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.

Esam Al-Fetori/Reuters
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.'

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.

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.

How easily we forget that in the West, civic liberalism was preceded by the Protestant Reformation. The liberalization of Christian theology and its daily interface with ordinary folk ushered in secular politics. But that did not mean Christianity stopped influencing politics.

In the late-20th century, crucial breakthroughs on civil rights came through Martin Luther King Jr.’s biblicaly inspired ethos. Today, shifts in church doctrine on abortion, contraception, euthanasia, gender, and same-sex relations still shape civic space. 

Conversely, the failure to liberalize religious traditions can put the brakes on civic culture.

South Africa’s Dutch Reformed (Calvinist) Church played a key role in supplying the political theology of apartheid. Post-colonial India’s official liberalism collided with a caste system that claimed a Hindu theological basis; that was why Gandhi strove to “recast” that theology.

The road to inclusive civic politics after the Arab Spring runs through the gates of a pluralism that’s validated and supported by religion. The antidote to Al Qaeda and Salafi extremism isn’t an escape from Islam, which is hardly feasible or democratic. It’s a deeper appreciation of a Muslim heritage that belies the bigoted readings of sharia on which those groups base their tribal honor codes.

That heritage is one where the arts, medicine, philosophy, and politics flourished when hard orthodoxy did not. Cairo was born in the 10th century synthesis of a Shiite minority dynasty, the Fatimids, and a Sunni-Jewish-Christian populace; it fostered a world-class cosmopolitan empire that was a match for the Mughals in India and the Ottomans in Turkey.

There is a price to pay for the lazy assumption that tolerance and pluralism are strictly secular virtues. The civil war in Syria, for instance, reflects the folly of such thinking. After half a century of official secularism, the minority Alawites (who are Shiite Muslims) dread their fate under a Sunni Muslim majority.

The answer to such intolerance lies much more in religious liberalization, a process that will take time. Nothing short of the retrieval of pluralist values nurtured in often deeply convivial Muslim relations with each other and with the world’s other great traditions will serve as the basis for inclusive and accountable citizenship today.

It’s a quest in which educators, imams, mosques, the media, and civic organizations have a vital role – including in the West, beyond our post-9/11 phobias and illusions. 

Amyn B. Sajoo lectures in the history and politics of the Muslim world at Simon Fraser University. His books include "Muslim Ethics: Emerging Vistas" and "Muslim Modernities: Expressions of the Civil Imagination."

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