Moderator: We are delighted to welcome a guest blogger today, Knox alumnus Ronald Bruce St John, ’65. Mr. St John is a Libya expert who has served on the International Advisory Board of The Journal of Libyan Studies and the Atlantic Council Working Group on Libya. Author of 20 monographs and more than 300 articles, his latest books on Libya are Libya: Continuity and Change (Routledge, 2011) and Libya: From Colony to Revolution (Oneworld, 2012). For more information, see www.ronaldbrucestjohn.com.
Libya Is An Islamic State
by Ronald Bruce St John
When Mustafa Abdel Jalil, Chairman of the National Transitional Council (NTC), announced the liberation of Libya on October 23, 2011, he said the new Libya would be governed by Islamic jurisprudence (sharia). As an example, he added that legislation restricting polygamy was contrary to Islamic law and should be annulled. His comments, coupled with the prominence of jihadist figures in post-Qaddafi Libya, raised concerns among Libyans and outsiders alike that Libya might adopt a fundamentalist or theocratic form of government.
Since that time, the results of regional elections have added to concerns about the future of Libyan democracy. In Tunisia, the moderate Islamist party, Al Nahda, outdistanced its secular rivals, winning 40% of the vote in October 2011 elections for a constituent assembly. Islamist elements also fared well in the parliamentary elections which began in Egypt in December 2011. When announced in mid-January 2012, the final results confirmed that the moderate Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party took 47 % of the seats in the lower house of parliament, and the ultraconservative Salafist Nour Party won another 25% of elected seats.
Faced with an increasingly volatile political climate in Libya, the NTC at the end of January 2012 issued an election law governing mid-June elections for a constituent assembly whose job will be to draft a new constitution. An earlier draft of the election law reserved 10% of assembly seats for women, but when women’s and rights groups complained this was not enough, the final version of the election law dropped altogether the quota set aside for women. The 2012 election law also calls for two-thirds of the assembly seats to go to political parties, a provision adopted under pressure from the Muslim Brotherhood, the only political group with a possibility of winning a majority in the election. While these elements of the electoral law have increased speculation that Libya could become the next Islamist state, the skeptics fail to recognize that Libya has always been an Islamic state.
The 1951 constitution, the only constitution Libya has known, stated that Islam was the “religion of the state” although a subsequent article did call on the state to “respect all religions and faiths.” A 1953 statute establishing the Supreme Court specified that at least two well-qualified experts in Islamic law must be appointed judges to the Supreme Court. Both civil and sharia courts functioned in Libya throughout the monarchical period (1951-1969).
In 1969, Muammar al-Qaddafi and his Free Unionist Officers movement overthrew the monarchy and replaced the 1951 constitution with a constitutional proclamation. It protected religious freedom “in accordance with established customs” but also declared Islam to be the “religion of the state.” The Qaddafi regime proclaimed sharia to be the principal source of all legislation and established a High Commission to examine existing legislation to ensure it was consistent with Islamic principles. A 1972 law sought to rationalize women’s rights in marriage and divorce with sharia, and another law in 1973 merged civil and sharia courts.
The Draft Constitutional Charter for the Transitional Stage, unveiled by the NTC on August 3, 2011, was designed to guide the interim government until a permanent charter is approved. It is a promising document in its commitment to democracy, human rights, popular sovereignty, and civil liberties. It calls for an independent and democratic state, but it also calls for Islam to be the state religion and sharia to be the principal source of legislation.
Libya is a homogenous Islamic society with near 100% of the population Sunni Muslim. Conservative in outlook and deeply religious in nature, the Libyan people have never displayed any appetite for the radical Islam advocated by the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, or its North African affiliate, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. This has been especially true in recent months when there has been very limited public interest in an Islamist alternative to the non-ideological February 17 Revolution.
Reflecting history, tradition, and belief, the new Libyan constitution and the elected government to follow will surely be Islamic in character but not radical Islamist in the sense of a fundamental, intolerant, theocratic regime. Jihadists, like Abdel Hakim Belhadj, and Islamic clerics, like Ali al-Sallabi, will play an active role in the political process, but with limited influence, they are unlikely to dominate it. Empowered by the revolution and distressed by Jalil’s comments on polygamy and the provisions of the final election law, Libyan women also have an important role to play. Determined to retain newfound freedoms, they will be a potent force in support of a moderate course for Islam.