Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Tunisians say 'no' to Sharia and set an example for the region

Tunisians say 'no' to Sharia and set an example for the region
Published 22 Apr 2014 

The constitution of the second Tunisian Republic, adopted on 27 January, three years after the Tunisian Revolution, is considered almost a miracle: this Arab Muslim country succeeded in getting its Islamists and secularists to agree on a constitution that recognises the Tunisian state as a civil state based on citizenship, popular will and the rule of law. It recognises the role of Islam but Sharia (Islamic law) is not mentioned as a source of law.

This is the most advanced compromise in the Arab and Muslim countries between Islamists and secular modernists. And this was the will of the people expressed through their representatives in the Constituent Assembly.

In reality, the constitution is a synthesis of the conflicting demands of politics and religion in Tunisia.

It is not only a genuine compromise between the Islamist Ennahda party (the leading party in the National Constituent Assembly) and the modernist secular forces in the Assembly, but also reflects negotiations between these two trends in Tunisian society as a whole. It was not easy to reach this consensus. Negotiations within the NCA lasted two years and three months and were echoed on the streets, with hundreds of thousands of Tunisians voicing their support for a civil state and for safeguarding and promoting women's rights. Other Tunisians, mainly Imams and religious associations who thought they had popular support, resisted articles of the constitution, such as the one on freedom of conscience.

It is worth noting that the only concession made by secularists was that laws passed by parliament should not be against the objectives of Islam (the preamble recognises 'the commitment of [the] people to the teachings of Islam and its open and moderate objectives, to sublime human values and the principles of universal human rights').

What's more, the higher Islamic values of justice, equality and freedom are adopted in the constitution. [fold]

For instance, the state guarantees freedom of expression and freedom of conscience, an unprecedented principle in the Arab world. This is a profound break with tradition which makes religion a private matter; the crime of apostasy has no place. Also, several points of the constitution reinforce equality between men and women. The state undertakes to protect the rights of women (first achieved in the 1956 Personal Status Code which eliminated polygamy, regulated divorce and defined a minimum legal age for marriage), and will work to improve them. And finally, the constitution recognises justice as a principle and provides for the independence of the judiciary.

In reality, these higher values of Islam (justice, freedom, equality) referred to in the Tunisian constitution are the same higher values of Judaism and Christianity, and they are the principles of democracy.

The new Tunisian constitution, often described as the most liberal in the Middle East and even as more progressive than some Western constitutions, has sparked interest in countries such as Algeria, Morocco, Lebanon and Kuwait, where there is today a debate that had not previously existed. This debate is about the Tunisian example of reconciliation between secularism and Islam by avoiding the application of Sharia and focusing on the objectives of Islam.

However, Arab and Muslim public opinion is waiting to see how and to what extent the principles of the democratic and secular constitution will be implemented, and therefore whether Tunisia is really going to function as a democratic republic.

Tunisia is going through the last phase of its transition to democracy in 2014 that should lead to presidential and parliamentary elections. Tunisia will certainly go through social and economic hard times, and this makes the implementation of democracy difficult. Everything depends on the strategic assistance and economic aid that Western democracies, especially US and France, will provide.

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