Tripoli, 1 October:
For the first time in his official capacity as the de facto president of Libya, National Congress chief Mohamed Magarief openly espoused that Libya should be a ‘secular’ state where politics and religion are separated.
The revelation came in an interview with Magarief published today by the London-based newspaper Al-Hayat conducted on the margins of the UN General Assembly meeting in New York.
Al-Hayat asked Magarief if he wanted Libya to have an Islamic constitution based on Sharia law or a secular constitution separating the state from religion.
“What concerns me”, Magarief replied, “is that the constitution expresses the will and choice of the Libyan people. We must not forget that the Libyan people are 100 percent Muslim. If the constitution was to come up with anything conflicting with the Islamic Sharia, that would be unexpected. I do not imagine that any logical person imagines that the constitution in a nation that is 100 percent Islamic would be in conflict with Islamic teachings”.
The Al-Hayat reporter, to confirm, rephrased the question to Magarief: “But in a public forum in English you said that you support a secular constitution. Do you want to repeat this?”
“I repeat this”, Magarief replied. “We want to build a constitutional, democratic, civilian, secular state, but this absolutely does not mean that the constitution or any laws and legislation will be passed that contradict or conflict with Islamic Sharia or its interpretations”.
The Al-Hayat reported (maybe surprised) asked again: “Yes, but does this mean the separation of religion from the state?”
“Yes, in the sense that parliament and the government and the authorities, in light of the constitution, are the ones that specify the laws, legislation and decisions and not a religious body”, Magarief confirmed.
The Al-Hayat reporter wanting there to be no misunderstanding whatsoever asked again about the separation of powers: “Excuse me. I heard you say that you support the separation of religion from the state?”
Magarief explained further what he meant by separation: “In the sense that the religious body does not have control of the General National Congress (Libya’s parliament) or government.
“At the same time, I do not imagine or anticipate that a national congress or a government in a 100 percent Islamic country [would pass a law] that is in conflict with Islamic Sharia”.
This is quite historic for the nascent Libyan political arena and on many levels. Firstly, it has been difficult to get a mature debate going between the two opposing sides on the separation of powers debate.
The ‘S’ word, for example, had been seen as almost a term of abuse during the run-up to the National Congress elections. If you talked about separation of powers during the election campaign you were in danger of being labeled ‘secular’ with all its negative connotations.
Together with the word ‘liberal’, or libraaly in the Libyan vernacular, the word secular was popularly taken to mean atheist or agnostic – interchangeably. It was used by opponents of Mahmoud Jibril and the National Forces Alliance in an attempt to discredit them.
It did not quite work in the end as Jibril’s NFA still secured overwhelmingly the most seats in the GNC party contest, 39 out of the 80 possible. It may have prevented him from gaining an overall majority, however. But it equally failed to gain Jibril and the NFA’s opponents a majority of seats.
The fact that Magarief is coming out into the open and using terms such as “separation of powers” and “secular state” is very interesting and revealing. It will be interesting to see, for example, what the reaction of the Muslim Brotherhood bloc including the Justice and Construction party in the GNC will be.
Magarief, remember, heads a very minor party in the GNC with only three seats. He relies on the support and backing of the Muslim Brotherhood bloc. It will be very unlikely that he would float something that might lose him that support.
It would also be very unlikely that a separation of powers and a secular state would be adopted in the forthcoming constitution if it did not gain the necessary two-thirds majority backing.
Leaving semantics and meanings aside and taking Magarief’s interpretation of ‘secular’ and ‘separation of powers’ at its face value, this would definitely put Magarief on a collision course with Libya’s Grand Mufti Sheikh Sadiq Al-Ghariani.
Al-Ghariani has repeatedly called for a Libyan constitution based on Islamic Sharia. He has made it clear that the will of God is paramount and supersedes the will of the public.
Equally, when Magarief says “We want to build a constitutional, democratic, civilian, secular state, but this absolutely does not mean that the constitution or any laws and legislation will be passed that contradict or conflict with Islamic Sharia or its interpretations”, he talks as if there is only one agreed interpretation of Islam.
He is absolutely right. There is no one in their right mind in Libyan politics who questions the fact that Libya is an Islamic state. The question is which version of Islam is he talking about?
Historically, Libya has been a moderate Sunni Islamic state. However, there now seems to be a new bloc of politicised and armed proponents of a different interpretation of Islam. An interpretation that is new to Libya.
Hence the debate and argument is not about Islam or no Islam. It is about which version and interpretation of Islam. Magarief, in answering the question gave the impression that the interpretation of Islam is monolithic. But he knows very well that that is neither the case without or within Libya.
In the post 17 February Revolution Libya, there is a great battle, sometimes armed and violent, to impose a particular interpretation of Islam on all of Libyan society.
If what Magarief purported to the Al-Hayat newspaper is an accurate and true representation of what the head of the GNC thinks and believes, it will definitely position him nearer the non-Islamist bloc of Jibril’s NFA rather than the Justice and Construction party bloc.
Magarief’s pronouncement on this very sensitive topic could be an indication that there is some movement and political maturity within Libya’s new political elite. It could indicate that there are some efforts being made to get passed what seems like an insurmountable barrier of the source of the constitution and Libyan law.
That is, GNC members may have decided to move beyond simply the semantics of the terms ‘secular’ and ‘separation of powers’ and concentrate on the actual meaning and context of the anticipated content of the new constitution.
Recall that the argument seemed to be whether the text in the anticipated constitution should read that Islamic Sharia should be a source, the main source, the source.
So-called liberals or secularists tend to lean towards the term the main source, whilst the more conservative hardliners insist that Islamic Sharia should bethe source.
The irony is that Libya historically has never been a nation that had interpreted Sharia law in a strict manner. Whilst on the other hand it has historically been less liberal than Tunisia and Egypt with regards to the official sale of alcohol, bars, discotheques, casinos and the sale of pork meats.
It will be interesting to see what reaction Magarief receives upon his return to the GNC. Whatever happens, he seems to have pushed the political debate forward by a few vital metres in Libya’s search for its political orientation.
With the liberal secularist bloc pulling in one direction and the Muslim Brotherhood bloc pulling in another, it will be interesting where Libya settles politically. It will also be interesting to see what role Magarief plays in trying to get both sides closer together in view of the fast approaching deadline to draft the new constitution.
By Sami Zaptia.
Research by Nihal Zaroug