Article 1 of Tunisia’s former constitution, adopted in 1959 states that “Islam is the state religion”. Practically speaking, however, and during the regimes of Habib Bourguiba, and Zeine El Abidin Ben Ali, Tunisia was considered as the most secular state in the Arab region. Bourguiba, and his successor Ben Ali (now deposed) were criticized for adopting a French like secularism, which imposed restrictions not only on political Islamist parties and leaders, but also on religious freedom.
For instance, women were banned from wearing headscarves, and the secret police used to keep an eye on and investigate those who prayed in mosques. In other words, secularism and religious freedom at that time were only working for the benefit of those who did not want to practice religion, but those who wanted to do so were treated with suspicion.
Secularism, a divisive issue for Tunisian society and MPs
The fall of the former regime has given Tunisians the opportunity to reflect on the kind of state they wish for: a secular state or an Islamist one.
A poll conducted by the Republican Institute (IRI) published three months after the ousting of Ben Ali, reveals how deep Tunisia is divided along ideological lines. According to the poll, 44% of the respondents opt for a secular state, while 48% prefer politics to be based on religion.
This social division is also reflected at the national constituent assembly elected on October, 23, 2011.
So far all parties seem to have reached an agreement on establishing Islam as the state’s religion.
But what lies at the centre of division, is to what extent will religion play a role in politics, and whether Islamic law should be a source of legislation.
Representatives from both right and left wings seem to agree on doing their utmost to write a democratic constitution that reflects the aspirations of the Tunisian people, and protects the rights, and liberties of citizens.
Disagreement emerged on whether Islamic law should be used as a main source of legislation.
“The idea of separating the religious from the political is strange to Islam”, said Sahbi Atig, from the Islamist Party Ennahdha, which won 89 seats in last year’s election, during the February, 28 plenary session.
“Islam is our religion and the platform for our lives”, said Najbi Hosni, head of the bloc Freedom and Dignity
“Islam is the state religion and the fundamental source of its legislation”, states article 1 of a constitution project suggested by Al-Aridha Chaabia (popular petition in English)
The secular forces at the assembly such as the Democratic Bloc, had a totally different view, and called for separating religion from politics.
“The state shall prohibit the political instrumentalization of religion”, said Mouldi Riahi, who presides the parliamentary bloc of the Democratic Forum for Work and Liberties which groups 22 members.
Tunisia needs consensus
To be adopted, the constitution will require 2/3 of the assembly’s voices, and this is going to complicate the drafting process of constitution, a process that is very likely to take more than one year, the period that was set by the High Authority for the Achievement for the Revolution Objectives, for the assembly to place a new constitution for the new Republic.
The new constitution will be “the constitution of all Tunisia”, said Mustafa Ben Jaafar, President of Tunisia’s constituent assembly on February, 20 to Radio Express FM. In other words, MPs have no choice but to reach consensus in order to draft a constitution that responds to the aspirations of all Tunisians.
Otherwise, the country will fall into chaos due to constitutional vacuum, and the process of democratic transition will be jeopardized.