Welcome to Kalamna, the student blog of the Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies at NYU.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Tunisia's Religion Is Islam. So What?

Agence France-Presse. Salafi in Tunis at a rally for an Islamist constitution.

Tunisia's post-independence 1959 constitutes states: "Tunisia is a free, sovereign and independent state, whose religion is Islam, language is Arabic and has a republican regime." [Italics mine]. 

That italicized part says everything and nothing at the same time. It's origin was the compromise reached between the republic's first president, Habib Bourguiba, and the then mufti at al Zaitouna University, the nation's leading religious authority. The staunchly secular Bourguiba sought to appease religious and clerical elements by declaring that the religion of a free Tunisia is Islam. But so what? The pious may have got what they wanted by it does not entail any subsequent policies or norms of state discourse. Tunisia was not governed under Islamic law anymore than France under Catholic dogma. 

It is a simple reassuring line for those deeply rooted in Islamic identity while innocuous enough so as not to threaten those preferring a civil state, as the fashionable parlance now goes in the Arab world. In short, a bridge allowing for national consensus - Tunisia is Muslim, but the state does not seek to enforce "Muslim-ness". 

Since the downfall of the Ben 'Ali regime, vocal (albeit marginal) Salafis have chanted for strict imposition of their interpretation of Islamic law (Shari'a). Many secularists, liberals and Westerners have fretted that the moderate Islamist party may seek to gradually legislate Islamic fiqh into national laws. Many Tunisians have accused al Nahda (which won 37% of the vote in the last elections, a plurality, and leds a governing troika alongside two center-left, secular parties) of perfidy: a moderate mask for the task of surreptitiously building a theocracy. 

Since the currently seated elected 'constituent assembly' has a mandate to draft a new post-revolutionary constitution, a debate has been ensuing as to where the role of religion will be positioned in the new document. al Nahda, the leading voice, has stated its desire for no change. 

"Ennahda has decided to retain the first clause of the previous constitution without change," a party spokesman stated recently. "We want the unity of our people and we do not want divisions."

Most Tunisians are not concerned with having a long-winded discussion over the exegesis of Islamic jurisprudence and where it should fit in the state legal structure. The troika will be judged by its ability to deliver on economic grounds above all. And Nahda clearly has repeatedly sought to avoid being bogged down in debate over religion and culture - any effort to amend the above wording would have served as a lightening rod for critics and fundamentalist supporters distracting from the mundane work of economic revival. 

And while Nahda's statement will disappoint the Salafi faction, it will come as relief for secularists and liberals. But for most Tunisians this simply isn't the arena for reform they are looking for. It is met with shrugs. 

And this formula has worked well in the past. Moving forward, this is one thing about pre-revolutionary Tunisia that would be best left at peace. 

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