Although the Arab Spring uprisings were initially seen as a victory for democracy, the revolts that toppled repressive regimes throughout the Middle East have actually provided Islamist groups with an opportunity to expand their influence.
Western political leaders were grateful to despots like Mubarak, Ali and, yes, Gaddafi, for containing radical Islamists for years. Many Westerners now fear the Muslim groups filling the power vacuum left by these tyrants will impose Sharia law — the much maligned and misunderstood Islamic legal code.
According to The Washington Post Libya’s interim leader Mustafa Abdel Jalil on Sunday proclaimed that Libya was an “Islamic state” and vowed to get rid of regulations that didn’t conform to Islamic law.
Specifically, Jalil said Libya’s new constitution would not disallow polygamy and interest on loans would be eliminated in accordance with Islamic prohibition on charging interest.
In Tunisia the Islamist Ennahda party claimed victory earlier today in the country’s first free vote. However, because Tunisia depends so heavily upon tourism as a revenue source, experts have said the new regime will likely not implement Sharia to avoid offending the West.
Ennahda founder Rachid Ghannouchi called for the strict application of Sharia during the 1970s but, according to AFP, he has toned down his demands in recent years:
“The code of personal status and women’s rights cannot be touched,” Ghannouchi said last week. “Women make up half of society and we need their votes.”
Meanwhile in Egypt, the mainstream Muslim Brotherhood claims it would not seek a transition to Sharia, realizing it would face vehement opposition from Coptic Christians, secularists and other liberal-minded factions.
However, secularists that strongly believe in the separation of church and state do not trust Islamist assurances.
They accuse the Islamic groups of supporting “one man, one vote, one time”, fearing that, once in power, the Islamists will impose a harsh form of Sharia despite former claims of moderation.
Yet many Muslims in the region support a return to Sharia and mistrust separating religious values from politics, especially those who suffered under tyrannical secular regimes.
And contrary to public opinion, the Muslim world is not ideologically monolithic — Sharia has a multitude of interpretations and need not always be diametrically opposed to democracy.
The precepts of Sharia, which means “path” in Arabic, are derived from the Koran and the practices of the Prophet Mohammed. Forms range from the hard-line Hanbali school of thought where medieval punishments like stoning for adultery are still commonly levied, to the more liberal Hanafi philosophy.
It’s hard to reconcile democracy with Sharia conceptually, considering a political system whose laws are based on the consent of the governed seems to completely contradict one whose laws are based on the consent of Allah.
But Muslim intellectuals such as Abdelwahab El-Affendi believe one-man rule is un-Islamic, arguing that all men are equal in the eyes of God. According to the Council of Foreign Relations Toni Johnson:
Others feel Islam necessitates a democratic system and that democracy has a basis in the Quran since “mutual consultation” among the people is commended (42:38 Quran).
Traditional Islam allows for many forms of governance but holds that laws in a Muslim country should be inspired by Islam, which can loosely be interpreted to mean that laws must be moral.
Mark Urban in a BBC piece poses a thought-provoking question that puts Western paranoia in perspective:
So does a belief that society, ultimately should be run according to Islamic principles put these politicians in the same ideological boat as al-Qaeda? Or does it make them little different to a US presidential candidate who, as a devout Christian, may hold messianic beliefs but does not expect the Second Coming during his or her term of office?