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Region | The Myth of Muslim Unity


26 Aug 2011 15:18Comments

A lesson in Afghan-Libyan relations.

kadhafi-saluting.jpg[ IDÉ ] In 1974 the Islamic Summit conference was under way in Pakistan's Lahore when the Afghan leader Daud Khan found himself rudely awakened from sleep by a phone call. It was two in the morning in Kabul and Daud Khan naturally assumed that an Afghan delegate might be calling from Lahore to ask an urgent question. But to his utter amazement, the voice on the phone was not Afghan. A stranger was calling, speaking in broken English and making little sense. It took Daud Khan two entire minutes to realize that he was speaking to Muammar Qaddafi. The Libyan leader, who was attending the conference, had suddenly taken a keen interest in solving the Afghan-Pakistani border dispute. He was phoning Kabul to persuade the Afghan leader to come over to Lahore and settle what Qaddafi called "the petty dispute" so the conference could focus on the "much more important issue of Muslim unity."

Taken aback by Qaddafi's eccentric approach to diplomacy, a sleepy Daud Khan gave his best shot at speaking in Arabic, using English when his Arabic failed and telling Qaddafi that such important matters were best discussed in official face-to-face meetings, in Kabul or perhaps even Tripoli. Daud Khan was not sure how much of what he said was understood by the eccentric Libyan leader: "I can only hope that he did not think I was talking in my sleep."

But the Libyan leader's confidence as a self-appointed negotiator in inter-Muslim conflicts was unwavering even after the call. Qaddafi subsequently initiated a flurry of activities, offering his private plane for transportation, sending his top aides and foreign affairs advisers to Kabul -- all of which was in vain. In Kabul's experience, Qaddafi's Muslim unity existed only in the Libyan leader's imagination. After all, Islamabad, a self-proclaimed champion of the Muslim cause, not only failed to cooperate with Kabul, but also refused to acknowledge that a political dispute existed between the two states. Kabul remained firm and a frustrated Qaddafi finally lost interest in meddling in the affairs of the far-flung Muslim nations of South Asia.

In the last decade of his rule, he focused his alliance on the geographically much closer Mediterranean region. But the story of Libyan meddling in Afghan affairs did not end with Qaddafi's shift of focus away from Muslim solidarity in favor of leggy Italian models. The next self-appointed Libyan meddler to force "Muslim solidarity" on Afghans was the al-Qaeda trainer Ibn al-Shaikh al-Libi. The uninvited guest, a freelance jihadi, was captured in Afghanistan in 2001. He confessed to non-existing ties between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, and was then found dead in a Libyan prison in 2009. His dream of Muslim solidarity via the Afghan route thus ended in a nightmare.

The history of Libyan-Afghan flirtation with pan-Islamism, via eccentric late-night phone calls in the 1970s and militant fighting in more recent decades, is disturbing; but to be fair to Libya, it was the Afghans who started the meddling. A century earlier, in 1911, Afghanistan's only newspaper extensively reported on Libyans' battles with the Italian troops: "In fighting, the female Libyan mujahideen have proven themselves every inch as brave and courageous as their male counterparts." So much so that the eyewitness account of a young Libyan woman's bravery appeared in a British newspaper, which compared her to France's Joan of Arc.

Moved by such stories of Muslim bravery and suffering, the Afghan ruler of the time, Amir Habibullah, called on his subjects to donate money to the widows and orphans of the Libyan mujahideen. Notification letters were sent to all Afghan provinces and the Amir succeeded in collecting 6,000 pounds which was sent to Libya via Bombay and Istanbul. News of this symbolic supra-nationalist Muslim solidarity was widely printed in Arab newspapers, reaching the Afghan residents of Istanbul and Damascus, Cairo, and Baghdad. "If our countrymen collect money to help, then we, who are physically here, should join the war," an Afghan resident of Egypt was quoted in an Arab newspaper.

Among the 150 volunteer Afghan jihad fighters who allied themselves with the Libyans there was a "gentlemanly looking young graduate who dressed like an Englishman." The young Afghan had just finished his studies in London but decided to join the jihad in Libya rather than return home. He handed over his savings, 150 pounds, to a trusted partner and asked that in the event of his "martyrdom" in the Libyan war, the money should be given to Libyan mujahideens' widows and orphans.

According to the report, the prospect of joining the jihad made the young man look radiant, prompting people to ask him, "Why so happy? Are you getting married?" To which he responded, "Now is not the time for Muslims to be happy. We will be happy only when we achieve victory."

In the course of a century, Afghan men died fighting in Libya and Libyan men fought in Afghanistan. The myth of Muslim unity drew men from the two extreme ends of the Muslim world towards battlefields, but the Muslim unity remained just that: a myth. Both Afghans and Libyans would be better off to dream about a better future for themselves in their own countries rather than to senselessly die in each others' countries for something that exists only in their imagination.

Nushin Arbabzadah, a visiting scholar at UCLA's Center for India and South Asia, was brought up in Kabul during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. IDÉ is where ideas are discussed in the magazine. Photo: Qaddafi in 1969.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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