The Myth of Muslim Unity

by NUSHIN ARBABZADAH

A lesson in Afghan-Libyan relations.

[ 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 (pictured) 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. Qaddaf then initiated  a flurry of activities, offering his private plane for transportation, sending  his top aides and foreign affairs advisors to Kabul — all of which was in vain.  In Kabul’s experience, Qaddafi’s Muslim unity only existed 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,  and on leggy Italian models instead. The next self-appointed Libyan meddler to  force “Muslim solidarity” on Afghans was the Al Qaida 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 Qaida 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  mujahedin have proven themselves every inch as brave and courageous as their  male counterparts. So much so that the eye-witness account of a young Libyan  woman’s bravery appeared in a British newspaper, comparing her to France’s Joan  of Arc,” the paper said.

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 mujahedin. Notification letters were sent to all  Afghan provinces and the Amir succeeded in collecting six thousand 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 mujahedin’s  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 only happy 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 only exists in their  imagination.

(www.pbs.org / 26.08.2011)

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