Normally placid, neutral Switzerland has been going through a rough couple of years. First there was financial scandal, when Swiss banking giant UBS was caught helping U.S. clients evade taxes. Then came intense international pressure to overturn the country’s banking secrecy laws. It didn’t help when Swiss voters last November endorsed a ban on minarets, drawing international criticism, notably from Muslims. Two months ago, none other than Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi joined the notorious Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood and fanner of flames during the Danish cartoon controversy, in calling for jihad against Zionism, foreign aggression, and—Switzerland.
Speaking in the Libyan city of Benghazi, Qaddafi declared:
Switzerland is an infidel and sinful country, which destroys mosques. Jihad with all possible means should be declared against it. They portrayed the Prophet Muhammad in their newspapers in the most abominable way. Boycott Switzerland, its products, its planes, its ships, and its embassies. Boycott the sinful infidel community, which attacks the mosques of Allah. Any Muslim anywhere in the world who deals with Switzerland is an infidel against Islam, Muhammad, Allah, and the Koran.
It can be argued this was merely the latest twist in the tit-for-tat going on between Libya and Switzerland since the arrest of Qaddafi’s son Hannibal and his wife for alleged physical mistreatment of two servants at a luxury hotel in Geneva in July 2008. After two nights in jail, the Qaddafis were released on nearly $500,000 bail and allowed to leave the country.
Tripoli retaliated by arbitrarily arresting two Swiss citizens, canceling all visas to Swiss nationals, shutting down Swiss multinationals on its soil, reducing the number of flights to Switzerland, and ceasing oil deliveries there. Nearly a year later, after the Swiss foreign minister visited Tripoli in a conciliatory gesture, Libya turned up the heat, withdrawing almost $5 billion from Swiss banks. Before the incident, Libya had been Switzerland’s largest African trading partner; in a year, Swiss exports to Libya plunged 70 percent.
Qaddafi’s pique, however, was still not assuaged. He used the G8 summit in Italy in July 2009 to attack Switzerland as a “mafia and not a state” and accuse it of “financing international terrorism.” The following month, Swiss president Hans-Rudolf Merz apologized to Libya for “the unjustified and unnecessary arrest of Libyan diplomats by the Geneva police.” But Merz too failed to appease Qaddafi, who suggested at the U.N. General Assembly in September that Switzerland be dismantled and its territory given to Italy, France, and Germany.
And on it went. This past February, Switzerland barred 188 top Libyan officials including Qaddafi from entering the Schengen zone, the passport-free grouping of 25 European states. The next day Qaddafi canceled all entry visas for Europeans except Britons. And on February 25 he issued his summons to jihad.
In the West, reaction was muted. The head of the U.N. mission in Geneva called Qaddafi’s declaration “inadmissible.” A spokesman for the EU’s foreign affairs czar described it as “unfortunate.” And by the end of March, at a summit of the Arab League (held coincidentally in Libya), Spanish foreign minister Miguel Angel Moratinos, representing the EU, announced that the ban on the 188 Libyan officials had been lifted and expressed his regret for any inconvenience. He made no mention of the Swiss hostage still held by Tripoli.
In the United States, Qaddafi’s rant was viewed largely as a joke. Asked about it, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley likened it to a previous Qaddafi speech involving “lots of words and lots of papers flying all over the place, not necessarily a lot of sense.” Libya instantly demanded an apology, threatening to cancel contracts with American oil companies. And since U.S.-Libya trade is now worth $4.5 billion, up from just $60 million in 2004, Libya got its way. TV stations in Muslim lands proceeded to broadcast Washington’s apology nonstop and hailed Qaddafi as a hero for making the West bow down.
The fact that Libya has currency reserves of over $100 billion gives it leverage not only over the EU and the United States but over large international players like Russia and China as well. So it is that Libya gets a free pass at the U.N., just as, earlier, it collected $5 billion in reparations from Italy for colonial rule.
Many experts refuse to take Qaddafi seriously and see Libya as isolated on the international scene. But not all. The French scholar and analyst of Islam Malek Chebel challenges the wisdom of tolerating Libya’s bad behavior. In particular, he said, “One cannot let this call to jihad spread without doing anything. One cannot measure the damage that such a call can do in the Muslim world, and also in Europe. This is irresponsible.” The West was seen as siding with Libya rather than with Switzerland. Libya, naturally, was applauded by the 17 countries of the Arab League, which accused Bern of being “racist.”
Another worrisome sign: In late March, Libya freed over 200 members of the al Qaeda-linked Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, whose goal is to install an Islamist regime in Libya. It is not a stretch to speculate that these experienced terror operatives, despite their supposed rehabilitation, could be used to target Switzerland or its interests abroad. In fact, in light of Qaddafi’s history of terrorism in the 1980s, the threat against Switzerland should not be taken lightly.
By failing to condemn Libya’s call to jihad, the West hands a cheap moral victory to Muslim extremists. An image from the Arab League summit sums it up nicely: Italian premier Berlusconi kissing Qaddafi’s hand.
Olivier Guitta is a security and geopolitical consultant based in Europe. His work can be read at www.thecroissant.com/about.html.