By Houda Trabelsi
As the debate on the Tunisian constitution kicked off, Constituent Assembly deputies ventured into one of the most divisive issues of the national debate – Tunisia’s identity and the place of religion.
“The constitution must strengthen Tunisia’s Arab-Islamic affiliation, and its texts should not be formulated in a manner contrary to the Qur’an and Sunna,” Ennahda MP Sahbi Atig said at the February 28th plenary session.
“The separation of religion and politics is an idea alien to Islam and its history,” he said, arguing that fundamental laws should derive inspiration from “Islamic values, the repository of reformist Tunisian history and human gains… without intolerance”.
Najib Hosni of the Freedom and Dignity Bloc added international conventions to the list of important legal sources.
“Arabic is our language and Islam is our religion and the platform for our lives,” Hosni said. “The constitution must also provide for our Arab-Maghreb-Islamic identity and our commitment to Maghreb unity.”
MP Mohamed Hamdi from Aridha Chaabia said that his party called for a constitution based on “sharia and Sunna” as well as “the freedom and heritage of Arab-Muslim people”.
“It can also draw inspiration from contemporary Western experience in terms of social welfare and awarding grants to the unemployed and free housing to them,” he noted. “Some have expressed reservations about adopting Islamic law as the principal source of the constitution, and we believe these are unjustified fears.”
Ettakatol representative Mouldi Riahi had a different opinion.
“We are afraid that stipulating sharia as the principal source of legislation will lead to mazes and disputes,” he said, adding, “the content of Islamic law varies from one party to another”.
Riahi suggested preserving the “text of the first section of the 1959 constitution”, which he considered “a place of harmony across the political spectrum in Tunisia”. He also called for codifying respect for freedom of belief in the new constitution and “establishing the relationship between religion and the state to prevent the country from falling under the tyranny of authority”.
The same debate unfolded in civil society venues. The Association of Political Awareness for Political Education on February 28th held a discussion on the sources of legislation in the constitution.
“Adoption of Islamic law as the principal source of legislation may conflict with the principles of a civil state and the sovereignty of the people, who undertook the revolution not to abandon their sovereignty for the benefit of a group appointing itself a representative of the religion,” said Jawhar Ben Mbarek, co-ordinator of the Doustourna (“Our Constitution”) group.
Opinions are split on the Tunisian street.
“I elected an Islamist party to apply Islamic law in Tunisia,” Omar Fakir, 35, told Magharebia. “This law disappeared for years, making us turn away from God’s way. Our constitution should be drafted on the basis of our Islamic religion, nothing else.”
For her part, Radhia Chebi, 42, said that Islamic law should not be “the only source” of the constitution.
“As a Tunisian woman, I am not ready to relinquish my gains given to me under the Personal Status Code, which is a gain in the Arab world and globally,” she explained. “I reject applying Islamic law, for example, to allow polygamy. Frankly, the application of sharia harms women more than men.”