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What Did Qaddafi's Green Book Really Say?

Author: Mohamad Bazzi, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
May 29, 2011
New York Times


If Libya's ragtag coalition of rebels manages to dislodge Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi from power it will mean not only the fall of the longest reigning dictator in the Arab world but also the end of the ambitious ideological system that he dreamed would supersede all rivals. While much of the world sees him as an eccentric and brutal demagogue, Qaddafi has tried for decades to portray himself as a statesman-philosopher. It's an aspiration best embodied in the Green Book, his notorious three-part meditation on politics, economics and everything from the evils of mechanized poultry farming to the importance of owning one's car. In Libya, the text is omnipresent: several generations of students grew up studying it, and the government even constructed sculptures in its image.

Most analyses of the Green Book emphasize Qaddafi's many digressions and penchant for stating the obvious, like his proclamation that “woman is a female and man is a male.” Because it is muddled, the book is often dismissed as simply a hodgepodge of aphorisms, the ramblings of a mad dictator. And in fact, the slim 21,000-word treatise does not present a coherent worldview. But the Green Book does have its own peculiar logic: a mixture of utopian socialism, Arab nationalism and the Third World revolutionary ideology that was in vogue at the time it was written, along with a streak of Bedouin supremacism. And its tone and style echo a long tradition in classical Arabic literature: that of the ruler or his faithful scribe expounding on matters of philosophy, politics, art, culture or whatever strikes his fancy.

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