Tunisia’s Islamist-led government rejects laws to enforce religion

Al Arabiya News
Saturday, 05 November 2011

Tom Heneghan

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.

No law to promote faith

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 favoring 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.

Potential secularist allies agree

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.

  1. #1 by monsterball on Sunday, 6 November 2011 - 6:34 pm

    In every religion humans should be given freedom …to practice what they want.
    After all…the bottom line is to be a noble dignified human….not to steal…not to lie..not to rape…not to murder.
    The more you read about other Muslim countries…the more we can see what a hypocrites the UMNO b Muslims are.

  2. #2 by boh-liao on Sunday, 6 November 2011 - 8:26 pm

    Both UmnoB and PAS better learn fr Tunisia and Turkey

  3. #3 by monsterball on Sunday, 6 November 2011 - 8:52 pm

    PAS need to get his Muslim members be practical and logical and realistic that Malaysia has a huge minority race embracing other religions and not stuff their Islamic rules to his own race….making it difficult to non Muslims to feel comfortable socializing with the Muslims.
    If we truly want to see Malaysia developed …..then certain 1500 year old rules must change to suit modern living conditions.
    UMNO b is the same..but they governed by robbers …thieves and murderers.
    Since many support these crooks…mean UMNO b is a racist party….and PAS has a better chance to change for the better.
    UMNO b change…will be the end of their party from their own doing…as without race and religion dirty politics…UMNO b have nothing to hold on to ultras…fanatics and racists….and their hypocrisies will all be exposed.

  4. #4 by casperclc on Sunday, 6 November 2011 - 9:04 pm

    An apt publication for the benefit of Islamist within Pakatan Rakyat. Perhaps time to take a step back and reflect on efforts to strengthen the flock but not having to politicise Islam.

    With UMNO’s franchise increasingly under threat the past 2 decades, it serves their purpose to hold onto whatever it can to exert its waning authority in business, education, and why not religion to curb PAS’ expansion when the bane of Malay society – Dr.M – came out with his blanket statement that M’sia is indeed an Islamic state without justification or need to clarify.

    Don’t know about UMNO but I’m certain many in PAS will take heed on geopolitical shift and progress made on foreign shores but in the same vein, I’m surprise PAS have not made more/draw inspiration from events taking place in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and the likes.

    There is so much that PAS can highlight or draw on to put pressure on UMNO. Left to me, I would have gone to town whenever each chip fell as observed from recent events North of Africa.

  5. #5 by yhsiew on Sunday, 6 November 2011 - 10:19 pm

    ///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.///

    That is a wise move because religion, when mixed with politics, will complicate things.

  6. #6 by tak tahan on Sunday, 6 November 2011 - 11:13 pm

    But can our mostly Malaysian muslim brothers and sisters(politicians included) wised up and move towards advance and prosper nation regardless of race and religion.PKR and PAS have to do alot of talking on this issue to the majority Malays otherwise we will still be trapped in this typical Canland syndrome-fanatic religious and racial thingy.

  7. #7 by cemerlang on Sunday, 6 November 2011 - 11:57 pm

    You can even tell God just what good things you have done. He will not tell you to shut up. He will just be quiet and let you boast of your great good deeds. Religion is personal. It is your truth. Your own truth. Not somebody’s else truth.

  8. #8 by boh-liao on Monday, 7 November 2011 - 12:04 am

    Well, at least we hv a TRUE World Champion in Nicol David who collected a record SIXTH World Open today! Heartiest congrats 2 ND

  9. #9 by madguyho on Monday, 7 November 2011 - 1:30 am

    That’s the contrast between a wisdom, confidence and selfless leader and a hypocrite – empty vessels. Empty vessels make the most rhetoric. Alas! Too bad, we are being lead by hypocrite rather true leader. Days in days out, we are bombarded by feel good slogans rather then constructive action. Perhaps we have to go through the Greek’s way or the Libya’s route for a true leader to emerge.

  10. #10 by Jeffrey on Monday, 7 November 2011 - 1:36 am

    On ideological level PKR’s Anwar, Turkey’s Tayyip Erdogan & Tunisia’s Ghannouchi are of same category of trying to make the point (esp to Western detractors) that Islamic Democracy is feasible, that democratic precepts and practices are compatible with Islam, and an Islamic party can be in power without a theocracy of the variety associated with PAS and found in Saudi Arabia or Iran….It may be noteworthy that the differences between the 3 advocates of Islamic democracy is whereas Erdogan and Ghannouchi lead Islamic parties in their respective countries of over 90% Muslim population, Anwar’s PKR is not exactly Islamic and neither is the population here predominantly over 90% Muslim. The other points of differences to note are that Malaysia has legacy of secular English laws and amongst our 60% Muslim populace, the cultural identity as influenced by Islam is quite total an embracing without being mixed unlike counterparts in Tunisia & Turkey which historically have inherited many layers of cultural influences from a millennia of invasions by Phoenicians/Carthaginians, Romans, Vandals, Arabs, Ottoman Turks, French and, in case of Turkey, British.

  11. #11 by Jeffrey on Monday, 7 November 2011 - 1:56 am

    It is worthy note that until recently both Turkey and Tunisia (though over 90% muslim) were ruled by elites staunchly secular and militarist – and corrupt- who being afraid Political Islam would be rallying point to throw them out, had suppressed Islamic expressions. Until recently both Turkish & Tunisian governments prohibited/restricted the wearing of Hijab/veil in government offices and schools and discouraged women from wearing them on public streets and public gatherings. Tunisian police sometimes harassed men with “Islamic” appearance (such as those with beards), detained them, and sometimes compelled men to shave their beards off. Islamic democracy has greater popularity in Turkey and Tunisia because it not only fights corruption of ruling elites but also fight extreme expression of secularism that oppresses Islamic expression – which is not the case – indeed quite the opposite – here in Malaysia. In Malaysia too Malay Muslims are united and respect Rulers who are constitutionally head of Islam – which is not the case in these two countries in which Islamic Democracy, spearheaded by Islamic parties, now experiment the feasibility of Islamic Democracy. These are important differences when comparing what happened there is entirely relevant or applicable here!

  12. #12 by Jeffrey on Monday, 7 November 2011 - 2:28 am

    It is also to note another major difference is that both the Islamist parties in Turkey & Tunisia won elections with 40%+ without overwhelming majority and being “weak” in this respect had to share power with and accommodate secular ideals with secular coalition parties of parity of voting support. Is it same here? Even if PR were to win power, the secular inclined DAP will not share power by same power equation in a coalition in which PAS is Islamic theocratic inclined and PKR, if it becomes equally Islamic albeit with professed democratic inclined credentials. The other important point of difference is that education level is generally quite high in Turkey & Tunisia and they are both countries near to Europe and have established close economic relations with European countries, through economic cooperation and trade, industrial modernization, privatisation programs – tourism. In Tunisia many a young & educated were (due to corrupt govt) unemployed, so they easier took to the streets, demonstrate to start the Arab Spring. Here the burgeoning civil service absorbs the otherwise unemployed – or recruit them in RELA, even Matt Rempits will be absorbed in some activity.

  13. #13 by Jeffrey on Monday, 7 November 2011 - 2:37 am

    Finally in Malaysia there’s a lot of emphasis on cultural identity being Islamic but in the other countries though 90% muslims they take religion more nominally because of so many layers of other cultural influences from long established history of conquests by Phoenicians, Romans, Vandals, Byzantines, Arabs, Turks, Spaniards, and the French who all left their mark on the country. This fact helps secularism to be entrenched for decades which also left the mark. For eg besides restricting the wearing of Islamic veil in office, schools & civil service in Tunisia & Turkey , it is interesting to note that in case of Tunisia it has been the only country in the Arab world since 1956 where polygamy is forbidden by law! It may be noteworthy that where the Official Religion and its expression have been for so long under official restrictions and secular attack as in these 2 countries it is easier to launch the Islamic democracy there. Its however not the case here at all. Considering the whole range of differences the same thing (Islamic Democracy) may not necessarily be as easy to launch and reach critical mass here compared to Tunisia.

  14. #14 by yhsiew on Monday, 7 November 2011 - 7:58 am

    Perhaps countries can call themselves a Christian/Islamic country but not a Christian/Islamic state. For example, Britain is a Christian country but not a Christian state.

  15. #15 by dagen on Monday, 7 November 2011 - 8:46 am

    Islamisation of the world started with the overthrow of the shah of iran by ayatollah khomeini in 1980 (1979?). Looking at developments now taking place in tunisia, are we seeing the start of a rollback of islamisation in the world?

  16. #16 by monsterball on Monday, 7 November 2011 - 11:07 am

    I guess moderator knows Jeffrey must be allowed to long winded to help me live a long life.
    Imagine a lawyer like LKS knows how to cure…while Mahathir a doctor knows how to kill.

  17. #17 by chengho on Monday, 7 November 2011 - 11:45 am

    Why not China way ..

  18. #18 by dagen on Monday, 7 November 2011 - 12:32 pm

    Yeah why not china way. True. But make sure not umno way. The former takes you to the sky. The latter leads inevitably to the gutter. Well you may get to ride in someone else’s space ship to the sky on your way to the gutter.

  19. #19 by monsterball on Monday, 7 November 2011 - 2:17 pm

    First lets follow good neighbor’s ways…where our lifestyle is so similar.
    China is a country with 1.2 billion.
    Political…economical and social situations are different.
    Why China?..why not USA?…where freedom is well known.

  20. #20 by dagen on Tuesday, 8 November 2011 - 8:47 am

    One related piece of info. South Sudan has decided to adopt the english language and english language will now be the medium of instruction in all schools there in that new country. So umno staying put is not an option. For staying put means allowing others to catch up. And flip flopping is worse than staying put. Then again the best that umno could do here is to do stop the flip flops. If it ever happens, that would be something to shout about.

  21. #21 by on cheng on Wednesday, 9 November 2011 - 3:49 pm

    Even Indon govt don’t force their Muslim to do a……b…..c…

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