The rais is dead. On Thursday, October 20, it was reported that Colonel Moammar Gadhafi had died at the hands of rebels near his hometown of Sirte, Libya. Compared to the demise of Osama bin Laden several months earlier, the death of Gadhafi was somewhat anti-climatic. While bin Laden had been missing in action for nearly a decade, the world’s eyes had been on the Colonel for the previous half year.
Many people wonder what will happen in Libya with Moammar Gadhafi gone for good. It is of course impossible to answer that question with any certainty. Nonetheless, it seems almost equally impossible to say who Gadhafi really was or what he represented during his lifetime. Was he a defender of the poor and oppressed of the (Third) World, a revolutionary hero, an archenemy of the United States (and by extension, the entire Western world), or the West’s trusted ally against the forces of what Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has called Islamicism? Or was Gadhafi like a perpetual adolescent, trying on many identities without settling definitely on any one of them in particular?
Born into a poor family, Gadhafi came to power in 1969, toppling Libya’s monarchy and setting himself up as the country’s absolute ruler. He at first embraced the notion of pan-Arabism, or unity among all Arab peoples throughout North Africa and the Middle East. Most leaders of other Arab countries were uninterested in the idea, so he eventually abandoned it. Perhaps among the casualties of Gadhafi’s Arab nationalism was the suppression of the Berbers, the original people of Libya. For example, Berbers were forbidden to register their children under Berber names. Moammar Gadhafi later turned to the philosophy of pan-Africanism. One consequence of this new love affair was the marriage of one of his daughters to Ugandan ruler Idi Amin. Gadhafi’s pan-Africanism never got much further off the ground, however, for one because Libya and other North African countries had little in common with Africa south of the Sahara desert, as some observers have noted.
Moammar Gadhafi posed as the ally of revolutionaries around the world. His protégés in this regard included the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the ETA (a Basque separatist group in Northern Spain) in addition to a number of rebel groups in the Third World, like the FARC in Colombia or Moro (Muslim) secessionists in the Philippines. Race, religion or nationality did not seem to play a role in his choice of favourites here. His friends among other national leaders similarly consisted of a panoply of figures of various ethnicities, from Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez to Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi.
In 1986, Libya became the target of air raids by the United States when Libyan agents were accused of planting a bomb in a Berlin discotheque which led to the death of two American servicemen and injury of over 200 other people, many of them US military personnel. The US, under President Ronald Reagan, retaliated by carrying out several air strikes on Libya. Moammar Gadhafi entered the Western public consciousness at that moment, with even a satirical song called ‘Mo Gadhafi’ (to the tune of Austrian singer Falco’s ‘Amadeus’) dedicated to him. Reagan called Gadhafi a ‘mad dog.’ Over two years later (in December of 1988), a bomb exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland on a Pan Am flight travelling from London, England to New York, killing all the crew and passengers as well as several individuals on the ground. Libya ultimately admitted involvement in the Lockerbie bombing, although Gadhafi denied ordering the bombing himself.
While Gadhafi fancied himself a protector of the poor and downtrodden, especially in the Third World, and while the Berlin discotheque and Lockerbie incidents put him in the mainstream West’s bad books, he did not completely shy away from relations with Western leaders. He cultivated friendships with among others Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy, Libya’s former colonial master, a relationship that continued almost until the end of Gadhafi’s rule.
After being out of the spotlight for some time after the air raids on Libya and the Lockerbie affair, Moammar Gadhafi re-emerged after 9/11 with a new image: that of the ally of the West against al-Qaeda and Islamic fundamentalism. Though a Muslim himself who sometimes flirted with the idea of an Islamic state, he never quite fit into the fundamentalist mould. Perhaps his associations with so-called infidels prevented hardcore Islamists from ever accepting him as one of their own. His potential as a Muslim leader was further hampered by the fact that the Islam practised in his native Libya was and still is more moderate than that in places like Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia. However, Gadhafi’s rehabilitated reputation was questioned when his government sentenced five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor employed at a children’s hospital in Benghazi, Libya to death for supposedly infecting patients with the virus that causes AIDS. Evidence accumulated that the spread of AIDS at the hospital was not due to a deliberate ploy but to poor hygiene and improper sterilization of instruments. The healthcare workers’ sentence was eventually commuted to life in prison; they were subsequently sent back to Bulgaria and released there.
Towards the end, perhaps in a bid to salvage his decreasing popularity among his people, Gadhafi began voicing pro-Islamic and anti-Western ideas. He once exhorted Western women to convert to Islam during a visit to Italy in 2010. Some Italians were outraged, with one woman saying that women in Gadhafi’s culture were treated ‘pathetically,’ even though women in Libya probably enjoyed more freedom than those in much of the rest of the Arab world, with the Colonel himself even employing female bodyguards. His role as a champion of Islam did not last long, though, and by the time his subjects began to rebel, Muslim religious leaders in other countries were issuing fatwas against him.
Moammar Gadhafi was a man who tried on many hats, but perhaps in the end none of them quite fit him. He rushed into pan-Arabism, for instance, long after it had become passé (partly as a result of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s failed experiment with the ideology). Some observers, like Pakistani-Canadian commentator Zuhair Kashmeri, have attempted to portray Gadhafi as a Third World hero victimized by the evils of colonialism/imperialism. However, his relations with Western political leaders – particularly Silvio Berlusconi, who once called Islamic civilization ‘backward’ – and forceful expulsion of Palestinians from his territory after the Palestinian Authority decided to negotiate with Israel did not mesh very well with his underdog image.
One might also ask whether Gadhafi was a man of high ideals – ideals that may have nonetheless changed over time – or an opportunist who adopted various personae in order to further his own goals, a bit like how Serbian warlord Arkan went from being a gang leader to Communist activist to devout Orthodox Christian patriot. But while Arkan was, in the words of one of his biographers, clearly ‘no ideologue,’ it is more difficult to determine Gadhafi’s motivations. Maybe he was both: a man of principle and a man on the make. Defying easy classification, Moammar Gadhafi remained alone, literally and figuratively, in death as well as in life.