More Thoughts on Tunisia

Jun 22

It has now been a little more than a week since my return from Tunisia.  And, like the views set forth in this column, I too find the question of France, and Tunisia’s relationship with France, to be an ominous cloud on the horizon, obscuring what I hope is Tunisia’s inevitable march toward democracy.

The basic problem is that for too many Tunisians, the French model of secularism is the only model of secularism, and for many religious Tunisians, this means secularism must be fought, lock, stock, and barrel.  For secularist intellectuals, secularism translates into an insistense on strong state control of religion, indeed, almost a state monopoly of religious, particularly Islamic, discourse, in order to domesticate religion so that it serves the overall development plans of the state.

For secularists, this means religion cannot be allowed to pursue an agenda that risks subverting the plans of the state for its future citizens. One secular intellectual, for example,  told me that he would oppose recognition of any kind of private religious associations, as that would provide legal cover for groups who are working against the state project.  Religious freedom in this conception is limited the manifestation of ritual observance, sha`a’ir, and the right to maintain one’s creed, hurriyyat al-mu`taqad, but not a strong associational right, certainly not one that would give a religious organization standing under the law.  Indeed, he expressly feared the return of Sufi orders were the law to recognize the existence of such religious institutions, and he felt that such a prospect was intolerable.

As for the Nahda and its sympathizers, they also believe that this is the only model of secularism that is on offer, and accordingly, they reject it.  Like the secularists they too believe religion should be part of the state project, except that they wish to deploy religion to fashion a different kind of Tunisian citizen, one for whom religion would play a much more fulsome role in life. The Nahda’s conception of the role of religion in the life of the ideal Tunisian citizen is of course very different from that cherished by secularist Tunisian intellectuals: for them religion should represent a small set of (presumably, ever-diminishing) ritual practices at most.  Clearly, the Nahda would like to use the state to promote traditional Islamic morality, even if it has disclaimed using the coercive power of the state to enforce Islamic morality.  So too, however, secularist intellectuals wish to use state power to reduce the population’s religious attachments.

Secularists believe, probably rightly, that a Nahda victory would result in a strengthening of traditional Islamic values in the morals of the populace, and thus represents a potentially devastating setback to their vision of the future Tunisia.  They are also worried about globalization: while we tend to think that globalization means the export of “Western” values of consumerism and secularism, for secular Tunisian intellectuals, there is another kind of “globalization” that causes them fear: Islamic globalization, particularly in the form of satellite TV and now, presumably, the Internet, which had been tightly controlled during the Ben Ali era.

The irony, therefore, is this: in any kind of democratic Tunisia, more conservative religious voices are going to demand the right to teach their conception of Islam freely, if not under the standard of freedom of religion, then under the standard of freedom of expression.  So too, freedom of expression will mean that Tunisians will have access to expressions of Islam that originate outside of Tunisia, meaning that any kind of “monopoly” the Tunisian state seeks to achieve over Islam pointless.

Instead of promoting a “Tunisian” version of Arabism or Islam, it seems to me that Tunisian secularists would be better off simply promoting a deregulated public sphere when it comes to religion and a neutral state, in the Rawlsian sense.  So long as they maintain this posture of wanting to control, indeed, monopolize religious expression, they will inevitably arouse suspicion in the minds of the religious.  By demanding a religiously-neutral state, however, they can offer the religious something that is very important to them: the freedom to teach Islam according to their own understanding.  It is certainly possible that they would accept a religiously-neutral state as the price of guaranteeing the dismantling of the Tunisian state’s control of religious life.

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