Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi today lashed out at what he described as “backward” societies in the Middle East.
He argued that government heavy-handedness in dealing with political opposition stemmed from the violent nature of that dissent.
“You ask us why do you oppress the opposition in the Middle East?” Mr Gaddafi told attendees at a Columbia University panel discussion during a live video appearance.
“Because in the Middle East, the opposition is quite different than the opposition in advanced countries. In our countries, the opposition takes the form of explosions, assassinations, killing.”
Mr Gaddafi’s comments at the US event came in response to several questions by the Columbia panel asking him to comment on shortcomings in Libyan society. Gaddafi said he was proud of what he considered a complex society, but argued that the political and social mind-set of the region had failed to adapt to a changing world.
“How many countries have seen this form of opposition. This is a manifestation of social backwardness,” said Gaddafi, who appeared on the screen wearing a plum-coloured robe.
The two-day Columbia panel was billed as the first major meeting of American and Libyan academics and officials in 25 years.
It is the latest effort by Mr Gaddafi – once viewed as one of the Arab world’s most reviled leaders – to reintegrate his oil-rich nation into the international community after almost two decades of being viewed as a rogue state.
His effort began in 1999 when he turned over for trial two men wanted in connection with the 1988 bombing on Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, which left 270 people dead. The step led to the eventual lifting of US sanctions on the country.
Libya also eventually reached a 2.7 billion (£1.6 billion) financial settlement in 2003 with the families of the victims of the bombing. And, with the US leading a coalition force against Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq in 2003, Gaddafi also scrapped the country’s secret nuclear weapons programme.
In remarks apparently intended to fend off criticism of the Libyan authorities’ handling of riots last month that left 11 dead, Gaddafi said the protests stemming from the publication of cartoons ridiculing Islam’s Prophet Muhammad elicited a coarse reaction from all sides.
“Even when it comes to demonstrations that are against Muhammad cartoons, they use bullets. You use tear gas or hoses; the police in our countries react in a backward way because they are part of a backward society,” he said, speaking in front of a map in which Africa was in green and the Middle East was in white.
Green is thecolour of Libya’s flag and Gaddafi has repeatedly sought to bolster his African credentials while ridiculing other Arab leaders.