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Nationalist Salafism | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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I enjoyed reading the second instalment of the interview that al-Hayat Editor in Chief Ghassan Charbel conducted with former Libyan Foreign Minister Abdul Rahman al-Shalgham.

Al-Shalgham, as everybody knows, defected from the Gaddafi regime, although Gaddafi claims that al-Shalgham did not hold an official post in his regime when he renounced the Libyan regime [in a speech before the UN]. The advantage of al-Shalgham’s defection is that, until recently, he was at the heart of the Libyan regime, and he has huge experience in dealing with Gaddafi. In addition to this, al-Shalgham knows many of the regime’s secrets, from the Lockerbie bombing, the execution of Moussa al-Sadr, and the attempted assassination of King Abdullah, to Colonel Gaddafi financing Iran against Iraq, and other more.

Al-Shalgham revealed what was truly going on in the Libyan corridors of power – or shall we say Gaddafi’s tent – and how the Libyan leader utilized his country’s oil revenues to manipulate leaders of Lebanese or Palestinian organizations, in addition to how Gaddafi thought of himself as the absolute [Arab] leader that everybody should follow.

However this is not the problem, for anybody may become intoxicated by wielding absolute power and thereby lose their senses, especially if they have a predisposition towards megalomania, or if there is a lack of legislative, supervisory, or judicial authorities to restrict their behaviour. This is why the principle of a “balance of power” is so important! Rather, the grave problem is in the Arab mentality and rhetoric that has seduced Gaddafi, and which – for some unknown reason – has only served to intensify his paranoia and megalomania.

In the interview, al-Shalgham made reference to Gaddafi’s anger towards the Gulf States, specifically Saudi Arabia, saying that the Libyan leader continued to attempt to hinder the operations of a “distinguished Arab alliance” (the GCC), which possessed strong finances and pursued a moderate foreign policy stance. Al-Shalgham said that Gaddafi abhorred moderation, and that his grudge against Saudi Arabia was based on the fact that the country is recognized as the land of the Two Holy Mosques, namely the Grand Mosque in Mecca and the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina. This gives Saudi Arabia a special spiritual prestige that Gaddafi felt overshadowed his charisma and popularity within the Islamic world, particularly his attempt to increase his influence across Africa, leading prayers and giving Friday sermons, in this regard. In addition to this, al-Shalgham revealed that Gaddafi was envious of Saudi Arabia’s oil wealth, which outstripped the oil wealth of his own country. There is also the famous incident that took place between Colonel Gaddafi and Saudi King Abdullah – then Saudi crown prince – during an Arab League meeting in Sharm el-Sheikh. During this incident, the then Saudi Crown Prince embarrassed the Libyan leader, strongly rebuking him in public for his conduct.

Subsequent reports indicate that Gaddafi did not accept this public humiliation, attempting to take revenge by arranging the assassination of King Abdullah. Gaddafi allegedly mobilized men and provided finances for the assassination attempt which, of course, ended in failure. Commenting on this incident, al-Shalgham revealed that Algerian President Abdul-Aziz Bouteflika had previously told him that Gaddafi’s problem is that he is not a forgiving man, and that real leaders should be able to rise above personal rancour.

For me, the most important revelation made by al-Shalgham was over the “harmful” Libyan intellectuals who caused Gaddafi to become more paranoid and mistrustful, encouraging him to follow a reckless course, and even created illusionary pretexts in order to ensure that Gaddafi continued to pursue this destructive course, which not only harmed Gaddafi himself, but the people of Libya, and indeed the entire Arab world. Some of these intellectuals did this for Gaddafi’s money, whilst others failed to stand up to him out of fear, whilst even more pursued this course due to their distorted beliefs and delusions of grandeur…

Speaking of Gaddafi’s position towards Saudi Arabia, al-Shalgham said “he was convinced that Saudi Arabia had adopted a negative stance towards the Libyan revolution [which brought him to power]. Unfortunately, Egyptian journalist Mohamed Hassanein Heikal played a role in provoking Gaddafi, in this regard. Heikal was, and remains, sympathetic towards Gaddafi, and this is something that I term ‘nationalist Salafism’. What I am talking about here is plastic or wooden rhetoric, and campaigns launched against imperialism and occupation. These people live in a bygone era; that is to say those who mastered the manufacturing of chariots in the fifteenth century will not necessarily master the computer industry in the twentieth century. Let us be frank, has the promotion of slogans of Arab unity brought us anything other than defeat, catastrophe, hostility and backwardness? Heikal said that Saudi Arabia was against the revolution in Libya and that it attempted to convince the Americans and the British to topple this in its infancy, and that Riyadh called on King Idris I not to step down.”

Commenting on Heikal’s opinions with regards to what is happening in Libya today, and his “fatwas” about the history of the Libyan people, al-Shalgham said that the Egyptian journalist was “stoking the fire.” He stressed that Heikal represents the perfect example of how nationalist intellectuals can sometimes cause harm by helping Arab leaders to consolidate their power and remain in government for long periods of time. Al-Shalgham made reference to Nasser, Hafiz al-Assad and Gaddafi, in this regard.

There are Heikal-type figures everywhere that can provide excuses, invent answers, reshape reality and provide Arab leaders, the media, and indeed the entire nation with rose-tinted glasses.

This school of deception continues to exist until today and is continually restructuring and redeveloping itself, especially during revolutions or “popular uprisings” in order to ensure its survival and influence. We have seen how Heikal, at the beginning of the Egyptian revolution, attempted to play a leading role, putting forward a [political] roadmap for Egypt’s future, and how following the revolution he visited the headquarters of Egypt’s largest national newspaper [Al-Ahram] and was greeted as a conquering hero.

We have grown accustomed to criticizing the discourse of the Muslim Brotherhood, Salfist groups, and other religious groups – whether Sunni or Shiite – that mix religion with politics, and history and ideology. But what about the intellectual trends that claim to be liberal and which oppose such discourse?

In fact, these intellectual trends are more harmful than the religious trends! In many cases, we saw how the Muslim Brotherhood’s “resistance” rhetoric can ally itself with hard-line nationalist discourse, resulting in a catastrophic and extremist political ideology that brings together elements of both trends. Such trends have developed a philosophy akin to “poetic improvisation”; with the results being completely free of any guiding logic or reason, nothing more than a set of empty slogans.

This is a type of “nationalist salafism”, to use the expression coined by Al-Shalgham, and, for me, I could “left-wing salafism”, or “patriotic salafism” to this as well.

Since the “salafism” that we hear in the Arab press these days is one of isolation, dogmatism and nostalgia, then the left-wing Heikal-like discourse that we so often hear is nothing more than a hybrid and distorted imitation of this version of “salafism”.