Tunisia's Islamists rule out sharia in constitution
The Tunisian Islamist party Ennahda have ruled out introducing sharia law in the country’s new constitution. It is a gesture to those seeking to keep Islam out of politics, but also an astute political move by Ennahda.
Ennahda, the Islamist party dominating the Tunisian constituent assembly, has announced it would not write Islamic sharia law into the country’s new constitution, assuring it wants to maintain the secular nature of the state.
The party said on Monday it wanted to keep the first article of the 1959 constitution intact in an apparent bid to assure secularists who are worried that Ennahda is intent on bringing in sharia through the back door.
The article specifically separates religion and state, stating “Tunisia is a free, independent and sovereign state, its religion is Islam, its language is Arabic and it is a republic.”
“We are not going to impose religion,” Ennahda party leader Rached Ghannouchi told journalists. “The first article of the constitution is the object of consensus among all sectors of society: preserving Tunisia's Arab-Muslim identity while also guaranteeing the principles of a democratic and secular state," he said.
Preserving the unity of Tunisian society
FRANCE 24 international specialist Gauthier Rybinski explained, the article meant “Islam is the state religion, but cannot be the source of legislation.”
But he added: “This is above all a political move by Ennahda. Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali is organising elections for 2013. For his party to win, he needs to be seen to be preserving the unity of Tunisian society.”
The ruling party is in an uncomfortable position, under pressure from both hard-line salafists who ardently support sharia law and secularists who want to maintain the separation between religion and state that has been a cornerstone of Tunisian nationhood since it gained independence from France.
Habib Bourguiba, the founder and the first president of the Tunisian Republic (1957), imposed strict secularisation that made the country a model for protecting women’s rights.
For the past month, the pro- and anti-sharia lobbies have been pouring pressure on the constituent assembly and engaging in protests on the streets of Tunis.
For instance, salafists have been demonstrating for women to be allowed to wear the full Islamic veil at the Manouba University near Tunis.
Defending the rights of minorities
There were also tensions at the weekend when pro-sharia protesters chanted anti-Semitic slogans at a rally in Tunis.
Ghannouchi was swift to condemn these voices, insisting "Tunisia guarantees the rights of all citizens. We defend all minorities, including the Jewish minority".
But despite these public pronouncements, many of the country’s secularists fear Ennahda has a “hidden agenda” and wants to “impose sharia in small steps,” according to Rybinski.
And there are other pressures on the Tunisian constituent assembly, above all achieving economic growth and reviving the vital tourism sector, which has stalled since the 2011 “Jasmine Revolution” deposed dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.
“Everyone in Tunisia knows that the tourism sector will have little chance of rebounding in a country that imposes sharia law,” said Rybinski.