Some Thoughts on the Secular-Religious Divide in Tunisia

Jun 09

Over the last three days (May 31-June 2), I have had the opportunity to discuss the Tunisian Revolution with several Tunisian intellectuals, both religious and secular.  And while it would be presumptuous of me to believe that in three days I am in a position to speak authoritatively about the significance of this divide, and what it means for the future of the Tunisian Revolution, I think it is possible to make a few tentative conclusions. On the positive side of the ledger, there appears to be a genuine desire from both the supporters of the Nahda and the secular parties to make this transition a successful one, despite the profound differences that separate the two sides.  The principle incentive these otherwise warring-sides have to reach some kind of détente that would allow for a modicum of democracy is the fear that Tunisia could relapse to the nightmare of Zayn al-ʻAbidin Ben Ali. 

The degree to which all individuals I’ve talked to loathed the old regime is somewhat surprising, given that Ben Ali had, for the most part, reserved his most severe repressive measures for followers of the Nahda.  Despite this, by the time the Revolution occurred, the corruption of Ben Ali and his inner circle had become so extensive and pervasive that by all accounts it became impossible to deal with the regime: everyone was threatened by its rapacious character.  As result, once the revolution started, Ben Ali quickly discovered that no one was willing to support him.  The common disgust which the Ben Ali regime provokes in all Tunisians I think will ultimately serve as the catalyst that insures a successful transition.

That does not mean that there are not plenty of reasons why things could go wrong. Supporters of the Nahda, on the one hand, and secularists, on the other, profoundly mistrust each other’s intentions.  Some of this mistrust is paranoia, but at least some of it is rooted in the profound divide that exists between secular intellectuals and Islamists with respect to Tunisia’s future.  Among the paranoid fears on the part of the secularists, at least in my opinion, is that al-Nahda has a secret plan to impose a vigorous form of Shariʻa law on Tunisia, including, introducing substantial revisions to the Tunisian Family Law code that would restore many of the provisions of traditional Islamic law that were eliminated by this Bourqiba-era legislation, and restoring the ḥudūd penalties for crimes like theft and adultery.  The less paranoid version of this theory is that al-Nahda wishes it could do this, but it must refrain for the time being because the Tunisian people are not yet “ready” for a return to the Shariʻa.  The Nahda, however, on this theory, seeks to prepare the ground for a restoration of the Shariʻa by strengthening Tunisia’s currently weak religious public culture into something much stronger.  According to this theory, the Nahda seeks to re-Islamize Tunisia’s relatively “secular” public sphere gradually into something more traditionally Islamic.

It is certainly possible that some, maybe even all, of the Nahda’s leadership entertains such a hope.  Whether it could be carried out in the context of a pluralist democracy, given the representations that al-Nahda must make in order to win elections, is an entirely different question. I think secular intellectuals radically underestimate the power of public positions not only to bind political movements and reduce their future room to maneuver as a practical matter, but also to produce sincere changes of opinion within the views of that political movement.  In any case, we shall certainly see. (Yesterday, June 8, in another sign that the Nahda is willing to compromise, the party announced its agreement to a postponement of the elections for the constituent assembly until October.)


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  1. Kamal Ammar /

    It should not be a surprise if Islamist win big share of the votes in the first couple of election cycles, I don’t believe that should cause alarms, when the previous regimes blocked these parties for so long some people who don’t even believe in the islamist vision of life will give them a chance.
    The tough part for islamist parties come once they win, that’s when simple broad heavenly catch phrases like “Islam is the Solution” need to translate into earthly solutions for every day challenges. In some countries like Turkey the Islamist governed pragmatically and succeeded, in others like Jordan in the 90’s elected Muslim brotherhood representative could not transition from “Islam is the solution” to produce practical solution to fight poverty and un employment, so by the second or third election cycle they lost the allure and nobody cared after( to be fair the MB in Jordan was not in full control of Jordan legislator but that was by their own choice, they chose to run enough candidates to be the biggest opposition and avoided the possibility of winning a majority)

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