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Libyan leader's embrace of Sharia raises eyebrows

By Dugald McConnell and Brian Todd, CNN
October 26, 2011 -- Updated 1545 GMT (2345 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NTC leader Jalil said: "We have adopted the Islamic Sharia as the main source of law"
  • That kind of talk could raise concerns among the fledgling government's Western backers
  • In many Muslim countries, Sharia law is interpreted moderately
  • But in some, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, it is interpreted and enforced strictly

(CNN) -- Officials with Libya's interim government are reassuring the West that their religious views are moderate, after the country's interim leader called for the country's new laws to be based on Sharia, or Islamic law.

At a rally on Sunday in Benghazi, National Transitional Council leader Mustafa Abdul Jalil said, "As a Muslim country, we have adopted the Islamic Sharia as the main source of law. Accordingly, any law that contradicts Islamic principles with the Islamic Sharia is ineffective legally."

Jalil also suggested in his speech that he would like to see new Islamic rules implemented to limit how banks charge interest, and put an end to some of the Gadhafi-era restrictions on polygamy.

"The law of marriage and divorce, which deals with polygamy -- this law is against Islamic Sharia, and is now halted," he said.

That kind of talk could raise concerns among the fledgling government's Western backers.

In many Muslim countries, Sharia law forms the basis for the constitution, but is interpreted moderately. But in some, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, it is seen as grounds for cutting off the hand of a convicted thief, or even stoning a woman to death for adultery.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, visiting Tripoli just last week, offered a warning when she was asked whether there should be a role for Islamists in the new Libya.

"Groups and individuals who really believe in democracy should be welcome into that process," she said. "But groups that want to undermine democracy or subvert it are going to have to be dealt with -- by the Libyans themselves."

But Libya's ambassador to the United States, Ali Suleiman Aujali, says the West should not be alarmed. "Sharia law, Islamic law, it is not against democracy, it is not against equality, is not against the relations with the other countries based on interests and respect and cooperation."

He says that women now enjoy new rights since the end of Moammar Gadhafi's regime. "There is no restriction against Libyan women to do anything now in Libya," he says.

And Jalil on Monday quickly reassured the international community that Libyans are moderate Muslims.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said, "We were encouraged to see President Jalil make a clarification." But she reiterated a warning to Libya and other Islamic countries in transition, saying that "the number one thing is that universal human rights, rights for women, rights for minorities, right to due process, right to transparency be fully respected."

Jalil's embrace of Islam's role in Libya comes just as voters in neighboring Tunisia handed a victory to the moderate Islamist party Ennahda.

"Islam is clearly going to play a much stronger role across the region," says Robin Wright, a Mideast expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace. "Whether it's Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and beyond -- as countries redefine their political systems, they are going to want to use the values of their faith to help define what they want next. But that doesn't mean necessarily they're going to be rigid Islamist regimes."

Still, she says, Libyan women are very concerned about equal rights in the post-Gadhafi era.

"The idea of allowing polygamy again -- or allowing the husband to marry again without asking permission of the first wife -- is something that is going to really resonate throughout Libya," she said.

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