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.
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.
long been known for its ability to move away from the beaten track.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Source: The Dawn, Pakistan