March 14 2011
Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi claims Al-Qaeda and other Muslim extremists are behind the recent rebellion to oust him from power. Salem Geber, the most well-known cleric in Benghazi, Libya’s second-largest city, says this explanation is not only wrong, but a vintage Gaddafi tactic to inspire fear.
“Gaddafi’s latest speeches are nothing new,” the imam said from his office, which manages Benghazi’s mosques and other Islamic heritage sites. “Gaddafi liked to warn us of the Americans and the Europeans who craved our oil, and also of Al-Qaeda.
“But think about it, he makes it sound like Al-Qaeda and the United States are working together to attack Libya, which is absurd. For one thing that would never happen, and secondly, look around –do you see Al-Qaeda or America in Libya? Of course not. He talks to hear himself talk.”
For decades Gaddafi has cracked down on religious Muslims, calling mosque attendees Al-Qaeda and charging them with trying to destabilise the country, an attempt to divert attention away from his repressive regime.
Geber, despite being the city’s leading Imam, was relegated to signing marriage papers for the past five years. A non-religious governmental office supervised the Imams, and all sermons for important Muslim holidays would have to pass through a Gaddafi censor.
“Under Gaddafi, we have not been able not openly discuss our own religion,” Geber said. “Talking about the honest figures from Islamic history was forbidden, as was discussing Libya’s poor or the problems facing our youth. All we could talk about were Gaddafi’s holidays and all the positive things he was doing to Libya.
“Police constantly woke me during the night to harass or arrest me. Gaddafi didn’t want us to provoke Libyans to think about their situations in life. He made sure his fingers were in every pie: business, culture, soccer, religion – he even tried to change some of the words in the Quran. He wanted to keep Libya closed and keep it all for himself.”
Like many in Benghazi, he believes the city has put Gaddafi behind.
Ihab Jazwe, a 28-year-old imam, wears a winter cap to cover his shaved head, full of stitches running down the middle of his scalp from the machete that one of Gaddafi’s soldiers struck him with during the recent uprising. He also received a bullet in his side. But he says the risks he took to help wrest control of Benghazi from Gaddafi were worth it.
Four years ago at the Sika interrogation centre in Tripoli, he says Gaddafi’s guards stripped him naked for questioning, and hit him with electric cables and leather belts.
The worst torture was what he says they called the Hyundai. Guards would tie his hands to a metal bar placed underneath his knees and hang him upside down from the ceiling until he passed out. “It’s called the Hyundai because it reminded prisoners of trying to fit into a small car,” he said at his home in Benghazi.
No charges were ever pressed against him, but officials told him during questioning that he was there for participating in anti-government activities – a formal way of saying that Jazwe was a devout Muslim.
After Libyans liberated the Katiba military compound in central Benghazi three weeks ago, locals flocked to the burned buildings and architectural skeletons to see the insides of the Gaddafi apparatus. In one courtyard, dozens of people descended into the underground prison cells, now empty.
One of the visitors was Mansour Jabel Bedri, an unemployed 42-year-old Benghazi man who spent a month imprisoned there in 1997.
“They used to beat our legs until we bled,” he said. “Soon our feet became infected and when we asked for help, the soldiers rubbed salt on the wounds. It’s interesting being here because I actually never saw this place before today. They covered our heads coming and going. But today I confirmed it because I recognised the tiles on the floor.”
The harassment, Bedri said, did not end with imprisonment. “After we were released, they kept tabs on us. For years, anytime there was a knock on the door, our hearts leapt. Anytime we left the city for more than two days they would find us and interrogate us. The regime says that we are extremists and Al-Qaeda, but it’s a lie he tells the United States and Europe to scare them.”
Gaddafi’s forces appear to have gained ground militarily against the rebel army. Geber joined the call for an international-backed no-fly zone to disable Gaddafi’s airstrikes, but in any case he said he was convinced the people will prevail.
“Our sermon will call on people to fight Gaddafi,” he said. “It will be a tough fight, but there is no turning back now. We must inspire people to fight for human rights. This country will be model for the world once Gaddafi leaves.”