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Real question is what form of Sharia for Syria

Proposing a form of Sharia law for the new Syria was exactly the right thing for the opposition there to do.

A 13-year-old boy from Deir Ezzor in eastern Syria was shot dead in his father's car after a hit-and-run road accident in March. The incident would have led to a series of revenge killings between two major tribes in the region, except that this was forestalled by a newly-formed Sharia court there.

As that case demonstrates, the absence of functioning state institutions means that Sharia courts are increasingly necessary as a tool to solve disputes in rebel-held areas of Syria.

That is why this week's announcement by the Syrian opposition, that it will establish a moderate form of Sharia, is extremely important and timely. The increased incidence of rigid rulings in rebel-held areas is largely a result of the lack of such a model. Many moderate voices have been waiting for the conflict to end, leaving the more enthusiastic hard-line fighters to establish their own vision of Sharia.

On Tuesday, as The National reported yesterday, a legal code was made public by anti-regime Muslim scholars, judges and politicians, as part of an effort to prevent ad hoc implementation of Islamic law, to govern rebel-held areas and to prepare for post-Al-Assad governance. The legal code was presented at an Istanbul meeting on transitional justice.

At the Istanbul meeting Moaz Al Khatib, the head of the opposition's National Coalition, told of a Sharia court that had executed a woman after finding her guilty of adultery. Mr Al Khatib's point was that the ruling had violated true Islamic law since hudud, the Islamic penal code, cannot be applied during wars or in the absence of a state or ruler.

The lack of a proper codified law that takes into consideration the nature of Syria's diverse society risks entrenching rigid versions of Sharia law, often brought in by outsiders. Although the Deir Ezzor Sharia ruling mentioned above did prevent further killings, there was still a problem with how the verdict was issued - one "judge" said he and his colleagues had consulted "scholars from outside the country".

Arab countries, across the board, have long had Sharia laws in their legal code. The question is what interpretation of Sharia should be adopted. It must be conceded that, as Bashar Al Assad told Al Ikhbariya television on Wednesday, 18,000 mosques and dozens of Sharia teaching institutes have been built in Syria over the decades he, and his father before him, ruled Syria.

But his time is drawing to an end. This week's announcement is welcome because the Syrian opposition must show that it has an alternative not only to the Baathist regime but also to the politics - and rigid legalism - of the hardliners.

Updated: April 19, 2013 04:00 AM