An Interview with Libya's Ambassador to the United Nations

Civil war-torn Libya is rapidly approaching the status of a failed state -- and providing a haven for transnational terror and criminal organizations. The leader of Ansar Al-Shari'a, the largest jihadist group in Libya, has pledged allegiance to ISIS. Meanwhile, the international presence in the country is minimal, and prospects for the two rival governments of Tripoli and Benghazi to coalesce into a single state appear dim. But there are also new hopes for national reconciliation, under UN-brokered talks that are now entering a "decisive round."

I met with Ambassador Ibrahim al-Dabbashi, the Permanent Representative of Libya to the United Nations, to discuss hopes for reconstruction and renewal of civil society and state institutions, and a culture of religious moderation and tolerance.

What are your thoughts about the challenge of reconstructing intellectual life and civil society in Libya?

In the early period of the revolution, in 2011-12, Libyans were drawing up plans to establish publishing houses, theater, and cinema. Unfortunately, all of this ceased amid the bloodshed that followed -- and due to extremist and terrorist elements among the militias, who began to assault the culture. The same is true of civil society institutions, of which there has been a major outflow. Ninety percent of civil society activists have gone into hiding -- and organizations aiming to improve the status of women were hit the hardest of all. I believe that if the country can establish stability, within five or ten years you would find Libyan intellectuals attaining prominence in the Arab region.

In these areas, the role of universities is of course vital -- in Libya and, for that matter, in much of the Arab world, where higher education is weak by international standards. Until 1975, I'd say Libya's universities were among the best in the region and enjoyed a decent reputation in non-Arab countries. The University of Benghazi's medical faculty, for example, maintained partnerships with its counterparts in the U.K., and a doctor certified in Libya would enjoy some respect in the West. Establishing new academic partnerships is another area where we would hope the United States will play a supportive role, once the situation in the country stabilizes.

Tell us more about the status of women and what can be done to improve it.

As I indicated, the militias harboring an extremist agenda feel that women should not have rights, and they use Islam to justify this position. But the truth is, if we apply Islamic principles both rationally and to the letter, I believe the rights women enjoy would exceed those guaranteed them in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights -- even as far as their inheritance rights. If we applied the laws completely, not just in part, we'd find that in some circumstances a woman is entitled to more than a man. She doesn't have to pay any of the home expenses; the man is obliged to pay all of them. He has to pay for the children's expenses, and all clothing, food, the electric bills, and so on. If only some of the laws are implemented, we'll have problems -- but if they're all enforced, then it could be an even better arrangement than contemporary [secular] laws.

How would you accomplish that?

It's a matter of inculcation. You have to enlist the educational and and religious institutions and ensure that they are promulgating a moderate interpretation [of Islamic law].

Are there Islamic institutions or sources of religious authority which would you look to for guidance in such an effort?

I think that we can benefit most from Egypt's Al-Azhar Islamic seminar. It has always been moderate, and I think it has had a positive influence over the centuries.  The Maliki and Hanafi schools in Islam, for which we have adherent in Libya, are also important.

Any other sources of religious leadership in the region that you feel could benefit Libya?

Saudi Arabia understands that it has problems internally, but they are starting to bring forward rational and moderate religious leaders. That said, the extremist strand is deeply rooted there, and it will take a long period of time to achieve change. In any event, we cannot limit the approach to a single Arab country or source. Libyans don't just watch the Libyan [religious satellite television] channels. They're watching Moroccan, Iraqi, Saudi, and other TV. There needs to be a comprehensive strategy in the struggle against religious extremism, and a strategy to counter the terrorist phenomenon in particular by way of religious institutions.

What are your hopes with respect to the role of the Libyan diaspora in supporting reconstruction and political development?

Unfortunately, Libyans have had an extremely negative experience with some of our brethren in the Libyan diaspora, who have held a great deal of authority over the past three years, and more recently there has been a strong backlash against them. To begin with, among Libyan returnees who have taken senior positions in government, most left their families behind -- and at the first sight of trouble, simply left Libya and returned to their families. The population has lost confidence in these former exiles. In my view, they can contribute something valuable -- and we need them -- but not in the political leadership. We need them in research centers, universities, and so on. We also need people with experience running state institutions -- and building institutions in general. A Libyan, for example, who worked in civil service in another country, could benefit his homeland by serving in a similar position in Tripoli. We had a Libyan gentleman come in and serve as minister of electricity who had had an extremely successful electronics company in the US. He did an exceptional job in enormously difficult circumstances.  But what we don't need are people without prior experience to come in and play political roles. The most prominent example of that is [former Prime Minister] Ali Zeidan. Because he'd been in Geneva over the prior 30 years, we thought he had internalized that country's professional administrative practices. But he hadn't actually been involved in the affairs of state, and the value-add to Libya was very limited.