October 21st, 2011
10:41 AM ET
By Dan Merica and Alex Zuckerman, CNN
Washington (CNN)– Moammar Gadhafi may have held onto power in Libya for more than 40 years, but the role Islam played in Gadhafi's personal life and leadership remains shrouded in mystery and debated by scholars. After his death, scholars are distancing Gadhafi from Islam and characterizing his religious views as “renegade” and “dictatorial” more than Islamic.
“It should also be made quite clear that Gadhafi was no more of a Muslim leader than Slobodan Milosevic or Robert Mugabe should be considered to be Christian leaders,” said Arsalan Iftikhar, an international human rights lawyer and author of "Islamic Pacifism: Global Muslims in the Post-Osama Era."
“My sense is Gadhafi’s religion was Gadhafisim,” said Kelly Pemberton, assistant professor of religion and women’s studies at George Washington University. “It was clear to many Libyans that his brand of Islam was purely political; it served his political purposes.”
Pemberton, who traveled to Libya with a group of scholars last year, said this was evident not only by the way he lived his life, but the way that he was viewed throughout the Muslim world.
“I think most people did see him as a renegade,” Pemberton said. “I would venture to say he had no friends in the Arab world, and he had no friends in the Muslim majority, and he had very few friends in Africa more generally.”
Though Gadhafi was a Sunni Muslim, he was more influenced by the idea of Arab united, said Harris Zafar, national spokesperson for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA.
“When it comes to Gadhafi, even Sunni clerics have declared fatwas to kill him,” Zafar said. “He has always been this renegade, he hasn't really affiliated with a particular side. He almost made his own little brand.”
Zafar said Gadhafi was more influenced by events and people during his childhood than the Quran. In particular, Gadhafi admired the rise of former President Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt.
And according to a 1971 Time magazine interview, Nasser admired Gadhafi, too. “You know,” Nasser said during an interview, “I rather like Gaddafi. He reminds me of myself when I was that age."
Nasser, while criticized for his politics specifically toward a then growing Israeli population, is widely considered the most successful champion of Pan Arabism, the idea of unifying all countries of the Arab world, from Morocco on the Atlantic Ocean to Oman on the Arabian Sea. When he came to power as the second president of Egypt, Nasser moved to create the United Arab Republic, the predecessor to the Arab League.
Gadhafi idolized Nasser for these views. As a way to honor his hero, after taking control of Libya, Gadhafi converted the Catholic Cathedral of the Sacred Heart of Jesus to the Mosque of Gamal Abdel Nasser.
According to the same 1971 Time report, “[Gadhafi’s] dual preoccupations are the destruction of Israel and, through lavish outlays of his country's oil money, making himself Nasser's successor as the leader of Pan-Arabism.”
But Nasser pushed Pan Arabism as a secular movement, and in many instances he pushed programs of modernization and secularization. Gadhafi’s actions while leading Libya, however, shrouded how much he followed Nasser’s plan of secularization.
And when Pan Arabism seemed out of reach, Gadhafi changed his focus.
In 2009, the Libyan strongman was the chairperson of the African Union. During his tenure, he proposed a United States of Africa as a way to provide stability to the African country.
According to a number of scholars, Gadhafi made contradictory statements on Islam throughout his life. While at times he disavowed himself from Islam, especially Islamists, he also told a crowd in Niger that Islam was the world’s only universal religion. Under his rule, the Libyan government granted financial aid to Islamic communities around Africa, including building Islamic schools.
“You don't come to power without giving some sort of lip service to Islam and establishing your credentials as a believer,” said Pemberton from George Washington. “I think he did that openly when he came to power and certainly talked about the Quran and Sharia.”
But, said Pemberton, once he had come to power, it was evident that “Gadhafi’s Islam was not a true Islam. It was much more based on Pan Arabism ideals.”
Robin Wright, foreign policy analyst at the United States Institute of Peace and author of “Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World,” echoed Pemberton’s claim.
“He, at the end of the day, was secular,” Wright said. “This is a country without sectarian violence. It had deep tribal difference but not sectarian differences, unlike Bahrain and Syria.”
And according to Wright, more than being secular, Gadhafi was anti-Islamist. This was evident in his actions against the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, a group listed as a Foreign Terrorist Organization that hoped to depose Gadhafi.
“Brutality helped him stay in power,” said Wright, speaking of Gadhafi’s regular crackdowns on the organization. “He feared the rising tide of Islam as a political force and as a potential force to mobilize against him.”
Libya is overwhelmingly Sunni, with some estimates as high as 97% of Libya practicing Sunni Islam. Though Sunni Islam is referred to as the orthodox view of Islam with the vast majority of practicing Muslims identifying as Sunni, Zafar said Gadhafi never fully embraced the orthodoxies of Sunni Islam.
“He did expose his religious ideologies to a certain extent, but it wasn't the same as other rulers,” Zafar said. “He was always speaking as a proponent of Islam. He really didn't give much to religious tolerance.”
In one of the more bizarre chapters in the Libyans leader's life, Gadhafi hired 200 Italian models in 2010 while visiting Rome and lectured them on the Quran. Additionally, he called people who did not follow Islam “losers” and said the Christian Bible was a forgery.
“When he had this ludicrous ideas of Sharia law, of everyone converting to Islam, particularly women, he definitely showed his intention or desire for Islam to rule, but he did not identify with a certain sect or thought process,” concluded Zafar.
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team and frequent posts from religion scholar and author Stephen Prothero.