NEW YORK (AP) – Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, in a rare moment of self-criticism, lashed out at what he described as “backward” societies in the Middle East, arguing that government heavy-handedness in dealing with political opposition stemmed from the violent nature of that dissent.
“You ask us, ‘Why do you oppress opposition in the Middle East?”‘ Gadhafi told attendees at a Columbia University panel discussion on democracy Thursday, speaking in Arabic during a live video appearance. “Opposition in the Middle East is quite different from opposition in advanced countries. In our countries, the opposition takes the form of explosions, assassinations, killing.”
“Because opposition in our country is different from opposition in your country. Our opposition resorts to bombs, assassinations, explosions, subversive acts, trains in military camps — in some cases before the Sept. 11th events,” said Gadhafi, whose country for years was accused of being a state sponsor of terrorism.
Gadhafi’s comments came in response to several questions by the Columbia panel asking him to comment on shortcomings in Libyan society. Gadhafi said he was proud of what he considered a complex society and what he says is the world’s only true participatory democracy. But he argued that the political and social mind-set of the region had failed to adapt to a changing world. “How many countries have seen this form of opposition. This is a manifestation of social backwardness,” said Gadhafi, who appeared on the screen wearing a plum-colored robe.
The two-day Columbia conference on “prospects for democracy” was billed as the first major meeting of American and Libyan academics and officials in 25 years.
Gadhafi, once viewed as one of the Arab world’s most reviled leaders, joined the videoconference just after 8 p.m. Libya time and spoke for more than 90 minutes. The talk was Gadhafi’s latest gambit to reintegrate his oil-rich nation into the international community after almost two decades of being viewed as a rogue state.
His effort began in 1999 when he turned over for trial two men wanted in connection with the 1988 bombing on Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, which left 270 people dead. The step led to the eventual lifting of U.S. sanctions on the country.
Libya also eventually reached a $2.7 billion (¤2.24 billion) financial settlement in 2003 with the families of the victims of that bombing and in 2004, paid $170 million (¤141 million) in compensation to the families of the 170 victims of the 1989 bombing of a French passenger jet. And, with the United States leading a coalition force against Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq in 2003, Gadhafi also scrapped his country’s secret nuclear weapons program.
In remarks apparently intended to fend off criticism of the Libyan authorities’ handling of riots last month that left 11 dead, Gadhafi said the protests stemming from the publication of cartoons ridiculing Islam’s Prophet Muhammad elicited a coarse reaction from all sides. “Our methods are very backward indeed. The methods of opposition in our country are also quite different.” “Even when it comes to demonstrations, they are against Muhammad cartoons, they use bullets. You use tear gas or hoses; the police in our countries react in a backward way because they are part of a backward society,” he said, speaking in front of a map in which Africa was in green and the Middle East was in white.
Green is the color of Libya’s flag and Gadhafi has repeatedly sought to bolster his African credentials while ridiculing other Arab leaders.
Gadhafi also criticized Islamic fundamentalism and what he said was its blight on education, research and health care. “In a good number of Islamic countries the school curriculum would prohibit many scientific researches,” he said.
“In some Islamic countries, to see the fetus inside the pregnant woman is prohibited because only God, to some people, knows the gender of that fetus. How could that be prohibited? That is because of backwardness.” When Gadhafi concluded the interview, he rose and walked away from his desk, only to be yanked from behind by the microphone cable still clipped to the back of his robe. A technician instantly unhooked him.
The Columbia conference was billed as an opportunity to “reintroduce Libya’s academic community to the United States,” and was co-sponsored by the School for International and Public Affairs; the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.; Libya’s al-Fatah University; and Tripoli’s Green Book Center. The Green Book is Gadhafi’s guidebook of political philosophy.