Tunisian Sociologist Urges New, Tunisian-Specific Model of “Secularism”

Analysis, posted 09.23.2011, from Tunis, Tunisia, in:
Tunisian Sociologist Urges New, Tunisian-Specific Model of “Secularism” (Photo: Reuters)

Tunisian Sociologist Mohamed Nachi of the University of Liège decries the divisive and sometime uncivil arguments over the ambiguous term “laïcité,” a word that is itself variously translated into English as “secularism” or left as is, due to the deep differences between French and American or British ways of understanding their respective terms.  Nachi offers the term hurriya as a more acceptable way to speak about “justice and equality,” which is what, he writes, “they [Westerners] call freedom [liberté].”

Nachi labels the majority of current debates around religion “simplistic,” while he argues that the term “secularism” remains so politicized and controversial that it is difficult to form any type of consensus around it. Nachi writes that some left-leaning secular Tunisian political figures are invested in a rigid understanding of French secularism that “does not really take into account the specificity of Tunisian society, of its history, of its identity as an Arab-Muslim country.” On the other hand, Nachi accuses the conservative Muslim, or Islamist, parties (the Ennahdha party is sous-entendu) of using religion in such a way that “religion” itself becomes a breeding ground for civil woe: “notably,” he writes, “when they claim to found on the precepts of Islam the organization and functioning of social and political institutions as a whole or when they demand the application of Shariah [law].”

Nachi suggests that, contrary to what one might imagine, Islamist parties, whom he accuses of using a “double language,” benefit more from evoking the term “laïcité” than do self-proclaimed secular parties. Indeed, he writes, the term laïcité is associated with atheism for some across socio-economic categories and regions.

Nachi also addresses a summarizes three major recent developments concerning Islam and civil society in Tunisia: first, Nadia El-Féni’s controversial film, Ni Dieu, Ni Maître (Neither God Nor Master), that provoked attacks by conservative (some say “Salafist”) Muslims on the downtown Tunis “Afrika” cinema where the film was being shown. Second, Nachi evokes the rapid changes seen in mosques, where “Islamists” (Nachi’s words) “quickly” replaced the imams allowed under Ben Ali with their own imams, and made other transformations such as rules around rituals and precise times of prayer.  Finally, Nachi highlights the controversial Saha Chribetkom affair in which Abdelfattah Mourou, a co-founder of the Ennahdha movement with Rached Ghannouchi, appeared on the national television station Hannibal TV during Ramadan, in a show described as “theological” and for “religious education.” Hannibal TV was criticized for presenting a political figure as a neutral religious authority – particularly in a time of polarizing debates around the role of religion in government.

In the midst of this societal polarization, Nachi suggests that the Arabic term hurriya ("liberty") be used instead of the French liberté (liberty), writing, “The notion of hurriya finds its origins in pre-Islamic times and expresses the idea of greatness, dignity, and respect.” He continues later, “In the Islamic context, hurriya is at the same time a moral quality that an individual, group, or institution requires and an exigency linked to integrity, responsibility and individual, collective and institutional rationality.” The term hurriya, Nachi argues, can distinguish the meaning of “liberty” in the Tunisian context from the traditional Western liberal sense of the word.

The term hurriya, Nachi writes, should be combined with al-ikhtiyar (“free choice") in which collective choices must be made through debate and compromise. Both of these notions should also bind with al-ikhtilaf, difference or divergence, to create “society of compromise based on the recognition of differences and pluralism.”

“The Tunisian people made this revolution,” Nachi writes, “it is incumbent on them to invent the societal model by which they will realize their aspirations for liberty, dignity, and social justice.” He continues, “It seems more judicious to me to trust them instead of underestimating their creative imagination and claiming to give them the solution that would best suit them!”

Original Language Text: 

La question de la place de la religion dans la société tunisienne postrévolutionnaire est cruciale pour poser les fondements des institutions sociales et politiques. Pour éviter une polarisation du débat : d’un côté la position des laïcs qui revendiquent la transposition du modèle français de la laïcité et de l’autre la position des islamistes qui se servent de l'Islam à des fins politiques, il est plus judicieux d’inventer un nouveau modèle basé sur des concepts sociopolitiques endogènes, conjuguant les principes de la Hurriyya («Liberté») et ceux de l’Ikhtilâf (différence/divergence).

La transition démocratique que la Tunisie est en train de vivre est un moment décisif, déterminant pour poser les fondements du futur modèle de société et du régime politique que le peuple tunisien souhaite instaurer. De toute évidence, les choix d’aujourd’hui dessineront les contours de la société de demain, de ses principes et valeurs et des institutions sociales, culturelles et politiques qui la composeront. C’est pour cette raison que ces choix devraient être, à mon sens, des choix raisonnés, c’est-à-dire réalisés suite à des débats publics sereins et des controverses entre les forces vives du pays. Bref, ces choix doivent être l’expression de véritables compromis ; des compromis viables, légitimes, justes.

Parmi ces choix, il apparaît que la question de la place du religieux dans la future société tunisienne, dans l’organisation de ses institutions sociales et politiques et dans la détermination des attitudes des partis politiques est des plus controversées en ce moment dans les espaces publics, la société civile et les organisations politiques.

Lors d’un séjour effectué en Tunisie deux mois après la révolution, j’étais frappé par les confusions qui régnaient dans les discussions autour de la laïcité et du rapport entre religion et politique dans un contexte marqué par la transition démocratique.

[Excerpt—See accompanying URL for full original text]