Tunisian constitution will make no place for faith

TUNIS Fri Nov 4, 2011 9:53pm IST

People fill up their ballot papers at a polling station during general elections in Marsa, north Tunisia October 23, 2011. REUTERS/Jamal Saidi/Files

People fill up their ballot papers at a polling station during general elections in Marsa, north Tunisia October 23, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Jamal Saidi/Files

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TUNIS (Reuters) - Tunisia's Islamist-led government will focus on democracy, human rights and a free-market economy in planned changes to the constitution, effectively leaving religion out of the text it will draw up, party leaders said.

The government, due to be announced next week, will not introduce sharia or other Islamic concepts to alter the secular nature of the constitution in force when Tunisia's Arab Spring revolution ousted autocrat Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in January.

"We are against trying to impose a particular way of life," Ennahda leader Rachid Ghannouchi, 70, a lifelong Islamist activist jailed and exiled under previous regimes, told Reuters.

Tunisian and foreign critics of Ennahda, the moderate Islamist party that won 41.7 percent of Tunisia's first free election on Oct. 23, have voiced fears it would try to impose religious principles on this relatively secular Muslim country.

Interviews with politicians and analysts revealed a consensus that the new assembly, the first to emerge from the Arab Spring uprisings, will focus on reassuring Tunisian voters, and the foreign tourists and investors vital to its economy.

All parties agreed to keep the first article of the current constitution which says Tunisia's language is Arabic and its religion is Islam. "This is just a description of reality," Ghannouchi said. "It doesn't have any legal implications.

"There will be no other references to religion in the constitution. We want to provide freedom for the whole country," said the Islamist leader, who will not take any official role in the new government. The new constitution is due in about a year.


Ghannouchi's reformist Islamist writings in the 1980s and 1990s helped influence Turkey's current mix of Islam and democracy, and he said his 22 years of exile in London helped him see the importance of civil society in influencing politics.

Like Turkey, Tunisia had decades of secularist dictatorship before evolving into a democracy where moderate Islamists -- dubbed "Muslim Democrats" in a take-off of Europe's Christian Democrats -- have emerged as a strong political force.

"Law by itself doesn't change reality," Ghannouchi said at Ennahda's headquarters, a six-story building abuzz with the excitement of open politics after decades of dictatorship.

"There shouldn't be any law to try to make people more religious," said Ghannouchi, whose party has pledged to continue to allow alcohol and Western dress here and pursue economic policies favouring tourism, foreign investment and employment.

The Islamist leader said he interprets sharia, the ill-defined and often confusing complex of Islamic teachings and laws, as a set of moral values for individuals and societies rather than a strict code to be applied to a country's legal system.

"Egypt says sharia is the main source of its law, but that didn't prevent (deposed President Hosni) Mubarak from being a dictator," he said, noting the explicit reference to sharia in Cairo's constitution.


Samir Ben Amor, a leader of the secularist Congress for the Republic party due to join a coalition with Ennahda and another non-religious party, agreed there was no dispute about maintaining the brief reference to Islam in the first article.

He said there was wide agreement among political parties to strengthen democracy in the constitution by referring to international human rights conventions. "We want a liberal regime," he said.

Although all parties agreed to defend Tunisian women's rights, some of the most advanced in the Arab world, Ben Amor said they could not agree to some feminists' demands to have the country's liberal Personal Status Code written into the constitution.

"No constitution in the world has that," he explained. These rights would be protected through legislation, he added.

The main area of disagreement seems to be whether Tunisia should opt for a parliamentary system, which Ghannouchi said he preferred after seeing British politics at first hand, or the French-style mix of a directly elected president and parliament preferred by the other parties.

"The parliamentary system can lead to political instability and, coming out of a dictatorship, we don't think we can risk that," Ben Amor said.

Radwan Masmoudi, Tunisian-born director of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID) in Washington, said last month's elections showed the country had opted for an "evolutionary revolution" that avoided radical changes.

"Tunisians agree on almost everything," he said in the CSID office here. "They want to keep their identity as Arab and Muslim but not live in a theocracy.

"I think Tunisia can pave the way for other Arab countries to build a true democracy that is fully compatible with Islam."

Masmoudi said the realities of coalition parties and the probable need for a two-thirds majority to approve the constitution would force all parties to seek a broad consensus.

(Editing by Robert Woodward)

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Comments (2)
islandscribler wrote:
I’m impressed with the Tunisian election. I lived in Tunisia from 1997-2000 and in other Arab nations before and after. I was particularly impressed with the large numbers of Tunisian students in university, at least half of whom were women. Really wish them well.

Nov 04, 2011 1:43am IST  --  Report as abuse
MonjiCan wrote:
Re. Tom Heneghan, Religion Editor
(Reuters) – Tunisia’s Islamist-led government will focus on democracy, human rights and a free-market economy in planned changes to the constitution, effectively leaving religion out of the text it will draw up, party leaders said.
TUNIS | Fri Nov 4, 2011 9:53pm IST

It is a relief to hear that Tunisian parties are promising to leave religion out of the text of the planned new constitution. However, planning to continue the description of Tunisia as an Arab Muslim nation is a significant mistake. I beg of Tunisian party leaders not to destroy the unique Tunisian character by patterning the country to Turkey, the Middle East, or European Christian Democratic parties. Do not loose this golden opportunity to let Tunisian real identity shine!

Tunisian language must be mentioned in the constitution, but it is not “Arabic”. It is “Franco-Arabic” and Berber / Amazigh and that is a valuable reality. Do not loose or suppress this unique truth.

Tunisian identity is not “Arab”. It is Berber/Amazigh, Phoenician, Roman, Vandal, Byzantine, Arab, Spanish, Ottoman, French, or a combination of all the above. If any single ethnic origin must be mentioned, it should be Berber / Amazgh or simply North African.

Specifying Islam as the religion of the country is wrong, problematic, and divisive. While the majority of Tunisians are Muslim by birth most of them are atheists or do not practice any religion. In fact, unlike Europeans and Americans who sometimes go to church, the great majority of Tunisians have never been to a mosque.

It is a good time for Tunisian party leaders to initiate a campaign that will highlight the true unique identity and character of Tunisia rather than reinforce old false traditions.

Tunisia has been in international media much more often since the revolution of December 2010. This makes it hard not to notice the confusing descriptions and labels given to Tunisians and their country. Tunisians are invariably identified as “Arabs” and Tunisia is referred to as an “Arab country” and some times even as if it is part of the Middle Eastern region. It makes one wonder as what happened to the original people of Tunisia. The same confusion applies to other North African countries as well.

Labelling any of the North African countries as “Arabs” is worse than invariably referring to Americans as “Europeans”. But the offenders would not dare make that error for Americas, despite the fact that the great majority of their inhabitants are actually of European origin. Perhaps, this is because most Tunisians do not seem to object, especially that even their constitution labels Tunisians as “North African Arabs.” It is very strange for this to come from Mr. Habib Bourguiba, the first Tunisian president! Perhaps, it was done for diplomatic reasons to please Mr. Salah Ben Yusuf, the leader of the Islamist group of that time.

It is unfortunate, but the Western power tendency of grouping “other” different societies and regions under all-inclusive labels for convenience seems to reinforce false notions and beliefs even within the affected societies and regions themselves. The Tunisian “Jasmine Revolution” became the “Arab Spring!” in no time at all to fuse North African events with those of the Middle East. For the West, countries in these areas have no identities of their own aside from their religion and ethnicity – “the “Muslim World”, “the Arab World”! We do not see “Catholic World” and “Protestant World” commonly used to identify groups of countries in Europe and the Americas. It may be high time to drop the careless use of “Muslim World” and “Arab World” labels to group different societies. We now live in a modern melting pot world and this world would be better off if we stopped using medieval religion and ethnic labels to identify societies, nations, and regions.

Tunisians are primarily North Africans and the media, economists, and political analysts should stop grouping them together with the Arabs of the Middle East. Yes, it is true that the last Tunisian colonizers before the Turks and the French were Arabs, but unlike Europeans who occupied the Americas after the annihilation of the aboriginal Indians, the Arab invaders were absorbed into the native North African populations rather than replace them. That represents the conversion of the invaders to become “North Africans” rather than the other way around.

Tunisians are a unique breed of Berber/Amazigh peoples that benefited from a multitude of other ethnic origins, cultures, and from their own brands of Muslim, Jewish, Christian, and atheist beliefs. The sooner Tunisians acknowledge this noble truth, the more powerful they will be to seek their deserved unique standing among societies of the world. This world, including the all-powerful media, can help in this process by differentiating Tunisians and North Africa from “Arabs” and “Middle East”.

Nov 06, 2011 3:13am IST  --  Report as abuse
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