A Question of Morals

“Morality, too, is a question of time.” – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Libya’s civil society has never been popular. Since its prominent emergence in 2011, it has been one battle for survival after another. From government institutions accusing activists of fueling instability, to religious extremists targeting CSOs for “importing anti-Islamic ideals”, to average citizens decrying civil society as an unwanted byproduct of the February 17 revolution and subsequent collapse.

And yet, despite the obstacles and the threats, civil society has persisted in trying to make a difference, particularly in areas where no other formal institutions can operate. While the common notion is that of civic activists as privileged youth looking for a photo opportunity, it’s a mostly thankless job that requires an endless supply of patience as you navigate through the countless security procedures and arrangements to implement any kind of project. But it’s becoming increasingly difficult to implement anything openly these days without facing a torrent of hate, criticism and downright violence reactions.

I’ve chronicled the difficulties of being a civil society activist in Benghazi over the past few years, from the hope and invincibility we felt after the revolution to the crippling fear in the face of extremist groups. As Benghazi began to heal from the latest war, we felt again that glimmer of hope, only to have it extinguished just as brutally as last time. It seems that the pattern continues; no matter the ruler or dominant ideology, civil society is detested.

And what is it that civil society does that could warrant such repulsion? Last year, a group of grassroots organizations decided to hold a community get-together under the theme “Tea and Milk Unites Us.” Tea and milk is a common breakfast drink in Libya (with well-boiled black tea and condensed milk if you’re a purist like me), and the idea was to unite a society fragmented by war through a symbol enjoyed by everyone.

The backlash was swift; “Men are dying on the field while you hold these useless events!” “You have no respect for the war waging near you!” etc. etc. The general objection was that of holding any kind of event during a time of war, despite the fact that these events tried to help the general population heal and forget for a moment the trauma of war.

During the last Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, an art gallery was held, again in the Children’s Theater (we don’t have many venues because, again, war). And once again, the online reaction was saturated with vitriol. “Talking about violence against women while violence against our troops goes on?” “Look at these girls/how they’re dressed/outside their homes/etc.” The general rule seems to be that the more women appear in these kinds of events, the worse the reaction will be. Here we began to see the accusations of “immorality”. The objection became less about the war and more about what’s considered decent in our “conservative Muslim society.”

Cue yesterday’s Earth Hour celebration in Benghazi yesterday.  Held on the campus of the Faculty of Medicine, the event consisted of candles that filled the quad, the traditional one hour lights-off, and a concert. This time, the criticism was almost entirely focused on the offense to our cultural decency and morality as Libyans.

On the internet, it’s advised to never read the comments. Unfortunately, when it comes to Libya, I do read the comments. People will express things online that they’d never say in person, and it’s interesting to know what the general attitudes shaping public opinion are in a city like Benghazi. For this event, it appears that increasing conservatism is sweeping through society. Here the reactions ranged from, “pop songs have nothing to do with Earth Hour awareness” to “Look at these devil worshipers!”

It went one step further, with demands that those who organized the event should be arrested, a move reminiscent of the days when Ansar Shariah were targeting activists. These calls, along with recent orders restricting CSO activity in the East, is a worrying sign that once again, civil society isn’t safe.

But is civil society immoral? A concert, particularly one in which both men and women are on stage and singing English-language songs, isn’t entirely natural in Libya, but not entirely uncommon either. If we’re speaking of customs and traditions in Libya, conservatism is a relatively new concept. But if the issue is of what’s acceptable today, it becomes a more complicated discussion. Benghazi and the East opposed extremist ideology because of how violent it was, and more importantly, how foreign it seemed. And yet, people are quick to vilify these events as being against public decency, deaf to the fact that they sound very like the ideology they fought so vehemently against.

It’s a tricky issue, one that is being used by various groups to sway public opinion to the point where the definition of Libyan morality is being molded before our eyes (if we assume morality is subjective and not universal). And the victim in the middle, as usual, is civil society.

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