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Begining Back

A number of constant factors helped shape the history of Libya besides geopolitics, which at times made the country seem to be merely a passageway for conquerors and merchants (including a once prosperous caravan trade linking central and west Africa with the Mediterranean). The most important factor is Islam, which became firmly established in the seventh century soon after the Arab tribal invasions through North Africa. Equally important is the persistence of fragmented tribal society and politics in the hinterland which periodically vied for dominance with the main urban centers (Tripoli and Benghazi, which were ruled over the centuries by local or imported dynasties, Christian powers, or a succession of Ottoman governors), thereby preventing enduring stable central authority. The combination of tribal society and a simple, socially-oriented practical Islam articulated by the Sanusi leader, promoted the establishment of a viable community in hinterland Cyrenaica since the latter part of the 19th century, but not in Tripolitania. There, urban Tripoli grew economically stronger instead, still surrounded by unruly tribes. In both regions, however, Islam served as a unfiying factor against twentieth century European colonialism and for the pursuit of pan-Islamic goals, transcending weak collective loyalties and nationalist ties. Tribal Islam was used more aggressively, and for a time successfully, against Italian colonialism, which began in 1911 and ended with Italy's defeat by the Allies in WWII, leading to the creation of independent Libya under UN auspices. Islam, the colonial experience, and pan-Arab ideology were crucial in the formation of modern Libya, overshadowing nascent democratic procedures and institutions that, for a brief time, seemed to have potential under the system of constitutional monarchy. Unlike Tunisia's or Morocco's pre-independence legacies, Libya's Islamic /pan-Arab legacy was intermittently expressed by various groups as outright hostility against the West and non-Muslims in general, including indigenous Jewish communities who, upon the creation of Israel in the Middle East (also by UN vote), were victimized by mobs and eventually had to leave. Under nationalist pressure, fueled by Nasser's pan-Arab rethoric in the 50's and 60's, the remaining Jews left after they were again attacked by unrestrained mobs at the beginning of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. With the advent of Qaddhafi in 1969, Islam and Arabism became enshrined in Libya's revolutionary ideology , along with Qaddhafi's elaborate "third way." After almost thirty years and much socio-political experimenting, a new generation of Libyans has grown with a revolution that remains largely incomprehensible to outsiders. Questions abound about Libya's international isolation, its internal policies and continuing hostility to the West and Israel, its human rights record, and the overall impact of Qaddhafi's revolution.

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