Libya's Revolution Produces a New Hybrid: Pro-Western Islamists

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Alexandre Meneghini / AP

Former rebel fighters pray at a checkpoint near Bani-Walid, Libya, on Sept. 12, 2011

The Libyan rebels chuckle when they find a child-size T-shirt featuring a cartoon of Osama bin Laden amid the surveillance files, tapes and photos in one of the buildings abandoned by Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's internal security forces. Sporting thick, bushy beards in a fresh show of religiosity they say never would have been tolerated under the old regime, they have mixed feelings about the man on the T-shirt. "Fighting in the name of Islam is something that all Muslims respect," says Mukhtar Enhaysi, carefully. "But when [bin Laden] makes explosions and commits acts of terrorism against civilians who have nothing to do with that, no one agrees with that."

Enhaysi's nuanced view is commonplace in a country whose citizens are suddenly free to express themselves, although the subtle Islamist current in the rebellion has worried some of its Western backers. Rebel forces in Tripoli are commanded by a former associate of bin Laden's whom the CIA had sent to Libya for questioning and torture by Gaddafi's regime. And the leader of the rebel Transitional National Council (TNC) has called for a constitution guided by Islamic values, reflecting popular sentiment in a country whose people describe themselves as conservative and who have endured 42 years of enforced — albeit, many say, superficial — secularism under Gaddafi, even as he tried to style himself as the nemesis of the West.

Interim leader Mustafa Abdel-Jalil told a cheering crowd in Tripoli's Martyrs' Square this week, "We seek a state of law, prosperity and one where Shari'a [Islamic law] is the main source for legislation, and this requires many things and conditions," adding that "extremist ideology" would not be tolerated.

Indeed, for a citizenry that views itself as inherently more conservative than its Egyptian and Tunisian neighbors, it shouldn't be surprising that Libya's interim leaders are already emphasizing the Islamic character of their future government. But many say Gaddafi's legacy — and NATO's recent intervention — has also paved the way for a different kind of Islamist than the type that Washington has long feared. "The fact that Gaddafi used [the West] as a common enemy, well, the saying 'The enemy of my enemy is my friend' holds very true here," says one official in the NTC, speaking on condition of anonymity. "If you compound that with the fact that the Westerners were instrumental in their support [of the rebels] and in the demise of Gaddafi, you see that people are really quite friendly."

On Thursday, British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy became the first Western heads of state to visit liberated Tripoli, where they were given a warm welcome by Libya's transitional authorities. "The Libyans will not forget the 19th of March, when the international community acted to protect Libya and pass a no-fly zone," Abdel-Jalil said at a joint press conference. He promised a close friendship going forward.

And it's a kind of paradox that has become increasingly evident on Libya's streets in recent weeks. Across rebel-controlled territory, Libyans are becoming more expressively religious, holding Islamist group meetings and discussions on the management of mosque funding even as they verbalize an enthusiasm for NATO rare in the Arab world. To that end, Abdel Hakim Belhaj, the former jihadist rebel commander in Tripoli, has disavowed extremism and pledged tolerance toward other religions, despite recently discovered Libyan government documents that corroborate his story of rendition by the CIA. "I'm not motivated by revenge against those who did that," he told TIME. "We are very close to our European neighbors, and we want good relations with those countries, both economically and even in security." The idea of an Islamist-led democracy may jar with post-9/11 thinking in the West but not necessarily in the Muslim world. "It's not something we're inventing," says the NTC official, citing Turkey and Qatar — although the latter, despite its support for the rebellion, can't exactly be called a democracy.

"Generally, in the West, they confuse Islamist with bin Laden," says Saleh Ibrahim, a Libyan journalist, exiting one of Tripoli's largest mosques after the Friday noon prayer. "I think a moderate government will be put in place that will reflect Islamic values, but it won't be extremist."

Most Libyans are Sunni Muslim, meaning there's little risk of sectarian conflict — although tribal and regional schisms have been visible even within the rebellion. And there have been signs of a rift between "Islamists" and "secularists" in the NTC. The so-called secularists dominate its executive committee and include the U.S.-educated acting Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril and Ali Tarhouni, the Finance and Oil Minister who left his job as an economics professor in the U.S. to join the rebellion.

Jibril has been harshly criticized by some rebels, including Tripoli commander Belhaj, for excluding Islamist voices from the NTC leadership even as he tries to bring rebel fighters under stricter central control. But Jibril sees competing groups playing "the political game" and staking their own claims for power. The Prime Minister's critics say the real line of conflict is between remnants of the old regime — who they say remain close to Jibril — and the revolution's fighters. "I'm not an Islamist, but I feel like I have more in common with the Islamists than I do with the secularists who are in the picture right now," says the NTC official. "Why? Because I think the Islamists have no connection with the old regime. They're more nationalist. And they have no frozen assets, that's for sure."

Some see tensions mounting, with Abdel-Jalil being the key to holding the rebel coalition together. Rebel fighters chafed at the NTC leadership's orders to delay the assault on remaining Gaddafi strongholds such as Sirt and Bani Walid to allow loyalist forces more time to surrender. NTC officials say the purpose was to demonstrate their commitment to reconciliation. But Jibril's opponents brand it a move to delay the formation of a government while staffing interim ministries with his cronies and political allies. "At the end of the day, [Jibril] might drive the Islamists to do things that will probably label them as extremists — like taking revenge and liquidating those whom they consider obstacles," says the NTC official. "And then you've left behind the democratic option, and you've taken the option born of frustration, because they're not involved in the decisionmaking process."

Some Western analysts fear that Belhaj and other Islamists could suddenly become more extreme amid frustration over the executive committee's attempts to rein in Libya's roving militias and a climate of rising piety. "He never allowed us to dress like this before," says Fatima Muftah, a 47-year-old whose face and body are entirely concealed by a black veil and gloves. "I'm a computer programmer, but I could never wear this to work." For the sake of TIME's short-sleeved correspondent, she adds, "I have no problem with what you're wearing. Women should be free to wear what they want."

The NTC official is sanguine. "Whatever is going to happen here is going to be unique to Libya," he says, sitting in a Tripoli hotel lobby on a busy weekday afternoon. "It's not going to be an Egyptian model or an Iranian model or a Sudanese model. It's going to be closer to Turkey, but without the alcohol, without the discothèques." The lobby around him is buzzing with the chatter of Libyan youths in hipster plaid, bearded rebels cradling Kalashnikovs, members of Abdel-Jalil's entourage, and a group of women seeking to form a women's-rights group. "This is the only Arab country that has 100% of the same faith," he adds. "The division that people are trying to project — it doesn't exist."