TRIPOLI, Libya — After giving a speech that emphasized the Islamization of Libya, the head of the transitional government on Monday tried to reassure the Western powers who helped topple Moammar Gadhafi that the country’s new leaders are moderate Muslims.
Just as in neighbouring Tunisia and Egypt, Islamists have emerged from yet another Arab Spring uprising as the most powerful group in the country.
How far they will go will be decided at the ballot box — in Tunisia this week, in Egypt in November and in Libya within eight months.
National Transitional Council leader Mustafa Abdul-Jalil said Sunday that Islamic Sharia law would be the main source of legislation, that laws contradicting its tenets would be nullified, and that polygamy would be legalized.
“I would like to assure the international community that we as Libyans are moderate Muslims,” said Abdul-Jalil, who added that he was dismayed by the focus abroad on his comments Sunday on polygamy.
A State Department spokeswoman said the U.S. was encouraged that he had clarified his earlier statement.
The stir created by Abdul-Jalil’s address in Benghazi, the eastern Libyan city where the anti-Gadhafi uprising was born in mid-February, came as international pressure mounted on him to investigate the circumstances of Gadhafi’s death.
Abdul-Jalil ordered an inquiry to establish whether the deposed Libyan leader was killed in an execution-style slaying after being captured alive Thursday by fighters in his hometown of Sirte or whether he died in the crossfire as government officials have suggested.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland reiterated U.S. support for a full investigation but said “it’s now time for Libya to move on.” She endorsed the NTC’s proposed timeline for next steps in the democratic transition, and said Libyans “with no blood on their hands” must be ensured “a place in the new Libya, and that they are safe and they are included.”
She also called a Human Rights Watch report that dozens of Gadhafi supporters were found dead with bullet wounds in the back of the head and their hands tied, “extremely disturbing.” She said U.S. Ambassador to Libya Gene Cretz raised Washington’s concerns with the council and asked them to conduct another investigation.
Gadhafi’s body went on public display since Friday in a commercial refrigerator in the port city of Misrata, where residents lined up to see it.
Ibrahim Beit al-Mal, a spokesman for the fighters, said he expected that the bodies of Gadhhafi, his slain son Muatassim and former Defence Minister Abu Bakr Younis would be buried today in an unmarked grave in a secret location.
A military commander said the bodies were handed over to authorities for burial.
Abdul-Jalil said earlier that the transitional government has established a committee to determine what to do with Gadhafi’s body, adding that the decision will be governed by a religious edict by the head of the Islamic Fatwa society.
Several videos have emerged showing Gadhafi was alive when he was captured and taunted and beaten by revolutionary fighters in Sirte. The Boston-based international news site GlobalPost posted a video showing Gadhafi’s captors ramming a stick into his buttocks through his pants.
Guma al-Gamaty, a London-based spokesman for the National Transitional Council, said Abdul-Jalil had an obligation at the dawn of a new era to assure Libyans that Islam will be respected.
“This doesn’t mean that Libya will become a theocracy. There is no chance of that whatsoever. Libya will be a civic state, a democratic state and, in principle, its laws will not contradict democracy,” he said.
It is the kind of assurance Western powers that supported the anti-Gadhafi fighters with airstrikes and diplomatic backing may have been looking for.
In Washington, Nuland stressed the importance of creating “a democracy that meets international human rights standards, that provides a place for all Libyans and that serves to unify the country.”
She said the U.S. was encouraged that Abdul-Jalil clarified his earlier statements on the topic, but hedged on an overall U.S. assessment of systems based on Sharia.
“We’ve seen various Islamic- based democracies wrestle with the issue of establishing rule of law within an appropriate cultural context,” Nuland said. “But the No. 1 thing is that universal human rights, rights for women, rights for minorities, right to due process, right to transparency be fully respected.”
French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero played down the comments.
“We have confidence that the Libyan people, who have courageously freed themselves from 42 years of dictatorship, will build a lawful state, in conformity with the principles and universal values shared by the international community,” Valero said in an online briefing Monday.
Many Libyans welcomed Abdul-Jalil’s comments as a chance to overturn Gadhafi’s rulings as he cracked down on Islamists in his later years. Others were critical, saying it was the wrong time to raise the issue.
Hana el-Gallal, a human rights activist, said she was not against the implementation of Sharia law but only if done correctly.
“For me, the speech was not up to the historical moment we are going through. We know the Qur’an and we know the basics of our religion. We are not against polygamy but it is better to regulate it,” she said.
“Maybe he is trying to make sure that we are not going to be a Westernized country. I don’t know what kind of threat he faces,” she added.
Libya is a deeply conservative Muslim nation, with most women wearing headscarves or the all-encompassing niqab. Islamists were heavily repressed under Gadhafi and are eager to have their say, raising the prospect of a battle for influence between hard-line and moderate Muslims. Already several attacks have occurred on shrines in and around Tripoli belonging to Muslim sects whose practices are seen as sacrilegious.
Abdul-Jalil singled out banks charging interest as something that will be abolished to conform with Sharia laws that equate bank interest with usury. He also said that a Gadhafi-era law that sets conditions on Libyan men wishing to take a second wife, including the written approval of the first wife, will have to be nullified since the Qur’an allows men to take up to four wives.
“If we follow Islamic principles, then Islam does ban interest. This is an Islamic rule that can’t be negotiated. Some banks are following the Islamic way, which is sharing losses or profits. … Qur’an is the higher constitution for all Muslims,” Abdul-Jalil said on Monday.
Implementing Sharia in Libya may not necessarily mean the North African nation will turn into regimes like clergy-ruled Iran or Afghanistan under the Taliban. The extent of how far Sharia law can be applied depends in large part on the interpretation of a large body of Quranic verses and sayings and deeds of Muhammad, Islam’s seventh century prophet.
Sharia law is enshrined the constitution of a number of Middle Eastern countries with Muslim majorities, but the role it plays in society varies according to interpretations. Some nations, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, follow a stricter interpretation that mandates cutting off the hands of thieves, the heads of murderers and stoning adulterers to death. Those who drink alcohol are publicly flogged. Others, such as Egypt, state that Sharia is a main source of legislation but have largely secular laws.
“It may not be quite be the country that NATO thought it was fighting for (when Sharia is implemented in Libya),” said David Hartwell, a British-based Libya expert. “But the huge amounts of oil and gas in Libya will make everyone learn how to reconcile themselves with the new Libya.”
Gadhafi’s approach to Islam has changed through his nearly 42 years as leader. On coming to power in 1969, he pushed for an interpretation of Islam that encouraged the fight against European colonial powers in Libya and across the globe. He banned alcohol in line with the faith’s teachings and turned against liberals and leftists during his early years in power.
In later years, however, Gadhafi saw militants as a threat to his authoritarian rule. He jailed and put to death many of them while sending agents of his powerful security organs to monitor and, in some cases, arrest Libyans showing signs of piety, such as frequenting mosques to offer dawn prayers.
Islamists are a small minority among Libya’s population of 6 million, but they were by far the largest and most powerful faction among the fighters who battled pro-Gadhafi forces in eight months of civil war. Abdul-Jalil, analysts said, was likely to have given his address an Islamic slant as a nod to those fighters who were united with other factions by the common goal of ousting Gadhafi but now are jockeying to fill the political vacuum left by his ouster.
“Abdul-Jalil’s religious rhetoric reflects moderate Islam,” said Ali Ahmida, a Libyan who chairs the Department of Political Science at the University of New England at Biddeford, Maine. “His address was an attempt to appease the Islamic groups that fought Gadhafi, but should have come as no surprise in Libya, where Islam plays a much bigger role than it does in neighbouring countries.”
The emergence of Libya’s Islamists as the strongest faction in the wake of Gadhafi’s removal repeats a pattern seen in Tunisia and Egypt.
Early signs from Tunisia’s parliamentary election Sunday show that a once-banned Islamist party, Ennahda, has a commanding lead in the first vote since a popular uprising forced President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali to flee the country on Jan. 14.
In Egypt, Islamists also are poised to emerge as the largest bloc when a parliamentary election is held next month. It will be the first nationwide election since Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s ruler of 29 years, was ousted in February.