By Ryan Bennett
Sharia law, a religiously based approach to legislation, is a scary term for many of us in the US. We often associate it with a conservative, oppressive, and perhaps brutal form of governance that subjugates the rights of the people.
We have also typically been apprehensive about Islamist organisations, instead deciding to support totalitarian, secular leaders, in part because of our Islamophobia. But in reality, can't we ask ourselves: "What do we really know about Islam and Sharia?"
Sharia translates literally as the "way" or "path". The structure of Sharia law is very similar to Western ideologies of governance originating in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Consider how our fundamental basis for ethics and morals with respect to equal justice is rooted in the Ten Commandments.
For the Islamist politicians who advocate it, and for the citizens who call for it, implementing Sharia law means establishing a legal system in which God's law sets the ground rules. We should be able to easily understand this dynamic.
Mohammed al-Alagi, Libya's National Transitional Council Minister of Justice and Human Rights, told the UN Human Rights Council: "We have called on the revolutionaries to treat prisoners according to Islamic Sharia and international law."  Many here in the US would think this contradictory-an archaic, barbaric process pitted with a modern, consensus-driven one. But it is not so.
The reason that al-Alagi uses the word Sharia is because to him, a Muslim, it means that all human rights will be respected. Sharia represents the idea that all human beings and governments are subject to equal justice under the same law.
Accordingly, when the Libyan National Transitional Council’s chairman Mustafa Abdul-Jalil proclaims that "…we will not accept any extremist ideology…" and that "We seek a state of law, prosperity and one where Sharia is the main source of legislation…"  he is being genuinely consistent.
Most proponents of Sharia law aren't literally seeking the adoption of a comprehensive legal code based on religion. In fact, throughout the history of Islam, no such system has ever existed.
One of the key reasons that Sharia-platformed Islamist political parties have enjoyed such popularity in the Middle East is because Muslim populations know that Sharia law creates equilibrium among elected officials; within a democratic atmosphere, this guarantees the people's legal rights. Both of these ideals have been almost non-existent for the past several decades in many Middle Eastern countries.
Moreover, we must also take into account that Islam's roots lie unfathomably deep within the culture and society of the Arab world. Furthermore, across every nation in the region, Islamic law has always served as the core for governance.
So, how can a nation or government be truly democratic if it ignores the voices of the people who desire the transparency, framework, and legitimacy that Sharia law creates?
Sharia law will not be imposed upon these Arab Spring countries or their people, it will be chosen by them. And despite popular assumption, Islam has always been a faith highly compatible with democracy.
Traditionally, it calls for the restriction of the power of an executive authority by an elected assembly of legal advisers. These advisers decide on legislature through the consensus of the community, thus checking the power of the ruler and representing the voice of the people.
Both Islamic and secular parties share the goal of building free nations with the equal human rights implicit in Sharia law. So if we are to support this Arab Spring, along with the humanitarian and democratic causes that these Middle Eastern populations are fighting for, we must realise that this movement is the result of governmental leadership that neglects Sharia.
Look at the countries where the Arab Spring has taken hold-all, nations whose rulers have governed as though they were above the law, with no checks or balances.
In a few years we may look at a map and see these Middle Eastern countries as not only Islamic, but also as welcoming and democratic nations. We have to understand that Sharia law is essentially an ethical groundwork for governance, not a direct set of codes and prohibitions.
And we can be optimistic that a progressive rather than a conservative approach will be realised because it is the women and youths who are leading these revolutions. That change is something to be excited about.
The writer is a Research Assistant for Democracy Transition in Libya. He is a graduate student at Missouri State University, USA. He can be reached at: RyanJSBennett@Hotmail.com
Source: The Tripoli Post