By Mahmoud Habboush
TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Hundreds of Libyan Islamists rallied on Friday to demand that Muslim sharia law inspire legislation in what organizers called a response to the emergence of secular political parties after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi's dictatorship last year.
Assembled by Islamist political and religious groups, mostly young and bearded men holding up copies of the Koran demonstrated in squares in the capital Tripoli, the eastern city of Benghazi and in Sabha in the southern desert.
In Tripoli's Algeria Square, Islamists burned copies of the "Green Book," Gaddafi's eccentric handbook on politics, economics and everyday life, to underline that the Koran should be the country's main source of legislation.
By contrast, a group of secularists who have staged a sit-in in the square for more than a month chanted: "We want a civil state."
The Islamist demonstrators encompassed members of the conservative Muslim Brotherhood and harder-line Salafis, who both back strict versions of Islam, and relative moderates who prefer a civil state simply inspired by sharia.
The protests offered a glimpse into Libya's political future in which Islamist and secularist parties are expected to vie for seats in a national assembly scheduled to be elected in June to draft a constitution for the North African country.
Experts believe the Muslim Brotherhood is the most organized political force and could emerge as the leading political player in Libya after Gaddafi, who harshly suppressed Islamists during his 42 years in autocratic power.
Western powers are coming to accept that the advent of democracy in the Arab world means bringing Islamists to power. They have become the biggest election winners in Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco over the past few months.
The chairman of Libya's ruling National Transitional Council (NTC), Mustafa Abdul Jalil, promised in October to uphold Islamic law. "We as a Muslim nation have taken Islamic sharia as the source of legislation, therefore any law that contradicts the principles of Islam is legally nullified," he said.
The deputy central bank governor said last month a law regulating Islamic banking would be issued in the first quarter of 2012, but stressed that both conventional and Islamic banks would be allowed to operate in Libya.
Islamists in Algeria Square held up placards demanding a financial system respecting Islam's ban on interest and calling for a constitution derived from sharia's legal and moral codes.
"We want to run our life according to Islamic principles, be it the economy, politics or our relations with other countries," said Abdul Basit Ghuwaila, a preacher at a Tripoli mosque. "Most people think Islam is just about harsh penalties."
Ghuwaila, 49, said sharia should not govern all Libyan law, but insisted that legislation should not contradict it.
Nour al-Zintani, a participant in the month-long sit-in for a secular state, said the majority of Libyans wanted Islam to be a part of their life but not a strict interpretation of it.
"We all want sharia," she said, standing next to her teenage daughter, both of them wearing a Muslim headscarf, "but not the one they're talking about, the one that rejects women. We want a moderate Islam that gives women their rights."
(Additional reporting by Mohammad Al Tommy; Editing by Mark Heinrich)