Transitions

Is Libya’s Top Cleric Undermining Democracy?

Since Muammar al-Qaddafi’s ouster in 2011, Libya’s leading religious authority, the Fatwa Council (Dar al-Ifta), has grown more and more powerful. The organization’s increasing political weight is fueling polarization and complicating the country’s democratic transition. Most recently, the Libyan Grand Mufti, Sadeq al-Gheriani, used his nationally broadcast TV show, Islam and Life, to express his ...

MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP/Getty Images
MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP/Getty Images

Since Muammar al-Qaddafi’s ouster in 2011, Libya’s leading religious authority, the Fatwa Council (Dar al-Ifta), has grown more and more powerful. The organization’s increasing political weight is fueling polarization and complicating the country’s democratic transition. Most recently, the Libyan Grand Mufti, Sadeq al-Gheriani, used his nationally broadcast TV show, Islam and Life, to express his support for lawmakers’ controversial decision to extend their mandate. He used his influence to prohibit citizens from protesting the decision, saying that those who took to the streets were "a misguided group and should be fought."

Gheriani first won attention for his role in the Libyan revolution. He called on all Libyans to take to the streets to protest the Qaddafi regime, declaring that such resistance was obligatory under Islam, and issued a statement calling for a jihad against Qaddafi’s troops. Gheriani even joined protesters on the streets of Tripoli, demanding an end to the regime’s crackdown in Benghazi. Fearing that the Qaddafi regime would retaliate, revolutionary activists managed to smuggle Gheriani out of Libya for a time — whereupon he became the revolution’s remote, but powerful, religious leader.

During the Qaddafi era, Gheriani stayed out of politics and concentrated mainly on his teaching, writing, and research. (Gheriani was a senior religious figure during this period, but the post of Grand Mufti did not yet exist.) In 2008, however, he assumed a prominent role in the reform program set up by Qaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam al-Qaddafi, to rehabilitate former Libyan jihadists. This rehabilitation and de-radicalization project was meant to lay the groundwork for Saif al-Islam to inherit his father’s rule. But despite this connection to the former regime, Gheriani was quick to support the Feb. 17 revolution.

In February 2012, a year after Qaddafi’s ouster, the ruling National Transitional Council issued law No. 15, creating the Grand Mufti position and naming Sadeq al-Gheriani to the post. The legislation is open-ended: It allows the Mufti to interfere in the political scene, but does not clearly define the role of the Mufti or his responsibilities. The law also grants the Mufti and the Fatwa Council legal immunity. This was highly controversial legislation. Many called for the creation of a collective Fatwa Council to rule on Islamic questions rather than concentrating all of that power into the hands of a single Grand Mufti — but Gheriani rejected that plan, saying that it contradicted Islamic rules and teachings. As the debate continued, the National Transitional Council, unable to directly contradict the Mufti, who had significant political and military backing, created the Council of Islamic Scholars. This new Council argues that the religious authority in Libya must reflect the diversity of Libya’s Muslims, including the Sufis. It also warned that the role of Grand Mufti could be employed to advance a political agenda, which would harm the prospects for building a new, civil state.

Such fears were undoubtedly justified. In July 2012, the Grand Mufti urged Libyans not to vote for the National Forces Alliance (NFA), a liberal opposition party, because it purportedly represented secular values. The Mufti urged voters to support those who wanted to advance Sharia law. He issued this advice just two days before the nationwide General National Congress (GNC) elections on July 7. Shortly after, Mahmoud Jibril, leader of the NFA at the time, promised legal action against the Mufti — but the case didn’t seem to go anywhere, most likely because of the Mufti’s legal immunity.

The Mufti also continues to influence economic and social policies. His office was the main driver behind the move to ban interest in the banking system, which has affected the livelihoods of many struggling families. He has also convinced the government to ban Libyan women from marrying foreigners, in an effort to combat Syrian Shiites who were reportedly using the chaotic situation to marry Libyan women and spread Shiite beliefs in the Sunni country. These are just two obvious example of his wide influence.

Today there are no clear limits to the Mufti’s power. He does not appear to be accountable to anyone; no one has the authority to dismiss him or to appoint a successor. The GNC has not even attempted to discuss the former National Transition Council’s decision to appoint Gheriani as a Grand Mufti. Nor has it questioned the legitimacy of law No. 15, which grants him excessive powers without establishing any checks or balances, thus making him one of the four most significant power centers in the country. Religious scholar and GNC member Abdul Latif al-Muhalhil commented that the powers granted to the Mufti place him above both the judiciary and the executive branch, and urged the authorities to make the Mufti accountable to the Higher Judicial Council to protect the principle of a civil state. Outspoken former GNC member Hassan al-Amin has also expressed frustration at the Mufti’s political dealings, complaining that some GNC members refuse to consider any questioning of the Mufti’s authority.

The Mufti is supposed to be neutral and represent the aspirations of all Libyans — and yet he continues to exploit his position to play politics. Gheriani tells Libyans that it is their duty to protest or not to protest as it suits his own political agenda. In March 2013, for example, he called on Libyans to pressure the GNC into passing the controversial Political Isolation Law, which disbars any officials linked to the Qaddafi regime. At other times, though, the Mufti has urged Libyans to stay at home. On various occasions in 2013, he deemed the protests against Islamist militias to be fitna (or "civil strife") and advised Libyans against taking part. At one point the Mufti described the protesters who opposed the GNC’s mandate extension as a "misguided group," claiming that their actions were prohibited by Islam. The Mufti is also known to attack Libyan media by accusing them of spreading lies and adding to the chaos in the country. The Mufti continues to make such claims amid a dangerous increase in the number of attacks that target journalists and TV channels throughout Libya.

While the authorities have been unable to challenge the Mufti’s growing influence in politics, Libyans have largely ignored the Mufti’s advice. Many have mocked him on social media networks, and others have phoned in on his TV show to express their discontent. Libyans must ensure that their upcoming constitution includes check and balances on the Mufti and Fatwa Council, and that future elected authorities have the power to hold them accountable. The current arrangement just isn’t working.

Mohamed Eljarh is the Libya blogger for Transitions. Read the rest of his blog posts here.

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