Remembering The Lion of the Dessert -Ahmad Ullah
The man, an ordinary teacher, fought against the colonial & fascists and sacrificed his life for the emancipation of his country, is the ‘Lion of the Dessert Omar Mukhtar’. He led the resistance of Libyans against Italian colonialism for 23 years. For which he was executed by the Italian occupiers in 1931. Though he was martyred at the hands of the enemy, he survived as a symbol of resistance against discrimination in Libya and around the world.
Omar al-Mukhtar was born in 1862 in the Al Manfah tribe of eastern Libya. His village on the eastern coast of Libya was called Zawiyat Janzur. His father died on a long journey to Mecca to perform the Hajj. Later, according to his father’s wishes, Omar al-Mukhtar studied under eminent scholar Sheikh Hussein Gariani. In a very short period, as a disciple of Gariani, young Omar memorized the entire Qur’an.
He then travelled to the eastern city of Al-Zagbub in Libya, which was the site of Sheikh Mohammed bin Ali Senussi, a pioneer of the Islamic reform movement. There, Omar Mukhtar studied theology, Islamic science, etc., for eight years. At this time, he also stayed with Sheikh Mahdi Senusi for some time. In 1897, Sheikh Mahdi appointed him governor of the eastern Libyan city of Jawiyat al-Kusur, where he became famous for his wisdom, justice, and ability to resolve disputes. Therefore, he came to be known as Sidi Omar, which means Sheikh or Pandit.
After that, Mukhtar went to Sudan and served as Sheikh Mahdi Senusi’s deputy for a few years. Mukhtar was later re-elected governor of Jawiyat al-Kusur. At that time, Ottoman society ruled Libya. At one point, however, he changed from a religious scholar to an anti-colonial resistance soldier.
One by one, he fought against the British, the French and finally the Italian colonial group. He first fought against the British when they deployed troops on the Libyan and Egyptian borders. In 1900, Mukhtar went to war against French forces who wanted to invade South Sudan and Shad. Before Italy joined the Ottoman army in 1911, Mukhtar sent a thousand warriors from Zawiyat to the Ottoman army. He was then given the title of ‘Sheikh of the Mujahideen’.
In 1912, Rome declared Libya, an Italian colony. For the next 20 years, al-Mukhtar continued to fight against Italian colonial power. Italy was forced to accept heavy casualties in the face of guerrilla attacks by Omar al-Mukhtar. In 1913, 70 Italian soldiers were killed and more than 100 wounded in a two-day battle in the northeastern Libyan city of Darna.
During a battle with Italian forces in 1931, a man called him Sidi Omar, through which his enemies recognized him and eventually captured him. Mussolini’s Italian army officer asked Omar Mukhtar: “Do you know about your death sentence?”
In response, Omar Mukhtar said, “Yes.”
The officer said, “Do you regret what you did?”
Omar Mukhtar said, never, I have fought for my country and people.
The judge of the court looked at him and said, “I am sorry to see the fate of a man like you.”
Omar Mukhtar said, “But this is the best way to end my life. Thank God He has given me the opportunity to be martyred like a hero.”
He was later told by Italian authorities that he would be released if he called his mujahideen to lay down their arms. Omar Mukhtar looked at the judge and said: “The finger with which I testify every day that there is no god but one God, I cannot write untruths. We do not surrender to anyone but one God. We either win or die.”
On the morning of September 16, 1931, he was handcuffed on a gallows 50 km from Benghazi. Reciting kalima in martyrdom with a calm and peaceful heart, he was hanged Publicly in front of 20,000 people. People with heavy hearts attended the farewell of their beloved leader.
Although Omar Mukhtar was hanged, the Italian colonial power could not kill his sense of independence and self-respect. Even the Italian prison authorities were amazed at the huge personality of the prisoner Omar Mukhtar.
The name of Omar al-Mukhtar is spread all over Libya. The Libyan 10 dinar note has a picture of him. Al-Bayda has a university named after him. There are also various roads, villages and mosques named after him in different places, including Tripoli. Not only Libya but there are also roads named after Omar Al-Mukhtar in different countries of the Arab world, including Egypt, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Jordan, Palestine. There is even a mosque named after Omar al-Mukhtar in Florida, USA.
At the initiative of Libya’s former president Gaddafi, a film was made about the last years of Omar al-Mukhtar. Named the Lion of the Desert, the film became classic in the Arab world. When Gaddafi visited Italy in 2010, he carried a picture of Omar al-Mukhtar in chains on his chest to protest colonial Italy’s exploitation of Libya. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi apologized for Italy’s past role at that time.
Although everything has changed radically since Gaddafi’s death, including Libyan flags and the national anthem, Libyans still respect Omar al-Mukhtar. He is above all kinds of political debates. As long as there is Libya, as long as there is the Arab world, as long as there is the aggression of external forces and the struggle against it, the memory of Omar Mukhtar will remain intact in the hearts of the people. Even after the death of Omar Mukhtar, the great symbol of the resistance struggle, the name ‘Lion of the Dessert ‘ remains in the heart of the people.