In February, when Libya erupted in spontaneous protests that quickly turned into an armed revolt, Muammar al-Qaddafi and his son Seif al-Islam had a ready response: This was an al Qaeda-backed uprising, a plot to install "Islamic emirates" paying homage to Osama bin Laden.
The world scoffed (especially after the Qaddafis accused the revolutionaries of a lot more outlandish things, from putting hallucinogenic drugs in their Nescafe to being simple "criminals"). These weren't jihadist terrorists -- they were ordinary Libyans seeking freedom from an evil, capricious tyrant. And their leaders were secular liberals, people like Mahmoud Jibril, Mahmoud Shammam, and Ali Tarhouni -- who sold the revolution to the West and made NATO intervention politically palatable.
This narrative was challenged as it became evident that some of the best anti-Qaddafi fighters were Islamists like the February 17 Martyrs Brigade, which was later accused by some of killing interim "defense minister" Abdel Fattah Younis. Then, when Tripoli fell in August, one of the most prominent figures to emerge was Abdel Hakim Belhaj, the bearded former emir of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group. Belhaj -- who claims to have been tortured by the CIA -- was at pains to differentiate himself from al Qaeda, but his sudden ascension took many by surprise. Leading Libyan Islamists like exiled cleric Ali al-Sallabi began to agitate against the secularists on the interim council, and Jibril's continuance in office became untenable.
All this, however, was merely an undercurrent, and the world got swept up in the excitement of the fall of Tripoli and the subsequent liberation of Qaddafi's strongholds in Bani Walid and Sirte. Last week, the Brother Leader himself was captured and appears to have been executed later that day.
The issue of religion in politics came roaring back Sunday, however, when interim leader Mustafa Abdel Jalil, thought to be a moderate, declared in his "liberation" address that Libya would be an Islamic state and that sharia law would be a fundamental source of legislation. That remark differed little from statements he had made previously, however (and all Arab states have similar provisions in their constitutions). What did catch people's attention was when he got into specifics: Libya's new constitution "will not disallow polygamy," he said, and charging interest will be forbidden.
Libyans seemed satisfied, but secular Arab commentators were taken aback. Sultan al-Qassemi, an Emirati columnist, tweeted that Abdel Jalil had just declared "the Islamic Republic of Libya." Gulf News editor Abdul Hamid Ahmad said "Mustafa Abdul Jalil has just given an evidence to all [the] world that [the] Arab uprising will end up to be Islamic states."
No doubt the international press is going to have a field day, and there will be some serious soul-searching in Western capitals, especially coming after the shocking way in which Qaddafi was killed and the far-from-transparent way in which his autopsy was conducted.
It's hardly surprising that Libya is heading in a more religious direction -- the vast majority of Libyans are conservative Muslims, after all -- but what is somewhat alarming is the way Abdel Jalil simply decreed these things from the podium. If Libyans want to outlaw interest and bring back polygamy, fine, but let them do so in a democratic and transparent way: Write a new constitution and let the country vote on it.
What's amazing is that Abdel Jalil's speech happened on a day when, next door, Tunisians lined up to vote in what look to be free and fair elections to choose a constitutional assembly. Maybe they'll end up granting a plurality to the moderate Islamist Ennahda party, and maybe a coalition of liberal and leftist parties will emerge to promote a secular state. Either way, the important thing is that the people are getting a chance to choose in an open and institutionalized process. After today, the gnawing doubts that Libyans will be able to do the same will only grow.
UPDATE: I should note that others had a different interpretation of Abdel Jalil's speech. Al Jazeera English reports him calling for "a democratic state based on Islamic law" (their paraphrase) and quote him saying, "We strive for a state of the law, for a state of prosperity, for a state that will have Islamic sharia law the basis of legislation."
I should also add that, while there are clear differences between technocrats like Tarhouni and Islamists like Belhaj, I don't think religion will much be a faultline in Libyan politics -- it's pretty clear where the bulk of the population stands: in the conservative middle. What is worrisome are the clear geographic faultlines -- between east and west, for instance, or between the Western mountains and the coast. Perhaps, then, Islam can serve as a glue that unifies the country as splits begin to emerge over reconstruction, how to distribute oil revenues, and the some $200 billion Qaddafi left behind.
Tom Malinowski, whose opinion I respect tremendously, emails to tell me I've got this all wrong:
I just read your post on Abdeljelil declaring an Islamic state. I thought I was mostly on point, but don’t think it’s correct to say that Abdeljelil tried to decree anything. It’s always been his style to speak in simple declarative terms about what the NTC believes and plans to do, but that does not mean he is making law, which he is in no position to do. I was very happy when he said to a big crowd in Tripoli that there would be women in the post-liberation transitional government, and of course all the times he has made commitments about humane treatment of prisoners, respect for the rule of law, demanding no revenge attacks on Qaddafi supporters, and so forth. In these cases, I almost wish he had the power to decree what he says! But that’s not the case, and I don’t think that was his intention in this speech. He was simply making a personal commitment to the goals he outlined.
He is a very conservative, religious man – the first time I met him, when he was still a Qaddafi minister, he was playing Koranic music in his office; and he has always framed discussion of issues in religious terms. Plus he is a politician (which is a good thing) who must appeal to his base in a largely conservative, Muslim country. Indeed, the reason he has been able to play the largely positive, unifying role he has played over the last few months is that Libyans do not see him as a westernized secularist like Tarhuni and Jebril. When he talks about Libya needing to be part of the world, respectful of international norms, and the like, they trust him more than the others.
So, we shall see. This whole issue of the role of Islam will be debated in Libya over the coming year. Things could still come out very badly. But no one has decided anything. What we have is what we hoped for – an open discussion among Libyans of what kind of country they want.
ABDULLAH DOMA/AFP/Getty Images
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