Posted By Blake Hounshell Sunday, October 23, 2011 – 1:07 PM
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.