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Interim Leader Says Sharia Law Will Guide Libya

In a press conference, yesterday, Libya's transitional leader Mustafa Abdul-Jalil said that Sharia law will become the "main source" of legislation in a post-Gadhafi era.

The AP reports on the news:

Islamic law, or Sharia, is enshrined as the basis of the constitution in a number of Middle Eastern countries with Muslim majorities. Most Gulf nations' constitutions state that Sharia is a main source of legislation, while Egypt says it is "the source.

Using Sharia as the basis for legislation will place Libya alongside Arab nations such as Egypt and Iraq that ensure that no laws contradict the tenets of Islam, but don't necessarily implement all provisions of Sharia. Egyptian laws remain largely secular as Sharia does not cover all aspects of modern life.

Obviously a decree like this provoked waves today. As the Washington Post's religion blog puts it, Sharia Law "has become shorthand for extremism..." The AFP reports that some of the more secular people within the country "expressed surprise" and the European Union's foreign policy chief said "Libya's introduction of sharia law must respect human rights and democratic principles."

Al Jazeera spoke to a political sociologist characterized the decree as Abdul-Jalil's first step toward trying to find middle ground between Western liberalism and Islamic rule:

Younes Abouyoub, research scholar at Columbia University, told Al Jazeera that the speech was "important" and "extremely timely" because schisms have begun to emerge among those who supported the toppling of Gaddafi.

"I think he [Abdul-Jalil] wanted to make sure that people understand that this revolution is not going to steer the state towards either a liberal, western-style state or an extremist-style like some people would like to have - which I believe is a minority."

Describing most Libyans as "moderate", Abouyoub said that the purpose of the revolution was to let more voices and opinions be heard.

"Absolutely, there will be tensions. There will be different views. That's the whole point of the revolution... The main thing now is how to solve these conflicts in a peaceful way, not resort to armed fighting."

Blake Hounshell at Foreign Policy wrote that he wasn't surprised that Libya would move in a more religious direction, what surprised him was that Abdul-Jalil would make such a decree without the consent of his people:

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.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eyder Peralta
Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.