‘Sharia’ in the new Middle East

ABDULLAH DOMA AFP/GETTY IMAGES Libyans hold up flags that read in Arabic, “There is no god but God” as they … Continued



Libyans hold up flags that read in Arabic, “There is no god but God” as they rally to listen to National Transitional Council chief Mustafa Abdel Jalil, in support of imposing Islamic sharia law, in the eastern coastal city of Benghazi, on Oct. 28, 2011.

When mass protests broke out across the Middle East and North Africa earlier this year, pundits and politicians across Europe and North America worried that radical Islamists would hijack the revolutions and impose sharia law across the region.

Now, elections in Tunisia have brought the mildly Islamist Ennahda party to power, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood is taking a more active role in post-revolutionary Egypt, and Mustafa Abdul Jalil, the leader of Libya’s interim National Transition Council, has announced that the country would adopt sharia as the supreme law of the land. And so the cries of an impeding Islamist takeover of the Middle East have erupted once more in the western press.

But before we give in to our inner Glenn Beck, let’s get a few things straight. First of all, the prospect of any of these countries transforming into another Islamic Republic of Iran is almost nil. It should be noted that Ennahda, which models itself after Turkey’s enormously successful Justice and Development (AK) Party, has repeatedly said it has no desire to impose sharia-inspired penal codes on Tunisia. Indeed, it is already in talks with liberal and secular parties about forming a coalition government. In Egypt, the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood has certainly increased, but it in no way dominates the political landscape of the country. On the contrary, the Muslim Brotherhood has yet to poll beyond 20 percent in any pre-election survey. In any case, like the Ennahda, the Muslim Brotherhood has also sworn off imposing a conservative interpretation of sharia law, which, according to Egypt’s current constitution, is already the basis of the country’s laws.

That leaves Libya as the only post-revolutionary country in which the transitional government has explicitly called for implementing sharia. I would venture to say that Jalil’s announcement has widespread support across Libya. The country is predominantly Muslim and it can be expected that, given the freedom of an option, the majority of the population will opt for a far greater role for religion in government than what was allowed under Gaddafi. As I have written before in these pages, that is not in and of itself a bad thing.

For generations, the dictatorial regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya violently repressed any hint of religious opposition. With the dictators gone, it is only natural for the proverbial pendulum to swing toward a greater role for religion in society. It will take many years of dialogue and debate, trial and error, for these societies to come to a comfortable accommodation between the religious faith of their majority populations and the necessary requirements for a stable and modern democracy. (Remember, the United States has had a 250-year head start and we are still grappling with the role of religion in our government and society). Those are precisely the kinds of public debates we want people in the region to have.

There is, of course, no room in the modern world for draconian punishments like stoning for adultery and cutting off of hands for theft that one sees in places like Iran or Saudi Arabia. But – and this is what so many in the West, for whom sharia is synonymous with radical fundamentalism, fail to understand – those punishments are not what the vast majority of those who call for sharia have in mind.

As Harvard Law Professor Noah Feldman notes in
The Rise and Fall of the Islamic State
, for a great many Muslims living in countries where the law rests upon the whims of a dictator, sharia is merely code for “rule of law.” Sharia means that there is something written down and codified that can be relied upon by all citizens as a concrete expression of what is and what is not permissible. Further, for many of these newly free populations, sharia is a less a legal code than it is a form of identity, a means of espousing particular values and norms that were conspicuously absent during the corrupt and inept regimes of their ousted dictators.

For the last four decades Libya has been under the rule of a murderous megalomaniac who deprived the country of any form of a civil society by creating a confusing and ultimately egocentric government. Now that the dictator is no more, Libyans are looking for a common foundation upon which to build a new society. The foundation they are most familiar with is Islam. Can such a foundation ultimately lead to a repressive theocracy? Yes. But it can also lead to a modern constitutional state that protects the rights of its citizens. Libya’s choice still lays ahead. But this much seems certain: The people of the new Middle East, having thrown off the yoke of one set of (secular) dictators, do not appear in the mood to replace them with another (religious) set.

Reza Aslan is the author of No god but God and founder of AslanMedia.com, an online journal for news and entertainment about the Middle East. Follow him @RezaAslan and @AslanMedia.

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  • ccnl1

    Yes indeed, “let’s get a few things straight.”

    3. Mohammed was an illiterate, womanizing, lust and greed-driven, warmongering, hallucinating Arab, who also had embellishing/hallucinating/plagiarizing scribal biographers who not only added “angels” and flying chariots to the koran but also a militaristic agenda to support the plundering and looting of the lands of non-believers.

    This agenda continues as shown by the ma-ssacre in Mumbai, the as-sas-sinations of Bhutto and Theo Van Gogh, the conduct of the seven Muslim doctors in the UK, the 9/11 terrorists, the 24/7 Sunni suicide/roadside/market/mosque bombers, the 24/7 Shiite suicide/roadside/market/mosque bombers, the Islamic bombers of the trains in the UK and Spain, the Bali crazies, the Kenya crazies, the Pakistani “koranics”, the Palestine suicide bombers/rocketeers, the Lebanese nutcases, the Taliban nut jobs, the Ft. Hood follower of the koran, and the Filipino “koranics”.

    And who funds this muck and stench of terror? The warmongering, Islamic, Shiite terror and torture theocracy of Iran aka the Third Axis of Evil and also the Sunni “Wannabees” of Saudi Arabia.

    Current crises:

    The global Sunni-Shiite blood feud and the warmongering, womanizing (11 wives), hallucinating founder.

  • GaryRumain

    I smell takiya. They will devolve into theocracies because their cult is self-defeating.

  • GaryRumain

    Mahound was also a pedophile and necrophiliac. As well as many other unsavory things. And he was held up as the ideal man and the model for all koranimals to emulate.

  • AlexanderHagen

    You know nothing about Libya. Libya was the most advanced country in Africa. Their is zero evidence the Libyan people asked for this. We bombed a country and armed a small group of extremists. We killed 1000’s of civilians in Sirte. We arranged for the murder of Gadaffi – who had given up his wmd’s in exchange for “improved relations”.
    This NTC is a creation of the US. France and Britain would not have done this without Hillary and Barack. The Warfala (1 million) the Tarhouna (600,000) Blacks Women and many other people are afraid of this sinister group we installed. And the money of Libyan’s sovereign wealth funds – were only referred to as “gadaffi’s” in order to justify the most succesful propaganda campaign in all human history. I have lots of evidence on http://www.youtube.com/aligzanduh and libya conflict intel on microtopia. Libya had 1/4 the incarceration rated of the US, 1/3 the poverty – zero homelessness and zero food insecurity. It was a police state run by a brilliant eccentric bullying autocrat who was also an idealist and a utopian. Instead of using the limited uprising to engage in talks to help the reformists in the Jamahiriya produce a constitution and greater freedom of expression for its prosperous citizens with socialized medicine & free higher education – we killed – instead of thinking we killed. And the pathetic thing is noone knows it. Look at Russia Today on Youtube. They are the only one showing that Libya had a story – it was not a bad guy in a black hat. Remember that when they engaged in terrorism in the 80s we were doing the same on a much more massive scale. And that Libya was the main supporter of Mandela – while we considered him a terrorist. Defend your Liberty – dont attack small countries you and apparantly your govt know nothing about.

  • mudddy123

    You can keep spewing your filth…yet we’ll keep loving the Prophet Muhammad; May the Peace and Blessings of God Almighty be upon Him, and continue to regard him as the best of creation

  • ccnl1

    Continued from above:

    18) Moscow airport suicide bombing: 35 dead, 130 injured. January 25, 2011.

    19) A Pakistani minister, who had said he was getting death threats because of his stance against the country’s controversial blasphemy law, was shot and killed Wednesday, 3/2/2011

    20) two American troops killed in Germany by a recently radicalized Muslim, 3/3/2011

    21) the kidnapping and apparent killing of a follower of Zoraster in the dark world of Islamic Pakistan.

    22) Shariatpur, Bangladesh (CNN 3/30/2011) — Hena Akhter’s last words to her mother proclaimed her innocence. But it was too late to save the 14-year-old girl. Her fellow villagers in Bangladesh’s Shariatpur district had already passed harsh judgment on her. Guilty, they said, of having an affair with a married man. The imam from the local mosque ordered the fatwa, or religious ruling, and the punishment: 101 lashes delivered swiftly, deliberately in public. Hena dropped after 70 and died a week later.

    23) “October 4, 2011, 100 die as a truck loaded with drums of fuel exploded Tuesday at the gate of compound housing several government ministries on a busy Mogadishu street. It was the deadliest single bombing carried out by the al Qaeda-linked al-Shabab group in Somalia since their insurgency began. “

  • shilotoren

    Author is optimistic, but I am not. The AKP has finished the process of Islamization that they have embarked upon, Eventually Turkey may end up very un-democratic, very non-liberal and very fundamentally Islamic. At the moment there is little to stop the process that threatens first and foremost the democratic and free speech tendencies that still exit in Turkey.

    As for Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Algeria and Morroco. Islamist forces are making inroads and increased Islamization will eliminate what is left of whatever non-Moslem minorities still present, redefine womens’ rights to the most restrictive fashion and deal literal death blows to secularism and liberal thought.

    Any reason to believe otherwise?

  • shilotoren

    should read ” the AKP has yet to finish the process of Islamization”

  • Secular1

    I had never had really great hopes for the so called Arab Spring, in terms of liberal democracies breaking out in every nation. That said it was a necessary precursor for those dar-ul-islams to turn into a modicum of tolerant and accepting societies. But what I find distressing and enraged is the ilk of Reza Aslans, who constantly make little of the oppression that is ever present in those dar-ul-islams. Yet when it comes to west or any other liberal democracies like India they are at the front of the line when there is the slightest of affronts to their Islamic sensibilities. Take for instance the regulation in France against Bee Keeper suits, or minarets in Switzerland. Mr. Aslan’s apology that these places are homogenous societies that they are predominantly muslim is really shallow. First of all assuming that, somehow sharia is acceptable for each and every Muslim, and that chopping off a Muslim’s hand for stealing a loaf of bread isn’t inhumane is atrocious. I realy wish these so called moderates from dar-ul-islams would get just as rankled as tehy get when the beekeer suit is banned.

  • mono1

    Democracy is another opium of the masses,another delusion ,another coma, soon will hit the rubish side of history along with mother secularism.

    the job accomplished as far as the ARAB SPRING .,people of the mid east have solid background to rely on (ISLAM as CREED and SHARIA ,complete system of life).

    as far as the western spring or western occupy,the job is unaccomplished yet .and if accomplished ,what system is going to be embraced?what ideology?what methodology?other than the opium of the masses called democracy ?and other than the blood suckers called financial institutions ?and other than the corrupted politicians who they honor their own selfs befor they honor the people?other than santa clause?or the bunny eggs???

    deluded secular heads need to pay attention to what is going around the world ..the western paradigm is in serious need for bail out.
    i recomend no better than ISLAM,knoking delusionism and rotten ideologies for more than 1400 years .

  • JohannesH

    It is true that the application or interpretation of Sharia law can vary greatly. What cannot vary is the full respect for all human rights, no matter what the inspiration of law and constitution.
    1. How moderate are some of the new leading “moderate” politicians speaking in Libya and Egypt, for example?
    Hard to tell. Lybia’s Mustafa Abdul Jalil has stated explicitly that no law contrary to Sharia will be valid and went on to say “for example, abolishing polygamy is against Sharia.” The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s official spokesman, Mahmoud Ghozlam, reacted angrily at the Turkish prime ministers appeal for a secular state in a televised interview. It would seem that they want Egypt to become a religious state: Not very moderate.
    2. Is it really the majority that supports them?
    Is Islamism really so deeply rooted that the West “just has to understand this truth and deal with it”, as the “moderate” Muslim Brotherhood’s Mahmoud Ghozlam claims?
    In Tunisia, the Sharia-promoting Ennahdha party has won 40% of the votes which is very important. What is actually more important is what this means: 60% of the population did not vote for them. The Ennahdha (renaissance) party was the only Islamist party presenting itself: all other parties are of secular inspiration. This means that in an election with 80% turn-out the overwhelming majority did NOT vote for Islamism, not even in a moderate form. Ennahdha leaders were quick to say they will not abolish the 1950’s Family Law, precisely because they stand on slim popular support.
    3. The non-negotiables
    True: The interpretation and application of Sharia and Islam can vastly differ. This depends also on cultural backgrounds: Tunisia is very different to Tribal-based Libya for example. The West needs to be respectful of the legitimate expressions of values and self-determination of the people of Northern Africa and the Middle East. However the West need not accept whatever is said or done by the acting governments.
    Non-Muslims under