Muslim cleric welcomes Irish support for Libyan council


A LEADING west of Ireland Muslim cleric whose two brothers are pivotal to the formation of a new state in Libya has welcomed Ireland’s support for the new administration.

Imam Khalid Sallabi of the Galway Islamic Society said Irish recognition of the Libyan National Transitional Council would have a “strong spiritual effect in the fight for freedom”.

He also believes that eradicating corruption in Libya will pose a “far greater challenge than the war, when it is over”.

Imam Sallabi’s two brothers are playing key roles in the revolution: Sheikh Ali Sallabi has been described as its spiritual guide, while Ismail Sallabi is commander of a rebel brigade some 2,000-strong in eastern Libya.

Older brother Sheikh Ali Sallabi was imprisoned twice in Tripoli’s Abu Salim prison. Over the past six months, he has been commuting between Libya and his Qatar base to visit rebel fighters, while also contributing to discussions on the council’s draft constitution, and playing a diplomatic role with council approval in negotiating the departure of the Gadafy family from Libya.

Appointed head of the Galway mosque in 2001, he visited Benghazi in the early stages of the revolution. He was just 21 years old when he originally left his home country, where his family suffered as dissidents, with many relatives being imprisoned for periods.

“I had studied religion, and then also maths and computing in Benghazi, and I left in 1996,” he explained yesterday at the new prayer house built by the Islamic Society in Tonabrucky, overlooking Galway bay.

He spent time in Malaysia, Thailand, Morocco, Turkey, Britain, and was in Dublin before he moved to the west – “just after the 9/11 attacks, and so it was a very difficult time for us”.

“When you are Libyan, people automatically think you support Gadafy, but this was totally wrong,” he said. However, he and members of the Galway mosque of various nationalities, including Pakistanis, Indians and Malaysians, found a tolerance in Galway and a “shared belief in faith” which transcended religions.

“Gadafy had no clear policy and everything was based on his personal mood,” he said, commenting on the dictator’s interest for a time in Ireland, including his support for the Provisional IRA.

“Gadafy’s relationship with Ireland was as changeable as his relationship with neighbours like Tunisia and Egypt – he would say that the countries were friends and then he would expel Tunisians and Egyptians in large numbers.”

Imam Sallabi concurs with his older brother’s view that Turkey and Malaysia offer models for the new Libya – as outlined in a recent interview with Sheikh Ali Sallabi by Irish Times foreign correspondent Mary Fitzgerald.

South Africa also offers a model in its decision to “look forward, to forgive and to focus on rebuilding the country, rather than on revenge”, he said.

“Gadafy’s attitude in 1969 was one of revenge for the old regime he had ousted, but that gives a bad example,” he said. “And one can be good and look good in opposition, but taking responsibility requires a lot of courage and maturity and experience.”

Widespread mistrust in the army meant that Libya was a highly armed society, and decommissioning weapons would be one of the first challenges for the new government, he said.

“But you cannot expect people to give up their arms until you can offer them security, so that is something that will take time.”

Imam Sallabi hopes to return to Libya – his mother lives in Benghazi – but says he has a strong commitment to Galway and to his church, with several thousand worshippers in the west of Ireland.

“Libya is a very rich country, in a good location, and the focus now will be on the human needs of providing education, health, security, food, understanding, and awareness,” he said. “Gadafy brought unreal war to our country for no reason, and we hope to build good relations now.” However, he said he believed the “fight against corruption” would be “harder than the war against Gadafy”.