By Jamel Arfaoui
A forum on religion and politics in Tunis turned into fevered discussion Saturday (March 12th), as Tunisians explored the complex relationship between secularism, Islam and national identity.
“We in Tunisia now live in a conflict between those who call for a secular state and those who call for preserving the first article of the constitution,” Islamic researcher Sami Brahem said at the event, held by non-governmental organisation El Jahedh.
In his lecture, Brahem said that the concept of secularism suffers from distortion, which prompted a debate between pro and anti-secularists.
A number of Islamic proponents expressed their fears that the re-writing of the constitution would lead to the abolition of its first article, which affirms the Arab and Islamic nature of Tunisia.
According to Brahem, their opponents want to enshrine secularism of the state in the constitution “out of fear of religion being engaged in the public matters, leading to the use of people’s feelings, which affects the electoral parity”.
“This debate among the various affiliates is important, but we have to accept all the trends, whether socialist, nationalist or Islamist, because they constitute the intellectual richness that drives us forward,” student Afef El Hamrouni said, “especially since the Islamic religion is valid for every time and place”.
For her part, Leila Taouati called for building a state of institutions and conventions rather than a state of doctrines.
While the majority “could give you a win in the elections, it will never give you God’s power”, Sadek Saidi said.
Saidi called for establishing the concept of citizenship and promoting the culture of ideological difference.
Meanwhile, pro-secularism supporters on Saturday staged a rally in Sousse and were attacked by their foes.
“Who is practicing suppression here in this march?” Islamic researcher Rajae Ben Salama wondered on her Facebook page. “Certainly not the secularists, it is those who are holding Islamic slogans. They exercise suppression because they want to cancel the demonstration of secularists, rather than organise another demonstration in parallel.”
In response to the questions of seminar participants, Brahem said, “Claiming that secularism is a condition for democracy threatens the deviation from the identity of the country and democracy.”
“The fears of the two sides are legitimate,” he admitted. “Secularists fear a return to doctrinal provisions and the abolition of the Personal Status Code, as well as the return of corporal punishment and change of the society’s order.”
“As for those who oppose secularism, they insist on retaining the first article of the Constitution, especially since Islam is not a religion of rituals, but it includes many areas related to public affairs,” Brahem said.
To overcome the impasse between the two sides, he called on them to “free themselves from the controversy of mixed concepts, particularly the concept of politics, which many think is related to power”.
“It is a traditional concept because any management of public affairs is political behaviour, even the Friday prayers. Therefore, separating religion from politics is a fake process because people consider religion a public concern, and therefore it will remain a political matter,” he argued.
Brahem added that “it is necessary to establish a contractual and consensual state rather than an ideological state”.
“Both sides will have to agree on a number of common factors, especially since Tunisia is a country of dialogue and openness to all cultures,” he concluded.