ALL those who are interested in reconciling the role of religion in private life with the secular imperatives of a modern, democratic state will find much to ponder in Tunisia’s reconstruction of the state over only eight years or so.
While reviewing and revising political and religious mores, Tunisia continues to pay due respect to history. You become aware of this as you land at capital’s international airport named Tunis-Carthage, and you can feel Tunisian people’s pride in the legacy of the ancient republic that had challenged Roman power at its zenith, a couple of centuries before Christ. In the new part of the city of Tunis, the main boulevard bears Bourguiba’s name and the most imposing statue is that of Ibn-i-Khaldun, the pioneer of historiography.
Tunisia has long been known for its ability to move away from the beaten track.
Gaining independence from the French in 1956, Tunisia took quick strides towards building a modern, secular state under its first president, Habib Bourguiba. His best known legal reform (1957), the Code of Personal Laws, was the first law in the Muslim world related to marriage, guardianship of children, and inheritance; it also abolished polygamy and made divorce subject to judicial review.
However, the authoritarian streak in Bourguiba’s makeup, combined with boundless corruption, became the culture of the state during the 23-year rule of his successor Ben Ali. The result was a strong religious backlash, religious parties’ gains in elections, followed by their brutal suppression.
While reviewing and revising political and religious mores, Tunisia continues to pay due respect to history.
The conflict between the religious and state forces came to a head in 2011 when Tunisia had a revolution that sparked the Arab Spring. After the collapse of the Ben Ali regime, Ennahda, a moderate Islamist movement, formed the government. A new constitution was drafted in 2014 and after elections under it, Ennahda as the largest single group formed the government. In 2016, Ennahda rebranded itself as the post-Islamist political party of Muslim democrats, thus drawing a line between religion and politics.
Islam is the state religion but the country’s name is the Republic of Tunisia. A number of reform measures have been adopted. The constitution grants equal rights to all citizens, regardless of belief or gender. In 2012, Ennahda declared that it would not insist on the enforcement of the Sharia. In 2017, parliament passed a law on eliminating violence against women, which also covers harassment at public places and economic discrimination. Since September 2017, Muslim women have been allowed to marry non-Muslim men. Now, parliament is working on proposals to make Muslim women and men equal in inheritance, and to abolish the death penalty and dowry system. All this has not failed to draw fire from not only the orthodoxy but some moderate religious elements too.
Prime Minister Rached Ghannouchi defines modern Tunisia as a civil state that combines some concepts of a secular state and some features of an Islamic state. He said in 2011: “We need democracy and development in Tunisia and we strongly believe in the compatibility between Islam and democracy, between Islam and modernity. So we don’t need secularism in Tunisia.”
He has also summed up his party’s mission in these words: “Thus, the greater part of the debate taking place nowadays in our country shows a misunderstanding of such concepts as secularism and Islam. We demonstrated that secularism is not an atheist philosophy but merely a set of procedural arrangements designed to safeguard the freedom of belief and thought, as Abd al-Wahhab al-Masiri made a distinction in his writings between partial and total secularisms.
“There is also an ambiguity regarding Islam, for there are those who believe that Islam can only be victorious by confiscating people’s freedom and imposing prayers, fasting, and the veil through force. This would be far from being a success, for Allah Almighty had considered hypocrisy to be the greatest crime, and the hellfire to be the eternal abode of hypocrites.”
Along with political reform the ruling party draws inspiration in religious matters from the Mautazila school of thought led by Allama Tahir, who had drafted the family laws for Bourguiba, and Rached Ghannouchi. Among other things, they have made religion, including imaan and religions ritual, subject to reason.
Pakistan scholars have shown little interest in Tunisian developments, except for the late Dr Fazlur Rahman, who had introduced Allama Tahir to Pakistani readers, and Dr Muhammad Khalid Masud, a judge of the Sharia appellate court and a former chair of the Council of Islamic Ideology, who has closely studied developments in Tunisia and often describes its leaders as Islamic secularists.
One does not know what final shape Tunisia’s plans to blend a part of secularism with a reformed Islam will go but the movement is thoroughly fascinating.
While looking at today’s Tunisian state it is necessary to bear in mind the fact that it derives inspiration from the revolutionary upsurge of 2011 that was a people’s civil disobedience movement, which was generated by public protest against unemployment, inflation, corruption, and suppression of basic freedoms, especially freedom of speech.
Some other gains since the revolution include the establishment in 2014 of a Truth and Dignity Commission to push for national reconciliation. In 2015, the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet won the Nobel Peace Prize for promoting a peaceful, pluralistic political order in the country.
Apart from being considered the only fully democratic sovereign state in the Arab world, Tunisia has a high human development index. It is a member of all Arab associations and has been a member of the Non-Aligned Movement and the Group of 77.
This brief introduction to modern Tunisia does not mean that its strategies can or ought to be transplanted in other Muslim countries. That is neither advisable nor feasible. The sole objective is to demonstrate the possibility for Muslim states to grow out of the Islam-or-democracy debate and find ways of allowing people freedom of belief in private life and also offering them the fruits of modern democracy, social justice and human rights.
Published in Dawn, July 25th, 2019