Razib Khan One-stop-shopping for all of my content

October 29, 2011

In it for the long run

Filed under: International Affairs,Libya — Razib Khan @ 12:59 pm

Over the past six months we’ve seen the “Libyan revolution” stall and then succeed. There’s no doubt that the late Libyan dictator was a marginally sane megalomaniac. That being said, he’d been on better behavior over the past 10 years, dismantling his nuclear program for example. I can see the logic in wanting to overthrow him though, there’s a lot of built up historical memory in relation to the various terrorist groups he’s funded in Europe, as well as actions like bombing of Pan Am 103. But is anyone really surprised when things like this occur:

It was just a passing reference to marriage in a leader’s soberly delivered speech, but all week it has unsettled women here as well as allies abroad.

In announcing the success of the Libyan revolution and calling for a new, more pious nation, the head of the interim government, Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, also seemed to clear the way for unrestricted polygamy in a Muslim country where it has been limited and rare for decades.

It looked like a sizable step backward for women at a moment when much here — institutions, laws, social relations — is still in play after the end of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s 42 years of authoritarian rule.

In his speech, Mr. Abdel-Jalil declared that a Qaddafi-era law that placed restrictions on multiple marriages, which is a tenet of Islamic law, or Shariah, would be done away with. The law, which stated that a first wife had to give permission before others were added, for instance, had kept polygamy rare here.

“This law is contrary to Shariah and must be stopped,” Mr. Abdel-Jalil told the crowd, vowing that the new government would adhere more faithfully to Shariah. The next day he reiterated the point to reporters at a news conference: “Shariah allows polygamy,” he said. Mr. Abdel-Jalil is known for his piety.


The Libyan nation is a pretty religious one. Even the women who oppose polygamy out of straightforward self-interest admit its religious validity: ‘Rehab Zehany, 20, who said Mr. Abdel-Jalil was merely following the dictates of the Koran, added, when asked if she would accept her husband taking a second wife: “Of course not! I would kill him!”’ As I’ve asserted many times: attitudes considered extreme or benighted in the West are relatively widespread in much of the Islamic world. When you democratically empower people who have these attitudes, you’re going to get some sloppy regress back to positions that in the West might be considered backward. Some Americans do garnish their arguments about public policy with references to the Bible, but they’re in a minority. Not so in many of these Middle Eastern Muslim nations.

Consider Tunisia, where relatively milquetoast Islamists just came to power. Tunisia Liberals See a Vote for Change, Not Religion:

The message to Islamists, he added, was: “ ‘We are for Islam to be the religion of the state, but you must be very cautious. We are not going to give up our fight for civil freedoms.’ I am profoundly convinced that we can promote human rights and women’s rights, etc., without fighting against Islamists.”

Observe that self-described liberals in Tunisia want Islam to be the religion of the state! Having a state religion isn’t necessarily incompatible with democratic liberalism (e.g., Norway). But in general in most societies which are democratically liberal the secularists are not proponents of an established state religion. I am moderately optimistic that Tunisia can make a transition toward a pluralistic democracy, because it doesn’t seem that the religious conservatives are the overwhelming majority, and so could not impose their vision without major backlash and possible revolt from the more liberal segment of society. This may not be the case in far less developed nations, such as Egypt.

As far as Libya goes, it might be best to avert our eyes. Liberal internationalists and neoconservatives don’t seem to have learned anything from the past 10 years of American foreign policy intervention in their hearts. They see only the immediate justice that they can mete out before their face, and don’t think about medium to long term consequences. They saw the revolution in Libya as a clean abstraction. But the past 6 months have seen something of a ‘race war’, as anti-Qaddafi forces turn against black Libyans and Sub-Saharan Africans who were favored by the old regime. The future may see the rise of a conservative illiberal democracy. That’s not the end of the world by any means, but people should have had their eyes open to the range of possibilities beforehand.

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