A police brigade in Al-Marj, a city in eastern Libya, released a video on January 20 in which they bragged about seizing a large number of books, which they claimed went against Sunni values. Their haul included books about Shia Islam but also works by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and novels by popular Brazilian author Paulo Coelho. Many Libyans have been outraged about what they say amounts to censorship.
Authorities made the seizure after stopping a truck that was transporting these books to Benghazi. The video posted on the Facebook page of the Al-Marj police shows dozens of confiscated books spread out on a table.
In the video, a senior police officer explains that these books sing the praises of Shia Islam, Freemasonry and black magic. Then, the camera turns to a local religious figure, who says, “These are books that call readers to Christianity. There are also Shiite books as well as pornographic propaganda disguised as novels about Daech [The Islamic State Fundamentalist Organisation], foreign revolutionary books, versions of the Koran that we don’t recognise, books on Judaism, Sufi poetry, books by the Muslim brotherhood, books that call readers to atheism…” He concluded by saying that these books constituted a “very destructive cultural invasion”.
One of the books seen in the footage is the Arabic-language translation of “The Spy” by Paulo Coelho. The bestselling author took to Twitter to post an emotional response to the seizure of his books.
Many other Libyans also took to social media to express their anger, including our Observer Ahlam Elbadri, who is a blogger based in Benghazi.
"The police did this out of ignorance”
The police have no authority to carry out an inspection on books. They did it out of ignorance. In the video, they claimed that a book called “A Jewish Woman” was trying to convert people to Judaism. In reality, this book is just an essay about the history of the Jewish people living in Tunisia. There is no way that its contents could be considered problematic.
They also claimed that a book called “Daech, my love” was propaganda for the Islamic State terrorist organisation. In reality, this book is about the struggles of a woman who lives in an area under Islamic State control. You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover!
Under Libyan law, the Culture and Information Ministry is the only body with the authority to inspect or ban books.
The books that are shown in this video have already been available in Benghazi for several years. You can find them in many bookstores and at book fairs and no one has ever been offended by them. Since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi, there has been little to no censorship of books in Libya [Editor’s note: Colonel Gaddafi, the former Libyan leader, was overthrown in a coup in 2011 and killed in the conflict].
Residents of Benghazi have organised several protests since 2011 to denounce religious extremism and terrorism. We are certainly not going to keep our mouths shut in the wake of this attempt at censorship.
This incident marks only the second time that books have been censored in Libya since Gaddafi's fall from power. In August 2015, the Ministry of Culture and Information banned a book by Abdelfattah Chelui, an independent deputy in the Libyan parliament. In his book, Chelui revealed what went on behind the scenes of parliament.
When contacted by France 24, a spokesperson for the Al-Marj police, Ahmed Dawa, said that the books had not been destroyed and that they would be handed over to the Ministry of Culture and Information.
We confiscated these books because the person who was transporting them showed us an invoice that had some irregularities.
We called on religious authorities because we wanted them to verify that the versions of the Koran we found were standard.
We sent an official letter to the Ministry of Culture to request that they send a commission to Al-Marj to inspect these books as soon as possible. This commission will decide whether these books will ultimately be put on the market or not.
Libya has been torn between two rival governments since legislative elections in 2014. The Council of Deputies (CoD) government was elected democratically during those 2014 elections. Also known as the "Tobruk government" because it is based in the eastern city of that name, this government is led by Abdallah al-Thani and is recognised by the international community. The police who seized the books are associated with al-Thani's government.
The rival government is the government endorsed by the General National Congress (GNC). It is controlled by Islamists and based in Tripoli.