias, Libya also has a long history of Islamism.”

And then again, Islamism has also provided most of the resistance against secular regimes like Saddam Hussein’s and Muammar Gaddafi’s. 

“Islamic State is more of an ‘ideological’ than military threat to the West. They do not have aeroplanes. They have no power to bomb Europe or the US. Their strength is their appeal to people living on the margins of society, whether they are young people with no prospect in war-torn Arab countries, or young people living in the abandoned peripheries of European cities.”

He warns that any misguided young men infuriated by cultural affronts like attacks on the Koran or the prophet Mohammed may well use the ‘IS brand’ to justify individual actions.

But Islamism itself is not monolithic. IS is not the Muslim Brotherhood – which has opposed oppressive regimes – and also not the ‘unfashionable’ Al Qaeda.

“What is sure is that the best manifesto one can have in the Muslim world is the Koran,” Alshinawi says, predicting that in 10 years’ time it is bound to be superseded by some other group thriving on instability and the unresolved issues eating the Islamic world from within. 

And it’s the chaos and instability brought by every foreign intervention, that he says would provide the appeal for a popular reaction against ‘top-down modernisation’ imposed by dictators. “The reasons for this are complex, ranging from shortcomings in education and scientific knowledge in the Muslim world.”

Economic inequality enables extremist groups to position themselves as representatives of excluded groups, like the Sunnis in Iraq.

And while many Muslims are angry and Islam is in desperate need of reinventing itself, Alshinawi warns against trying to fast-track history by forcing the Arab world to accept Western ‘modernity’. “For millions of Muslims, the Koran is the most sacred things in their lives,” he adds.

He remains appalled by Glenn Bedingfield – an aide of Prime Minister Joseph Muscat – who retweeted a quote comparing the Koran to Mein Kampf, before apologising for doing so. “He could have compared the butchers who use Islam to perpetuate crimes to the Nazis. But it is irresponsible to compare a book cherished by billions of people to Nazism… “You can’t offend people who live beside you with what they hold most sacred in their life. You cannot speak as if we are still living in homogeneous communities, which is not the case even in Malta.”

And he reminds those who defend freedom of speech at all costs that these insults are not only read by university professors but by uneducated and marginalised people.