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Pushing back against Libya's extremists

The people of Libya were invariably forced to express their support for Muammar Qaddafi for over 40 years in order to ensure their personal safety. The intolerant and authoritarian nature of Qaddafi's regime constrained Libyan's political, civil, and religious rights by curtailing their freedom of expression and thought, freedom of association, and free access to information.

Authoritarian and autocratic regimes abuse the rule of law in order to protect themselves and their interests from scrutiny and accountability. Since toppling Qaddafi from power, the people of Libya now have an excellent opportunity to protect and safeguard all the aforementioned freedoms. In the last year alone, Libya shot up 23 spots on the World Press Freedom Index. But, these freedoms are in danger of being compromised not only the political level, but also social and religious ones too.

In December 2012, journalist Amara al-Khattabi was jailed on defamation charges against the judiciary (under a Qaddafi-era law) after publishing a list of 84 judges implicated in corruption cases. Also in December, an Islamist militia arrested female activist Magdulien Abaida twice in Benghazi after suspicions that she was linked to the Libyan Jewish community in diaspora. Magdulien had to flee the country and was granted asylum by the United Kingdom. Religious intolerance has flared in more drastic incidents where Sufi mosques and shrines have been destroyed by Salafi groups. Christians have also been targeted throughout eastern and western Libya. This is just a small showing of what is allowable in present-day Libya.

Pushing back against intolerance is a movement called al-Tanweer, or Enlightenment. Formed in 2013, they're trying to re-engineer the Libyan mindset to encourage critical thinking and discard their history of submissiveness. For the past 36 years, Libyans were forced to submit to Qaddafi's ideology and live by the Green Book, written by Qaddafi himself on his political philosophy. Books and knowledge were tightly controlled under the former regime. When Libya was liberated, people symbolically built bonfires, burning their mandatory Green Book copies.

One of the first major events organized by the movement was to organize a second hand book fair. The event was a huge success with its offering of over 7,000 donated books, all for sale for under $15. The event attracted a high-profile audience including the Culture Minister Habib Mohammed al-Amin and former Prime Minister Abdurrahim el-Keib, among other officials and dignitaries. The fair spoke volumes about the appetite of Libyans for reading and expanding their awareness.

Ahmed el-Bokhari, a writer and co-founder of Tanweer, stresses the movement's objective to "encourage and empower creativity and innovation" as well as thinking conceptually out of the box.

This is especially important as Libyans navigate their way and work to set new foundations. Part of the movement's vision is to "encourage tolerance and help establish a Libyan identity that absorbs all the ethnic, religious, and ideological differences in a healthy democratic environment."

The Libyan revolution brought with it an unprecedented space for previously-denied freedoms, but it also brought with the rise of extremist groups and ideologies. Many backward cultural barriers and values have been reaffirmed. According to Ahmed, "cultural and social barriers that have been widely entrenched in the Libyan society will be one of the obstacles that would face the movement's mission and progress towards establishing a new reality based and knowledge and reason."

However, it is not just social and cultural barriers that are at play. There is an increasingly influential and violent extremist minority in Libya, and even the name "enlightenment" could put the movement at odds with such intolerant extremist minority. However, Tanweer activists are aware of these possibilities. "We chose this name to give ourselves distinct presence among Libyans and to help counter these extremist minorities and the culture of intolerance in the name of religion, ethnicity, or ideology in the Libyan society through knowledge, reading, and books."

The precarious security situation in Libya will make the work of movements like Tanweer difficult. Nevertheless, they are determined to expand their activities by establishing a complete center for creativity, innovation, and critical thinking in Tripoli that would serve as their base to reach out to the rest of Libya.

"Only through freedom of thought ... [can we] build a new Libya with a distinct and unique identity, a Libya that is able to integrate in the global community and add to the human heritage and civilization." It will take a while before certain freedoms are fully protected by the law, but movements like Tanweer are pivotal to counter any religious, cultural, or social intolerance. Through the power of knowledge and reason, the forces of intolerance that have so far targeted different segments of the Libyan society can be confronted.

Mohamed Eljarh is the Libya blogger for Transitions. Read the rest of his posts here.

ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images

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