Tunisia: What does it mean to say, “the religion of the State is Islam”?

Analysis, posted 10.04.2011, from Tunis, Tunisia, in:
Tunisia: What does it mean to say, “the religion of the State is Islam”? (Photo: Kapitalis.com)

Tunisian Consultant and Strategist Cyril Grislain Karray opens his article with the following question: “What exactly does the formulation, presented in the first article of the current Tunisian constitution, actually mean: ‘its religion is Islam,’ in which ‘its’ refers to our ‘State’?”

Though he has read and listened to the explanations and interpretations of “eminent constitutionalists,” Karray writes that he finds that debates and discussions around article one usually end in “obvious contradictions.”

Karray calls these debates particularly confusing when the first article of the constitution is presented in conjunction with other articles guaranteeing the freedom of religion and defining the (separate) place of religion in public life.  Though he does not state this directly, Karray is likely referring to article 5, which states, “The Republic of Tunisia shall guarantee the inviolability of the human person and freedom of conscience, and defends the free practice of religious beliefs provided this does not disturb public order”; along with article 8, which reads, “No political party may take religion, language, race, sex or region as the foundation for its principles, objectives, activity or programs.”

In his pursuit to understand article one, Karray interrogates those five key words: “its [the State’s] religion is Islam.” He proposes three ways of understanding “State”: first, “Islam is the religion of all Tunisian citizens”; secondly, “Islam is the religion of all members of the government and the public administration”; or finally, “Islam is the religion that constitutes the form of governing Tunisia.” Karray points out that the second interpretation aligns with the direct stipulation, in article 38, that the head of state be Muslim. Karray also notes that the third interpretation is used in the Iranian constitution.

Karray further points out that even if “all Arab countries declare Islam to be the religion ‘of the State,’ sometimes also called the ‘official’ religion,” Muslim-majority Arab countries are not alone. “Numerous other non-Muslim countries,” Karray writes, “inscribe in their constitution a State or official religion. That is, for example, the case of numerous constitutional monarchies like Norway, Denmark, or Monaco […] it’s also the case of Thailand or Cambodia among other countries where Buddhism is the principal and official faith.” Karray also cites the example of England, where the “king is also the head of the Anglican Church.”

Drawing off of these examples, Karray suggests a fourth possible reading, in which the Tunisian State takes responsibility for “assuring the material conditions necessary” to the functioning of Islamic institutions: paying, for instance, their staff and financing the upkeep of their buildings and the construction of religious schools.

Karray insists, however, that he does not wish to debate the merits of each of these interpretations. He simply wishes to point out that each of these formulations, “taken separately or together, are much more clear, direct, and declinable in the juridical corpus than the current formulation.” He continues, “they [these formulations] permit no space for interpretation by the citizen and no ambiguity so that the legislative body can define the law and the judiciary body render justice.” Karray believes that it is imperative that Tunisian political parties clarify exactly what they mean by their versions of article one of the constitution, and furthermore, that they write clearly and unambiguously.

Drawing from his proposal for the first 10 articles of the new Tunisian constitution, a proposal published on his Facebook page, Karray offers his own version of article one: “Islam being the religion of the majority of citizen, the Tunisian State commits to assuring the material means for its practice on the entire territory.” («L’Islam étant la religion de la majorité des citoyens, l’Etat tunisien s’engage à assurer les moyens matériels de sa pratique sur tout le territoire».)

This proposed wording, Karray writes, “recognizes the fundamental attachment […] of the very large majority of the Tunisian people” to Islam; it also ensures freedom of religion and prohibits discrimination, which, Karray writes, are also in line with the desire of the “very great majority of Tunisians.”

Karray is the author of the book, The Next War in Tunisia – Victory in Five Battles, in which he proposes new economic strategies for Tunisian job creation and local development.

See also: An interview with Karray in Tunisian Arabic, published by the Tunisian blogger site Nawaat.

Original Language Text: 

Au sens du droit, que veut dire exactement la formulation présente dans le 1er article de l’actuelle constitution de la Tunisie : «sa religion est l’islam», où «sa» réfère à notre «État» ?

J’ai beaucoup écouté et lu les multiples explications et interprétations de mes compatriotes, dont celles d’éminents constitutionalistes qui travaillent sur la question pour nous tous. Alors qu’elle paraît si simple, je ne comprends toujours pas le sens exact de cette formulation. Moins encore lorsque cet article m’est interprété conjointement à d’autres articles ayant trait à la liberté de conscience ainsi qu’à la place de la religion vis-à-vis de la politique et de la «chose publique». En réalité, je constate que ces débats finissent souvent dans d’évidentes contradictions.

La notion de «religion d’un Etat»

Je suis donc encore sincèrement confus à propos du sens exact d’une phrase d’à peine 5 mots, mais qui figure tout de même au tout début de notre Loi Fondamentale et se réfère au sujet non moins fondamental qu’est la religion.

Et je me demande si ce n’est pas le cas de beaucoup d’entre nous.

Je suis donc revenu à la définition du mot «Etat», ou plutôt aux définitions, proposées dans différents dictionnaires de différentes langues. A partir de ce sens originel, j’ai cherché à comprendre ce que pourrait signifier la notion de «religion d’un Etat».

En résumé, il existe trois types de définitions pour le mot «Etat» dont résultent trois types de compréhensions possibles, et qui pourraient être formulées dans un texte de droit tunisien des trois façons suivantes :

1- «L’Islam est la religion de tous les citoyens tunisiens»

Et/Ou

2- «L’Islam est la religion de tous les membres du gouvernement et de l’administration publique ».
L’actuelle Constitution explicite d’ailleurs cette interprétation clairement pour le chef de l’Etat et indirectement pour les députés et autres hauts représentants de l’Etat dans la mesure où ils doivent prêter serment sur un texte présupposant, pour que le serment soit sincère, qu’ils soient de confession musulmane («Je jure par Allah tout puissant…»)

...

[Excerpt—See accompanying URL for full original text]