Forced into Compromise: Constitutional Developments in North Africa

Analysis, posted 06.26.2012, from Tunisia, in:
Forced into Compromise: Constitutional Developments in North Africa (Photo: DW)

The moderate Islamist party Ennahda emerged clear victors in elections to the Constituent Assembly in Tunisia last year. What's your assessment of their policies to date?

Imen Gallala-Arndt: Initially, Ennahda's statements were the source of great confusion, because some of them were threatening in tone and party leaders were saying things that contradicted statements issued by other members. This was deeply unsettling for the people of Tunisia as well as other political figures. For example Sadok Chourou, one of the hardliners within the Ennahda movement in the constituent assembly, criticised individuals who had demonstrated against the government, and underpinned his attack with a verse from the fifth Surah of the Koran. He described the demonstrators as godless, and said they were destined for hell.

It is of course unnerving when religious arguments are used to describe political opponents as infidels. People are also unsettled by Prime Minister Hamadi al-Jabali's talk of the "Sixth Caliphate" because it's not clear what social goals he's pursuing with this.

Ennahda also initially insisted that Sharia must be the source of legislation, although it later revised this statement. But these are exactly the kind of views that unsettle the population and mean that it's difficult to gauge what the party stands for. It does of course represent certain principles, but now that it has assumed governmental responsibility, it must learn to be pragmatic. Ennahda still lacks a clear line in this respect.

Western discourse often views Sharia as incompatible with constitutional principles. What about the compatibility of Sharia and human rights in Arab nations currently undergoing upheaval?

Gallala-Arndt: One must bear in mind that Sharia was developed over the course of history by legal scholars in consideration of local social and economic conditions at the time in question. There's a difference between that which is viewed as a principle and as an eternal truth in Islamic law, and the sections of the Sharia code that are currently undergoing reappraisal. Polygamy was abolished in Tunisia in 1956, but at the time no one claimed that this represented a break with Sharia. Quite on the contrary: Lawmakers invoked the principles of Islamic law with the intention of acting in the interests of progress.

It was recognised that the social position of women had changed and that it was in the interests of women as well as the entire family to adapt the legal position of women in a consistent manner.

Whenever Islamists enter government, it's not always an immediate indication that they are going to be against women's rights or human rights in general – it's always dependent on the political will of whoever happens to be in power. They can base their approach on Sharia law but at the same time be progressive through a dynamic interpretation of Islamic legal sources and authorise reforms within the framework of Sharia.


Interview by Annett Hellwig

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