Sayf and Atassi met in 2005 through the Muslim Student Association at Valencia College, but the two only became close after revolution spread to their respective countries. Sayf has felt more at ease in speaking out than Atassi, given that Libya is already in the midst of an all-out civil war and that many of Sayf’s contacts are within the rebel capital, Benghazi. Sayf helped organize the pro-democracy rallies which were visible every Saturday at Lake Eola for nearly three months after Feb. 17; the first protests encouraged the adoption of the NATO “no-fly zone” that was implemented in mid-March to aid the struggling rebel fighters. “They’ve lived in 42 years of what we call pure hell,” Sayf says.
What Sayf and other Libyan activists find disheartening is the opposition of fiscal conservatives and anti-war leftists to military intervention. The views of the latter group are well-represented by Students for a Democratic Society, a political activist organization at the University of Central Florida. “It seems pretty unwise to get involved in a third military conflict when we are cutting so many social programs,” SDS member Austin Smith writes in an email to the Orlando Weekly. “Furthermore, though the Libyan regime is terrible, the U.S. getting involved already stinks of installing leaders and officials with connections to the CIA and U.S. interests.”
Another obstacle to pro-democracy organizing for both Syrians and Libyans is the silence from the American Muslim community, which has generally shied away from public political discussion since 9/11. Imam Muhammad Musri of the Islamic Society of Central Florida says it would be inappropriate for his organization to back the protestors in Libya and Syria, given that both countries’ regimes are secular and have not invoked Islam in justifying their respective crackdowns. “The most we can do is really pray and hope that God will intervene and protect the innocent civilians and bring about change peacefully,” Musri says.
Conversely, Dena Atassi invokes the same religion to justify her activism. “Either we join [the movement], or we’re going to have to answer to God on Judgment Day for why we didn’t do anything.”