By Sami Zaptia.
Tripoli, 11 August:
Islam, democracy, personal freedoms, secularism and the new Libya
The handover ceremony between Libya’s unelected and outgoing National Transitional . . .[restrict]Council (NTC) and the newly elected and incoming 200-member General National Congress (GNC), took place Wednesday night, broadcast live on numerous satellite TV channels, including international channels.
It was by any standard a truly historic day for both Libya and for democracy in general. Here was an unelected body, the NTC, in a developing part of the world handing over power peacefully and seamlessly to a newly elected body, the GNC.
Jalil symbolically handing over power to the General National Congress’s oldest member, Mohammed Salim.
There were no deaths, no bullets, no fires, no demonstrations, no negotiations, no international mediators trying to reconcile outgoing and incoming parties. The elections of 7th July were declared free and fair by international observers and the outgoing power-holders, the NTC, seemed as keen to hand-over power as the GNC were to receive it.
The ceremony, slated to start at 11pm, unsurprisingly started slightly late. The presenter, Sarah Elmesallati had to encourage the gathering on a couple of occasions to take their seats as the ceremony was about to start.
It was not surprising that the gathered were rather excitable. It was the first time, and probably the last that all the newly elected 200 GNC members, the 100-odd NTC members, the present government and members of the first post Revolution administration of Mahmoud Jibril, all met in the same space. No wonder the road to the Congress Hall was closed off and heavy security surrounded the area.
Elmesallati eventually succeeded in getting the gathering to settle down and she smoothly commenced proceedings. She made her introduction speech and presented the next speaker. There was nothing wrong with what she said nor the manner in which she presented it. However, little did Elmesallati know that she was to become the eye of the storm regarding her appearance.
As reported by Libya Herald, during Elmesallati’s opening remarks Salaheldin Badi, an independent GNC member from Misrata, shouted out ‘cover your hair’. Apparently the majority did not support the outcry, or if they did, they did not support the the way in which it was presented.
Mustafa Abdul Jalil, head of the NTC, obviously agreed with the sentiment. When he spoke at the podium he commented that ‘today we are a people celebrating religous occasions and we have our traditions and practices’. He made no direct comment about the presenter, but the consequence of his comment was clear.
After Abdul Jalil finished his speach, Sarah Elmesallati did not reappear on stage and was replaced by an unprepared and clearly nervous male stand-in. She told Libya Herald later that Abdul Jalil gestered to her not to continue.
This is not the first time that Abdul Jalil has made a controversial statement at a major occasion. Who could forget the flak that he received for his Liberation Day speech in which he urged Libyan men to exercise their Islamic right to marry four wives.
Last night Abdul Jalil once again stole the limelight for all the wrong reasons, and once again he received criticism for imposing his own personal views and for getting his priorities wrong.
Instead of concentrating on the pressing national issues of national safety and security, reconciliation, the armed militias, unemployment, corruption and transparency or accountability, he chose to concentrate on the personal choice of whether one woman was or was not wearing her headscarf.
The two major points that Abdul Jalil made in his speech have been pushed out of the limelight by the controversy. The first was that Libya did not compensate and has not committed itself to compensating the international community for its efforts during the Revolution. The second and equally major point he mentioned was the need to do away with food and fuel subsidies and replace them with direct cash subsidies. Nope – no one has been able to get past the headscarf incident.
The controversy brings to the fore the debate in Libya on women’s rights in an Islamic society and issues of personal choice, personal freedoms, tolerance of the opposite view, and where the peoples will and choice via the election results stands in an Islamic democracy.
It is such actions by Abdul Jalil that make him liable to the oft made accusation that he is a closet Muslim Brotherhood supporter and that he is responsible for the Brotherhood gaining so much sudden influence in Libya.
The incident is a symptom of the battle between the contending schools of thought in Libya attempting to shape the new Libya. It is a tug-of-war between the moderate liberals and the conservatives. It is a battle between those who believe that, in the political sphere at least, the will of the people is supreme and final and those who believe that Islam is ever present in all spheres of Libyan life – including the political realm. This is the view of Libya’s Grand Mufti Sadik al-Ghiriyani who believes that there are no ‘no-go’ areas for Islam or God. He totally rejects the notion of free choice or the will of the people as more important than the will of God – in any sphere.
‘God’s word is supreme’
In a Libya Herald article on 20 July we reported how Sheikh Sadik Al-Ghariani was adamant that Sharia be the bases for Libya’s new constitution.
‘God’s word is supreme. The word and the will of the people is not supreme. If all the people and the popular will agreed unanimously on something that contradicted the word of god, then all the people are wrong and the word of god is right’, Al-Ghariani said.
The irony is that, those parties representing a stricter and more conservative interpretation of Islam and a closer relationship between Islam and politics were clearly rejected in the 7th July elections. And therein lays the greater issue that Libya needs to grapple with. The GNC in the short term, and the Libyan public at large over the coming years, must agree on and create the rules of the political game. Rules that have never existed due to 42 years of dictatorship.
In different countries all over the world, there are different rules, laws, traditions on the balance given between individual rights versus communal rights. To what extent should the ‘will of the majority’ rule as a pseudo-dictatorship in between national elections, and to what extent should minority and dissenting rights be protected by the law and constitution?
And of course there is the matter of whether there is any possibility that a form of a secular state can be adopted in Libya, without infringing on the basic principles of Islam? Can the will of the Libyan people be supreme at least when it comes to politics?
Article 14 of the Transitional Constitutional Declaration, a document Abdul Jalil is an instigator of, clearly says that ‘the state guarantees the freedom of opinion and expression of individuals and groups…insofar as it does not conflict with the law’.
It also quite clearly says in Article 7 that ‘the state guarantees human and basic rights and seeks to join international declarations and conventions that protect these rights and freedoms’.
Although Article 1 says that Sharia is ‘the main source of authority’, it also clearly says earlier on in the same article that ‘Libya is a democratic country’ and that the ‘people are the source of powers’ and that’ the state guarantees the rights of non-muslims to practice their religions’.
There is no written law that imposes the wearing of the hijab (headscarf) in Libya, and hence, it is not an offence not to wear one. Yet the TCD guarantees the rights of non-Muslims to practice their religion, including, I assume, the non-wearing of the hijab. The TCD, it seems, gives more protection and more freedoms to non-Muslims and non-Libyans than it does to the Libyan citizens it was written to protect.
Moreover, it could be argued by one reading of the Transitional Constitutional Declaration that Elmesallati was exercising her individual human right and freedom to not wear a headscarf and that this right is enshrined in Articles 1 and 14 of the TCD.
It is therefore also arguable that Abdul Jalil transgressed on Elmesallati’s individual human right and freedoms and instigated a discriminatory act by ordering or encouraging her removal. This case is even more morally arguable in view of the total rejection by the Libyan electorate of the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood parties in the 7th July elections.
The issue of the role of the state and individual rights and freedoms is a much more vexing one in Islamic states where there is not a clear division between the political civic state and religion. God is supreme and ever-present in all affairs of life – including politics – is the conservative Islamic view.
As would be expected, there was much criticism of the whole affair aimed at the departing Abdul Jalil. He was accused of hypocracy and of choosing which parts of Islam he stressed and which he did not. He was criticized for choosing not to object to the appointment or appresence of the Health Minister Fatma Hamroush who is also not a wearer of the hijab and of shaking hands with women such as Hiliary Clinton and he was accussed of rejecting the political will of the people who overwhelmingly rejected the Islamic Brotherhood parties via the 7th July democratic elections.
It will be interesting to see what the reaction of the 200-member GNC will be to this affair. It will be of particular interest to see the reaction of the female GNC members, especially those of them who are not hijab wearers. Will they be allowed to enter the GNC without wearing the Hijab, if they so choose?
Little did Elmesallati know, with hair uncovered, what she was letting herself in for on Wednesday night as she innocently walked up to the podium on what she must have thought was the biggest night of her life. She was apparently consoled and encouraged by many leading figures present at the ceremony afterwards.
A leading Libyan English-language radio station immediately hosted her on a show and a Facebook page supporting her has already got over a thousand ‘likes’. She has been transformed into an overnight celebrity and will forever be associated with this historic night in Libya’s democratic development.
She must not take it personally. She is a symbol for, and a victim of, a much wider and deeper battle of ideas, ideals, beliefs and politics that is going to play out throughout the new democratic Libya over the next few days, months, years and decades.
The battle may never end. Decades later it is still going on in Turkey today. It is a long process which I suspect will ebb first in one direction and then in the other. It is part of a process, a process that will hopefully remain within the acceptable democratic rules of the game – peaceful and civil.
For more on the transfer of power ceremony from the NTC to the GNC see: http://www.libyaherald.com/?p=12428