Sharia comes to Libya

Last week we looked at some of the few stories about Muammar Gadafhi’s death that engaged religion angles. This past weekend, the religion angle became unavoidable.

Let’s first go back to a couple of weeks ago, when Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri released a video message. Though there was not much coverage in the United States, there was some coverage globally. The focus of the video was calling for Islamic law in Libya. Here’s the Telegraph, for instance, and here’s how CNNWorld‘s report began:

In his latest video, al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri congratulated the Libyan people on their victory against dictator Moammar Gadhafi but warned them against Western manipulation as they forge ahead in building a new nation.

Osama bin Laden’s successor said Libyans should move quickly to establish Sharia, or Islamic law.

“Be careful of the plots of the West and its agents as you are building your new state and do not allow them to trick you and steal your sacrifices and suffering,” al-Zawahiri said in the video posted on Islamist websites. “And be sure to take the first, most important step for reform and apply Sharia.

“If the West talks about extremists and militants, they are talking about the honest and the free who defend their religion, sanctities, families and countries,” he said.

Before we get to yesterday’s news, I wanted to point out this CNN piece from October 21 headlined “Why Libya has a real shot at democracy and stability.” It’s a bit of analysis but was so cheerful and vague as to be meaningless. Take this, for example:

Islamists will undoubtedly play an influential role in Libya’s new government, and outward signs of Islamic piety, suppressed under Gadhafi, are now on the rise across the country. But leaders across the political spectrum continue to insist on moderation and tolerance. Mustafa Abdul Jalil, chairman of the transitional council, has called for a Libyan state founded on Sharia that is also inclusive of women and minorities. U.S. and European support for the rebels over the past seven months generated positive feelings among Libyans for NATO countries, which points to a possible Western-aligned Libyan government that is nonetheless markedly Islamic in character

That line about a Sharia that is “inclusive” of women and minorities — what in the world does that mean? No, really? All forms of sharia are “inclusive” of women and minorities, if you want to be technical about it. Even if you’re following a rule punishing a child to death for being raped, it’s still “inclusive” of women. I doubt that’s what the author was trying to get across but clearly was need much, much, much more detail before we could even begin to know what a line such as that means.

OK, back to this weekend’s news. Irish Times ran an analysis under the headline “Sharia law surprise for secular-minded Libyans.” The analysis piece was fairly nuanced, even when talking about major changes to banking and marriage (e.g. polygamy is now legalized). The Telegraph piece was headlined “Libya’s liberation: interim ruler unveils more radical than expected plans for Islamic law.” But the Telegraph story was too brief.

The Los Angeles Times also covered the shift in Libya but in a really weird way. I would have headlined the piece “Nothing to see here! Move along!” given the content. After three paragraphs about Libyan “liberation,” we get the big reveal:

In declaring the nation of 6 million liberated, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, leader of the transitional government and a former justice minister during Kadafi’s rule, laid out an Islamist vision for the future, declaring that Sharia law would serve as a foundation for future governance. But it will be left to future lawmakers to determine the level of influence Islam will have in the new Libya.

Islamists are one of a number of groups seeking a stake in the new Libya, which is about to undergo a radical restructuring after Kadafi’s more than four decade domination. A major challenge will be to form some kind of consensus government amid regional and tribal differences. The nation’s new leaders are hopeful of disarming the many militias that ousted Kadafi and funneling their members into a new military and police corps.

Nothing about marriage. Nothing about the economy. Just an oddly bland story about some pretty major changes in Libya. Usually I’m upset with journalists for overhyping the news but in this case, I think it was undersold.

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  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    It will be interesting to see how the media handles future news coverage if the vaunted “Arab Spring” in Libya– that we put a billion dollars into — becomes our contribution to spreading Islamic Sharia law.

  • Jerry

    I’m not sure the story was undersold. We only have the pronouncements of one person so far not a real government and we don’t know what he really means by Sharia law given how diverse it is. So we really don’t know if the changes will indeed be pretty major or not until we see the outcome of the current process.

  • Jerry

    After my last post, I noticed a story which I think is one of the best I’ve seen so far:

    Guma al-Gamaty, a London-based spokesman for the National Transitional Council, said Abdul-Jalil had an obligation at the dawn of a new era to assure Libyans that Islam will be respected.

    “This doesn’t mean that Libya will become a theocracy. There is no chance of that whatsoever. Libya will be a civic state, a democratic state and, in principle, its laws will not contradict democracy,” he said.

    It is the kind of assurance Western powers that supported the anti-Gadhafi fighters with airstrikes and diplomatic backing may have been looking for.

    In Washington, Nuland stressed the importance of creating “a democracy that meets international human rights standards, that provides a place for all Libyans and that serves to unify the country.”

    She said the U.S. was encouraged that Abdul-Jalil clarified his earlier statements on the topic, but hedged on an overall U.S. assessment of systems based on Sharia.

    “We’ve seen various Islamic- based democracies wrestle with the issue of establishing rule of law within an appropriate cultural context,” Nuland said. “But the No. 1 thing is that universal human rights, rights for women, rights for minorities, right to due process, right to transparency be fully respected.”

    Libya is a deeply conservative Muslim nation, with most women wearing headscarves or the all-encompassing niqab.

    Implementing Sharia in Libya may not necessarily mean the North African nation will turn into regimes like clergy-ruled Iran or Afghanistan under the Taliban. The extent of how far Sharia law can be applied depends in large part on the interpretation of a large body of Quranic verses and sayings and deeds of Muhammad, Islam’s seventh century prophet.

    Sharia law is enshrined the constitution of a number of Middle Eastern countries with Muslim majorities, but the role it plays in society varies according to interpretations. Some nations, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, follow a stricter interpretation that mandates cutting off the hands of thieves, the heads of murderers and stoning adulterers to death. Those who drink alcohol are publicly flogged. Others, such as Egypt, state that Sharia is a main source of legislation but have largely secular laws.