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A win for 'secularists' in Libya? It's not what you think.

This week, so-called 'secularists' were declared official winners in Libya's parliamentary elections – and yet they support a constitutional place for Islamic sharia values. This seeming contradiction in Libya belies Western stereotypes about the incompatibility of Islam and democracy.

By Amyn B. Sajoo / July 19, 2012

An anti-Qaddafi fighter takes part in a demonstration in Benghazi June 7 to demand the application of Islamic law, or sharia, in Libya. Op-ed contributor Amyn B. Sajoo says: 'That Islam and rights can coexist in the minds of so many Muslims is a hard lesson for those clinging to stereotypes.... There is a price to pay for the lazy assumption that tolerance and pluralism are strictly secular virtues.'

Esam Al-Fetori/Reuters

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Official results for parliamentary elections released in Libya this week show the winners to be the so-called “secularists” – the National Forces Alliance. This group has led the interim government in Tripoli since last year’s revolution toppled Muammar Qaddafi.

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The outcome seems to run counter to the rise of Islamism in the Arab Spring. Or does it?

True, Mahmoud Jibril, the alliance’s leader, is a US-trained political scientist who did much to garner Western support for the Libyan uprising. Yet one of the first public pronouncements of the newly-elected National Forces Alliance was to disavow the “secular liberal” label that the mainstream media have eagerly bestowed on them – and affirm a constitutional place for Islamic sharia values. 

This seeming contradiction in Libya belies Western stereotypes about the incompatibility of Islam and democracy – that a constitutional role for religion in public life can only curtail individual freedoms, especially for women and minorities. That is not how many Muslims think.

Consider, for instance, a Gallup report released last month. Polling focused on sharia and gender and was taken after the Arab Spring. Islamists had electoral successes in Egypt and Tunisia, and strong majorities of both women and men in those countries – as well as in Libya and Yemen – want sharia as a source of law. Men and women in Syria are less enthusiastic, though 49 percent of both still favor at least some influence of sharia on law. In Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, many people favor it as the only source of legislation.

Perhaps more surprising to outsiders: Men who regard themselves as “religious” are more willing to recognize a woman’s right to divorce than those who aren’t. Robust majorities support equal rights for women. Bahrain, which has yet to embrace democracy, leads the pack, with 94 percent of women and 87 percent of men endorsing gender equality.

That Islam and rights can coexist in the minds of so many Muslims is a hard lesson for those clinging to stereotypes. They will insist that the road to equal citizenship –  especially for women and minorities – rests on a firmly secular constitutionalism. After all, wasn’t that the global map of political modernity? Aren’t liberalism and human rights about putting religion in its private zone?

Indeed, most of the Middle East became officially secular after European colonial rule. Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen had socialist governments much like Egypt under Nasser, with little time for religion. Tunisia had a secular political history comparable to Turkey’s.

Women enjoyed explicit guarantees of equal status under those constitutions. So in many cases did minorities such as Coptic Christians and Jews. Women and minorities became part of the ideological profile of autocratic states that were otherwise illiberal. But the basis for these rights had everything to do with political expediency, and little to do with pluralist citizenship.

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