News / Africa

Libyan Opposition Leaders Debate Role of Religion in Government

A young girl waves the opposition flag as an angry but peaceful crowd demonstrates outside the Tibesty Hotel where an African Union delegation was meeting with opposition leaders in Benghazi, Libya, April 11, 2011
A young girl waves the opposition flag as an angry but peaceful crowd demonstrates outside the Tibesty Hotel where an African Union delegation was meeting with opposition leaders in Benghazi, Libya, April 11, 2011

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While Libyan opposition forces battle troops loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi in central and western Libya, opposition leaders have formed an interim authority in the east and are planning to draft a new constitution. Part of the debate centers on the role of religion in this deeply Muslim part of the country.

Leaders in opposition-held parts of Libya like to call the uprising that began February 17 "a revolution." They hope to institute democracy and the rule-of-law through a new constitution.

A professor of religious law at Benghazi’s Garyounis University, Osama el-Salladi, says that under the 41-year rule of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, religious institutions were as controlled as political life.

He says, "therefore we as a nation aspire to a democratic, constitutional and civil state. There is no place for a system where a family, or one individual, controls everything."

Islam is an important part of daily life in Libya, as witnessed by the thousands of people who gather every Friday for prayers at opposition headquarters in Benghazi.

Some observers fear radical Islamists will take advantage of the current power vacuum and take over the fledgling state. El-Salladi does not believe that will happen though he says religious leaders will play a role in building the new state.

He says the vast majority of the people in Libya are moderate and the space for extremism is small and very limited. But when all the people gather to decide on the future, the majority will decide which way the society will go.

A spokesman for the opposition National Transitional Council, Mustafa Gheriani, says Libyan society follows the Sunni way of Islam and does not have the sectarian divisions that have fueled extremists in some Muslim countries.

"They [extremists] have no platform to work. Libyan society is very integrated. People know each other. There is no room for suicide bombers. And we don’t fear them," said Gheriani. "In a democracy you do not fear political views."

A political adviser to the opposition council, Professor Zahi Mogherbi, says the lack of individual freedoms under the Gadhafi regime encouraged religious extremism.

"But once you have an open society where everybody has the right to discuss public issues, has the right to run for office, I feel that will ameliorate and maybe eradicate most of these radical and extremist tendencies," Mogherbi stated.

Ulrich Reuter, a German businessman with lengthy experience in Libya, says fears that Islamists could hijack the Libyan revolution are unfounded.

“No. This is only rumors. I am working eight years with the people here. I have seen each area here in Libya and there is no problem in terms of religion. The people are just not happy with the system," he said.

A political analyst at Cairo’s Al-Ahram Institute for Strategic Studies, Ziad Akl, says because of the nature of Gadhafi's rule, religion did not play an important role in politics.

"The kind of monocracy that Gadhafi has created is not very much influenced by religion politically as much as it is influenced by religion socially," said Akl. "So the role of religious leaders right now - those who are in support of Gadhafi are trying to mobilize people in the name of the regime and those who are in support of the rebels are also trying to mobilize people. But religion is not being used like a political tool right now. It is being used as a mobilization force."

Nevertheless, observers say because of religion’s importance in Libyan society, they expect it to play a significant role in any new constitution and government. The level of its importance remains to be seen.

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