Tunisian president 'tied to population's Muslim identity'

Researcher notes similarity to Nasser and Bourguiba

24 June, 13:43

    (ANSA) - TUNIS, 24 GIU - Tunisian president Kais Saied's recent statements on religion and the state have sparked lively debate in the country, In speaking to the media at the Tunis-Carthage airport during the departure of a first batch of pilgrims for Mecca (Hajj), he said that, "the state, by its nature, cannot have a religion" and that "the next constitution of Tunisia will thus not mention a state with Islam as a religion, but the belonging to a community that has Islam as a religion." "The community and the state are two different things," Saied stressed, adding that "the state must work to achieve the aims of Islam and Islamic law." This statement surprised many who had previously seen what had long ago been stated by Sadok Belaid - head of a commission tasked with drawing up a draft constitution that will be put to a referendum on July 25 - a sort of historic turning point: that of removing all references to Islam in the constitution.

    Belaid had said on June 6 to AFP that he would be giving the president a draft of the constitution with all references to Islam taken out, in an attempt to counter Islamist parties like Ennahdha.

    He had added that any references to Islam and Tunisian identity would disappear from Art. 1 and be shifted instead to the preamble.

    Ennahdha had reacted with a statement from its executive office saying that it had "immediately warned against any attempt to undermine the founding principles of the population, its Arab and Muslim identity, or the civil character of the state".

    Article 1 of the 2014 constitution - which remained the same as that in the 1959 constitution - states that Tunisia is a "free, independent, and sovereign state, islam is its religion, and Arabic its language".

    "Regardless os the fact that the contents of Art. 1 of the new constitution under Saied are not yet known, the worth of Belaid's statements are highly symbolic and political," ANSA was told by political Islam expert Fabio Merone a researcher at the Centre Interdisciplinaire de Recherche sur l'Afrique et le Moyen Orient of the University of Laval in Quebec (Canada).

    "While winking at the modernists in the country," Merone said, "the head of the commission tasked with writing the new constitution rails against the entire democratic process of the post-2011 period, which led to a constitutional compromise in 2014, in which the Islamist political party Ennahdha was a fundamental political player." "The article in question, subjected at that time to bitter debate, is a symbol of compromise between Islamists and modernists - at that time represented by the Nidaa Tunes party - without which no democratic pact could have been possible," he added.

    "The imposition of modernism from above was an illusion cultivated by a certain elite section of the country since independence," Merone stressed. "However, anti-Islamism is deeply rooted across the entire Arabi world as an ideological current known as Arab nationalism." "We must here distinguish between Islamism and the religious belonging to a political community. Being anti-Islamist does not mean being non-religious, as it is often oversimplified in Western media. Arab nationalism is an ideological current that puts Arab identity at the center of its plan for the building of the nation. Saied's statements should be seen from this perspective - similar to those of Bourguiba, who said it was the state's duty to achieve the aims of Islamic law" and that the "state is a system that is at the service of religion, but not its keeper." The 'ummah', or religious and civil community, "is its keeper and is at the service (including in religious matters) of what the state imposes on it," he added.

    The concept of aims "makes reference to a reformist school of fiqh (Muslim jurisprudence) that makes a liberal interpretation of Islamic law possible and to which the Ennahdha party itself belongs to." The former Islamist party against which Saied is currently working, he added, "had actually supported the president during the 2019 election campaign, since it focused on Arabist themes and willingly made reference to Islam as the identity of the country." "Saied presents himself as an modernist Arab nationalist but his roots are in the Muslim identity of the population, similar to Jamal Abdel Nasser and Habib Bourguiba," Merone noted, who discusses these issues on his Youtube channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC25YUjAoN5QRlIfQvlclB8Q (ANSA).

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