If faith leaders take sides in a conflict, do they give up any possible role as a trusted mediator? It is a vital question in many world troublespots from Ukraine to Nigeria. But none more so than in Libya. The North African country, which had a budding democracy in 2011 after ousting dictator Muammar Qaddafi, is fast descending into violent chaos. Some of its Islamic leaders could be the last hope for peace.
Libya is no backwater country whose internal strife can be ignored. In recent months, the forces of both the United States and Russia have become involved in the conflict. The European Union is desperate to curb the mass migration of people from the Mediterranean country. (The number of migrants reaching Italy, who come from Africa and elsewhere, has jumped 50 percent from a year ago.) And the civil war is spilling over to neighboring states, such as Tunisia.
Libya now has at least two rival governments and dozens of local armed groups, including Islamic State fighters. In the capital Tripoli, militias have become so threatening to daily life that hundreds of civic activists protested against them on Friday – ironically to be dispersed by gunshots from a militia.
Past attempts at mediation by the United Nations have so far failed. The latest attempt took place Saturday in Cairo with a meeting of the EU, UN, Arab League, and African Union. Little came of it.
Despite the violent stalemate, some see hope that Muslim clerics might be able to bridge differences. In a report issued last week, the US Institute of Peace recommended ways for the international community to find and support religious figures who can promote democracy and reconciliation. The report relies on opinion surveys of Libyans in 2014 and 2016 about the potential role of religious institutions in peacemaking.
Libya’s most influential Muslim leaders are perceived by a vast majority of people as too biased toward one side or another to be trusted. “Religious discourse has become both politicized and a source of polarization,” the report states. Yet more than three in four Libyans say religious leaders and scholars should be involved in creating a transition to democracy.
The report recommends that foreign diplomats rely on local traditional religious leaders to help achieve peace. Based on the surveys, Libyans see many of these leaders as having the qualities of moderation and equality to attract conflicting parties for negotiations. “Local experiences and interests are more influential,” the report states.
Sometimes in armed conflicts, faith leaders must take the high road of simply staying neutral rather than taking sides on divisive questions. In Libya’s case, clerics who are most trusted as mediators might be able to persuade the warring sides to lay down their arms for the sake of national reconciliation. Peace in Libya is too important to not try.