In his first speech to the people of Tripoli, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, the interim leader of Libya’s National Transitional Council announced his vision for a post-Gaddafi Libya: “We are seeking to establish a state government by law and welfare, – and Shari’ah – Islamic law – should be the main source of law”
The speech has had a mixed reception in the western media. Some reports spoke of Abdul Jalil’s promise to implement ‘moderate’ Islamic rule, quoting his words that ‘we will not accept any extremist ideology, on the right or the left. We are a Muslim people, for a moderate Islam, and we will stay on this road.’
Simultaneously calling for Shari’ah and ‘moderate Islam’ plays to two distinct audiences: one the people of Libya and the other NATO. The pressures from the latter are immense. Statements by Anders Fogh Rasmussen talking about the threats of ‘Islamists hijacking’ Libya, and western media linking the statement about Shari’ah to ‘war-crimes’ by rebels come across as implied threats more than genuine concerns.
Others commentators have not hidden their horror, saying that Shari’ah law was “repressive and undemocratic”. Such comments are hardly new. Hijab and niqab bans in France, Geert Wilders in Holland, Breivik in Norway, the English Defence League and a growing body of commentators in the UK and US have all been united against any increased expression of Shari’ah in Europe and America.
In 2005, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair characterized Shari’ah as part of an ‘evil ideology’; and his Home Secretary Charles Clarke said that Shari’ah was non-negotiable anywhere in the world when giving a speech to the Heritage Foundation in the context of the war on terror.
Yet, all of this begs two questions: why do Muslims wantShari’ah? And why do western governments oppose it so much? Especially when they are happy to support repression, authoritarian rule and undemocratic regimes [some of whom selectively adopt some Shari’ah punishments for some of their citizens].
The answer lies in an accurate understanding of Shari’ah – not the caricatures and misrepresentations peddled as part of ‘war on terror’ propaganda.
Shari’ah literally means ‘the way to a watering place’. It is the body of rules and laws that apply to all areas of life: political, judicial, spiritual, economic, social and international affairs. For many Muslims it is enough that this body of law stems from the Quran and the Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad [peace be upon him] – and that God and His Messenger know best how people should live.
Yet many more appreciate some fundamentals about Shari’ah that most commentaries choose to overlook.
Firstly, it is a body of law that is held to a high and consistent standard. As such it is much harder for it to be manipulated for the sake of commercial and corporate interests. It is not, as is so often represented, a static body of law. There are some indisputable rules, but the majority of laws are subject to legal reasoning and debate.
Secondly, it is well known amongst Muslims that this law should be applied consistently, such that no one – not even the Caliph himself – is above the law. It is the ultimate in the ‘rule of law’. The fact that there is no clergy in Islam reinforces this fact.
Thirdly, Muslims are aware of the goodness Shari’ah brings – in dramatic contrast to the dictatorial or democratic systems they have endured for the past eight decades.
In political affairs, it means electing the rulers, who are accountable and supposed to consult people over many important issues.
In economic affairs, it means taxing less, not more; and taxing unused wealth rather than income or spending.
It means guaranteeing food, shelter and clothing for all citizens.
It means public utilities – energy sources, water etc – are public property. It means people can own private property and trade for profits – provided they pay their zakat.
It means land laws such that unused land is confiscated and reallocated to someone that will make that land productive.
It means a ban on interest, so ending the debt that cripples the poor of the world.
In judicial life, it means rigorous justice, a higher burden of proof than western courts, and trying to prevent punishments as much as possible; but if (at the end of due process) punishment was necessary, the implementation of Hudood punishments (under certain well-defined conditions) act as a deterrent.
In foreign affairs, it absolutely forbids colonial dependency on other states – and demands self-reliance. It allows trade and treaties with other states, but refuses to be bound by hegemonic international institutions enforced on the world by a few powerful states for their own interests.
As a body of law, the Shari’ah aims to protect, for all its citizens, their lives, property, honour, beliefs, and minds. It also balances spiritual, humanitarian, ethical and material values in a way that capitalist states have wholly failed to do. It addresses both the collective and the individual protecting both society and individuality; it prioritises and protects the poor while permitting the rich to enjoy their wealth. It is not afraid to focus on the next world as well as this one.
Understood like this, many might better understand why it appeals to Muslims. It also explains why Muslims reject states like Saudi Arabia with their selective application of Shari’ah rules.
This understanding of Shari’ah, also explains why western governments remain content supporting the Saudi, Bahraini and Syrian regimes – as they did Mubarak, Gaddafi, Musharraf and others for so long. It is not, as they profess, that they see Shari’ah as repressive and authoritarian – for they long ago abandoned all pretence that they mind supporting repressive and authoritarian regimes.
Yet a state that put the Shari’ah above interests of foreign powers, rich elites, and put much sought after resources in the hands of the public [not to be sold off to multinational corporations] – is not a state that is in the interests of capitalist states that seek to enforce their dominance and harness resources for themselves – and also challenges the ideological foundations that currently dominate the world. The very fact that it crosses the nation state boundaries established by the Sykes-Picot accord, means that it not only sits outside the Westphalian norm – it would also pool resources so making a unified Muslim world a credible global player.
The pressures on the likes of Mustafa Abdul Jalil in Libya, or the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, to conform to current ‘neoliberal’ international norms – to implement secular, capitalist, democratic systems, with lip-service to Islam in religious and social matters – is enormous. But the debates that are just emerging in the Middle East about the way forward cannot be divorced from other dynamics in the world. Capitalism, democracy and the western way of life have lost much of the Utopian appeal they once held. They are no longer considered infallible.
So, despite the pressures on people in the Middle East to conform, the battle of ideas that is beginning, it will be impossible to exclude Islam and the Shari’ah of Islam from the equation, no matter how much demonization and propaganda is levelled against it.
Dr. Abdul Wahid is a regular contributor to New Civilisation. He is currently the Chairman of the UK-Executive Committee of Hizb ut-Tahrir in Britain. He has been published in The Times Higher Educational Supplement and on the websites of Foreign Affairs, Open Democracy and Prospect magazine. He can be followed on Twitter @abdulwahidht or emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org