“Egypt is Islamic, it will not be secular!” Islamist supporters of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi have taken to chanting this slogan during street protests in Cairo. While the mantra fills opponents of the Egyptian president with dread, as does a Morsi-backed draft Constitution ensuring laws and rights will be strictly subordinated to sharia law, such chants would hardly prove controversial in Libya, Egypt’s neighboring Arab-Spring country—nor would they propel tens of thousands onto the streets of Tripoli or Benghazi to express dissent.
The constitutional debate that Libya is likely to have in the coming months—once its new rulers have decided on how to proceed with a draft—is going to be different from Egypt’s, and less about whether Islamic law should figure in the Constitution. Across the political spectrum, there’s a general acceptance that the country’s new laws must reflect religion and that sharia will figure prominently—only a small minority question this.
During the campaign for the country’s elections last July, party leaders—even those from moderate parties, such as Mahmoud Jibril, leader of the National Forces Alliance—acknowledged that sharia would significantly influence any Constitution. New laws should have a “reference to sharia,” Jibril told The Daily Beast, arguing, “Sharia law, when it was understood in the proper way, managed to create one of the great civilizations in human history. The problem is not with sharia or Islam; the problem is with the interpretation of sharia.”
Even among women agitating for a greater role in public and political life here, there’s agreement that sharia law should be at the heart of the country’s new Constitution. The only disputes are about the drafting process; whether the members of a 60-strong drafting panel should be elected or appointed by the country’s new Parliament, the General National Congress; and whether sharia should be the “only source of law” or a “principal source of law,” with the latter allowing greater possibility of adopting laws used in non-Muslim countries.
“Libyans wouldn’t accept a Constitution that isn’t informed by Sharia,” says 20-year-old Issraa Murabit, a second-year medical student from the town of Zawiyah and vice president of The Voice of Libyan Women, an NGO campaigning for greater women’s rights.
She says that a majority of women involved with civil-society activism are broadly comfortable with sharia and don’t see any contradiction between Islamic law and their demands for gender equality and a bigger role for women in Libyan society. Some women activists argue that women’s rights are, in certain cases, better protected under sharia than they are in the West. They cite property protections afforded to divorced spouses. “In the West, they think we are the oppressors of women and they have the best rights for women, but we have a different perspective,” says Murabit, who was raised in Canada until her early teens. “Islam doesn’t undermine women’s rights—the problem is with Muslim men and how they try to use sharia against women.”
For Western commentators, the mere mention of Islamic law prompts, at best, suspicion and oftentimes pure horror. “A dangerous pattern is emerging,” Bonnie Erbe, host of the PBS show, To the Contrary, wrote recently. “Islamic countries more often than not replace tyrants with religious dictators who can become even more despotic than their predecessors. Look at Iran. Unfortunately, look at Egypt.”
Libyan activists say such sentiments tarnish the Arab Spring and that the problem with Morsi’s draft Constitution lies with the underhand manner of its drafting process, involving a lack of consultation by the country’s Islamist-dominated Constituent Assembly. Islamists railroaded approval of the final draft in an all-night session on November 30 and although Morsi has now revoked a decree grabbing sweeping presidential powers—which triggered political and social turmoil—he refuses still to back down over his decision to hold a referendum on Dec. 15 on the draft.
When Libya’s government—led by the new prime minister, Ali Zeidan, and the country’s Congress—eventually decide on the process for the drafting the Libyan constitution, activists warn that Morsi’s example shouldn’t be followed. “If they are inclusive and consult and have women among the drafters, there won’t be a problem,” says Murabit.
One key area of contention could be over who interprets the Sharia provisions included in any Libyan constitution. Morsi’s Egyptian opponents take issue with the draft Constitution’s provision that Muslim clerics will be Sharia’s arbiters. Under the charter, clerics from Egypt’s conservative Al-Azhar University are “to be consulted on any matters related to Sharia.” Libyan women activists say no religious body or figures should be allowed under Libya’s Constitution oversight of the country’s laws—only the courts should decide. Others argue that religious arbiters would be acceptable as long as women religious scholars were also included.
But there are few signs so far that the country’s new rulers are looking to empower religious figures. In October, the president of the GNC, Mohammed Magarief, said the elected legislature in Libya should be the supreme law-making body and there should be no sharia courts. “It is obvious that our reality has no room for secularism or theocracy … it has no room for men of religion with absolute powers.”
The country’s Salafists may disagree, but they are likely to wield little influence on the GNC when it comes to the Constitution.
Libyan leaders anticipate Western politicians and the media reacting critically if the country adopts a sharia-based Constitution next year—but they say each Arab Spring nation is different in culture and history, and all are struggling to knit their secular and Islamic roots in ways that work for them. “Why does the West immediately react so badly when Sharia is mentioned? Our model is not the Taliban,” says Sami al-Saadi, the head of Libya’s Moderate Nation party and a former leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group that mounted an insurgency in the 1990s against Col. Muammar Gaddafi.
“Many people misinterpret what we mean when we talk about sharia, thinking we will be sticklers for the literal, rigid interpretation of sharia,” he says. “I believe in Islam because it creates a balance and a harmony. It is not a constricting force when properly understood and implemented. The West should understand that if we come up with a system based on sharia, this won’t endanger them or harm our relations with the West. There should be a mutual understanding: we don’t harm you and you don’t harm us.”
Like other political leaders—including luminaries in the Muslim Brotherhood—Saadi argues there are many interpretations of Islamic law. He says in the case of Libya, the Sharia provisions most likely to be enshrined in a Constitution would only be those that deal with behavior deemed haraam, or expressly forbidden. That would include usury, he acknowledges. “But some in the West may think in the aftermath of the financial crisis, banning usury may be useful,” he muses.
If Libya’s new constitution settles for sharia provisions focused on haraam, then women activists and many in civil society will likely go along with it. Their campaigning will focus on ensuring gender equality where it doesn’t clash with sharia—especially in the workplace. Says 21-year-old Aram Alageli, a second-year language student at the University of Tripoli, “As long as they don’t impose the veil, that’s fine.”