It took Libya’s current leader three full days to appear in public after Qaddafi’s killing. He was scheduled at a press conference on Thursday morning—he appeared on Sunday. Then, rather than speak in Tripoli, he addressed a mass gathering in Benghazi, annoying vast swaths of the Libyan population who are still unsure as to why they would recognize his National Transitional Council (NTC). They complain about the domination of the NTC by people from Benghazi. As though these complications were not enough for a divided people, Mustafa Abdul-Jalil then opened a premature, ill-conceived public schism between Libya’s secularists and Islamists by declaring that Libya is an “Islamic state.”
Fortunately, among Muslim activists and Arabs in particular, there is no real consensus on what an Islamic state really means. Turkey’s Prime Minister Erdogan recently spoke in Egypt about how a secular state was the best model for Muslims. Tunisia’s Rashid Ghannoushi has made bold statements about the caliphate (or Islamic state) being a chapter of the Muslim past. But it is unclear whether Libya will opt for the Turkish or Tunisian wisdom.
My good friend and former Quilliam colleague, Noman Benotman, knows Libya better than most. He was a leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) and negotiated peace terms directly with Saif Qaddafi in a bid to disengage LIFG from violence and move away from al-Qaeda. Noman knows the Islamist, salafist, and jihadi trends in Libya from his many years leading the LIFG.
In July of this year, writing in the Times, Noman warned about the rise of extreme salafists in Libya, many who had returned from the battlefields in Iraq, and some who were foreign fighters from Egypt, Tunisia, and Algeria. Noman also wrote about training rebel military camps in Libya. Many of these were training not only for jihad against Qaddafi, but also jihad for creating a state that reflects their understanding of sharia.
They were the fiercest fighters against Qaddafi—now they expect their vision to materialize.
The rise of Islamism is not Libya’s only problem. I wrote about other challenges here and here. However, Abdul-Jalil’s major mistake was to declare Libya an Islamic state so early and add policy details to it by suggesting that polygamy would be legally accepted and bank interest made illegal. Leaving aside the economic and social flaws of both polices, he has now given a public nod to those who want to see more such measures introduced.
The argument, for them, is simple: Libya is now an Islamist state. If so, it cannot cherry-pick parts of the sharia. Therefore, all aspects of their understanding of sharia must be embraced and a caliphate of sorts must ensue. Whatever the details of this debate, NATO-supported Abdul-Jalil has pulled the carpet from under the feet of secularists and liberals. The debate is no longer about a secular or Islamist Libya, but about how more or less Islamist Libya can become.