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Libya looks set to chart moderate course on Islam

04 November 11 07:38
A Libyan woman walks past graffiti in Tripoli, 24 October 2011
By Mohamed Madi
BBC Monitoring

The threat of radical Islamic extremists coming to power in Libya was a spectre repeatedly invoked by Muammar Gaddafi and his supporters in order to delegitimise the Libyan revolution.

It was an argument that largely failed to convince the major international powers, who extended significant military and economic assistance to the Libyan opposition and ultimately helped bring them to power.

But recent statements by National Transitional Council (NTC) leaders on Islam being the principal basis for legislation in the new Libya, coupled with the increased prominence of former jihadist figures, have led some to believe that Libya's new political reality may be decidedly less liberal and closer to Gaddafi's scenario than initially anticipated.

However, given the context of the NTC's announcement on sharia law, as well as the stated positions of key Islamic political figures, it seems unlikely that hardliners will emerge as significant political players, at least in the transitional period.

Polygamy and usury

NTC Chairman Mustafa Abdul Jalil said in his speech declaring Libya's "liberation" on 23 October that Islamic sharia law would be "the basic source of legislation, and so any law which contradicts Islamic principles is void".

He went on to use marriage legislation in Libya as an example, saying "the legislation putting restrictions on polygamy is contradictory to Islamic legislation and so is annulled". He also said that interest on some bank loans - regarded as usury in Islam - would not be allowed.

Mr Jalil has since sought to allay fears that this represents a lurch towards conservatism in the NTC's vision for Libya.

In a subsequent news conference, he said: "My reference yesterday does not mean the annulment of any law and, when I used the law on marriage and divorce as an example, I did so only because that law does not allow polygamy except with specific approval."

He added that he "would like to reassure the international community that we as Libyans are Muslims but moderate Muslims".

The NTC chairman's announcements were made against the background of criticism by some prominent NTC members that the transitional administration was too liberal and therefore out of touch with the majority of Libyans.

In addition, the annulment of restrictions on polygamy may have been an attempt by Mr Jalil to reassure the thousands of war widows that they would now find it easier to remarry.

It is worth noting that many Arab and Muslim-majority countries, including the multi-faith Egypt, have clauses in their constitution citing sharia law or the Koran as the basis for legislation.

Such a clause was already included in the NTC's interim constitutional declaration, which was unveiled on 3 August.

This stated that "Islam is the state religion" and "Islamic sharia is the principal basis for legislation".

Political vacuum

Seen in this light, Mr Jalil's comments on sharia appear neither out of keeping with his own government's past positions or with those of regional neighbours.

It is also worth noting that Libya has a homogeneously Muslim, Sunni population that is largely conservative, and the announcement seems to have been well received, although some Libyans in the social media have criticised the specific mention of the touchy subject of polygamy in such a historic speech.

Owing to the totalitarian nature of politics under Gaddafi, very few political parties, Islamic or otherwise, have emerged in the immediate post-revolution phase.

Perhaps the best organised political grouping is the National Front for the Salvation of Libya, an opposition organisation comprised mostly of Libyan expatriates in Europe and the US and therefore limited in its influence inside Libya.

Now that the fighting has ended, more political parties are expected to form, reflecting the whole gamut of opinion.

Currently, Muslim scholars and military commanders constitute some of the most influential and vocal political figures outside the NTC. Of these, two major figures can be seen as having "Islamist" political leanings.

One, Ali al-Sallabi, is an influential cleric ideologically close to the Muslim Brotherhood. The other, Abdul Hakim Belhaj, is a former commander of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) and currently heads the Tripoli Military Council.

'Independent scholar'

Mr Sallabi is known to many Libyans through his regular appearances as a commentator on the Qatari pan-Arab TV station Al-Jazeera.

He is said to be ideologically similar to Muslim Brotherhood figures such as Yusuf al-Qaradawi, another stalwart of the channel, although he says he is "independent and not part of any organisation".

Mr Sallabi describes himself as "an independent, nationalist-minded scholar", and like Rached Ghannouchi, the head of the Islamic Ennahdah party that came first in the Tunisian elections, he has cited the Turkish AKP as a role model of a party with Islamic principles operating within a modern, pluralist democratic system.

Mr Sallabi spent time in prison for criticising the Gaddafi regime in the 1980s, but was later involved in reconciliation and prisoner release projects with Gaddafi's son, Saif al-Islam.

In September, Mr Sallabi criticised the NTC's interim prime minister, Mahmoud Jibril, and others in the NTC, accusing them of being "extreme secularists" and Libya's next "tyrants".

He has since modified his comments, however, denying that he called for Mr Jibril's resignation, and has gone on record as praising the NTC's chairman, Mr Jalil.

Mr Belhaj also spent many years in prison under the previous regime.

The LIFG was a militant organisation comprised mostly of Libyans who had fought the Soviets in Afghanistan before waging a low-level resistance campaign against Gaddafi inside Libya in the 1990s.

The group apparently disbanded in March, after the start of the Libyan revolution, and placed its members under the command of the NTC.

Mr Bilhaj, who kept a low profile until the fall of Tripoli, has since emerged as a prominent political figure, although like Mr Sallabi he has been careful to downplay accusations that he is an extremist or that he is linked with organisations outside Libya.

His popularity within Libya is limited, however, with many wary of his Afghan connection and his more recent rapprochement with the Gaddafi regime, again as part of Saif al-Islam Gaddafi's rehabilitation programme.

In an article published in the UK daily The Guardian in September, Mr Belhaj warned of "attempts by some secular elements to isolate and exclude others".

At the same time, he has been keen to demonstrate his loyalty to the NTC and he regularly appears alongside Mr Jalil at news conferences.

What can be seen from the current discourse on the role of Islam in public life in Libya is that there is little interest in a theocratic system of government, such as Iran's, or an imposed fundamentalism, such as happened in Afghanistan under the Taliban.

Instead, there seems to be a desire on the part of Libya's transitional leaders and other prominent political figures for a democratic system of government characterised by a robust respect for Islamic principles and a Muslim identity.

BBC Monitoring selects and translates news from radio, television, press, news agencies and the internet from 150 countries in more than 70 languages. It is based in Caversham, UK, and has several bureaux abroad

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