This grave desecration does not mean Libya is out of control

Originally posted in The Guardian (March 5th, 2012)

The morning had been spent dodging Muammar Gaddafi’s security stooges and talking to activists planning the uprising that erupted days later. Driving from the centre of the city, we passed the sports centre where the dictator once ordered executions, before stopping beside the war cemetery.

Under perfect blue skies, the tree-fringed cemetery was an oasis of sombre serenity after the bustle of Benghazi. I walked along perfectly kept lines of white headstones planted in the reddish soil, reading the details of men from all over the world who gave their lives in the fight against the Nazis.

Alongside resolutely British names such as Bennett, Best and Bird there were airmen from Australia, sappers from South Africa and sepoys from India. Most graves featured Christian crosses, but mingled among the massed ranks of the dead was the Star of David for Jewish soldiers and crescents for Muslim troops.

I stopped to look at the grave of Lieutenant-Colonel Geoffrey Keyes, whose headstone featured the unmistakable etching of a Victoria Cross, awarded for valour in leading a raid on General Rommel’s headquarters at the age of 24. He may have been the son of an admiral of a fleet, but in death he was the equal of El Nur Gerad, a Sudanese private buried nearby.

It was profoundly moving to see this stark reminder of so many young men killed in defence of freedom, especially coming on a trip to meet people so inspired by the same dreams of democracy and hopes of human rights that they were preparing to risk their own lives.

So just over one year later, after thousands more people had died fighting to liberate Libya from despotism in a bloody struggle aided by our own armed forces, it was shocking to see that this commemorative spot had been devastated by religious bigots.

Any decent person should despise the mob mentality that smashed scores of headstones in a two-day rampage in response to the idiotic burning of a Qur’an by US soldiers in Afghanistan. There can only be despair at the zealotry of extremists who tore down the elegiac Cross of Remembrance that stood over the cemetery.

Many will fear that the desecration of such a special place – one that symbolised unity of different peoples and religions with such strength – is a sign that Libya is spiralling out of control and facing the threat of Islamist extremism.

That is understandable after such an outrage. But it is also wrong.

Without doubt, this is a depressing turn of events. It is a warning sign of the dangers ahead. But just as when neo-Nazi thugs desecrate Jewish cemeteries in Europe it does not mean the continent is on the brink of fascism, we should not read too much into the actions of a handful of misguided fools.

Libya is a Muslim country, and most Libyans expect its new institutions will be founded on their faith just like ours were founded on Christian traditions. But they are predominantly moderate and tolerant; certainly, those I spoke to were disgusted by attacks that breach everything they believe in.

There are other more serious causes for concern in Libya, such as the weakness of the transitional government, the killing and torture of Gaddafi loyalists, the mistreatment of sub-Saharan Africans and the heavily armed militias with regional loyalties that still pose a substantial threat to order.

But while progress is slow and hesitant, the country is moving in the right direction. The rebel groups are mostly co-operating with the authorities. Oil revenues are starting to flow. A free press has sprung up, minutes of cabinet meetings are made public and elections are looming.

We must remember this is a country recovering from 42 years of brutal, centralised and highly eccentric dictatorship, with everything from the security forces to state assets in the hands of one family. The road ahead is bound to be bumpy.

The economy is struggling to recover from last year’s conflict with mass unemployment, many state employees unpaid for a year and banks still restricting cash withdrawals. Amid this postwar chaos, Libyans unused to decision-making in the wake of despotism must find a way to rebuild their state and reimpose the rule of law.

It was heartening to hear the transitional government denounce the destruction of the war graves, and its vow to find and prosecute the extremist perpetrators. It is vital it carries out its pledge, especially with the attack filmed and posted online.

If it fails to do so, it dishonours all those who gave their lives for freedom – whether the young Libyans who overthrew Gaddafi last year or the young men from around the world who united to defeat the Nazis seven decades ago.

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