Tunisia's Rached Ghannouchi's on Secularism

News article, posted 03.10.2012, from Tunisia, in:
Tunisia's Rached Ghannouchi's on Secularism

From the Centre for the Study of Islam and Democracy:

Mr. Rached Ghanouchi, President of the Nahdha Party in Tunisia, gave an important and historic lecture at CSID-Tunisia last Friday, March 2nd, on "Secularism and Relation between Religion and the State from the Perspective of the Nahdha Party", which was then followed by a frank and open debate with leading scholars, activists, civil society leaders, and politicians from accross the full spectrum, as well as representatives of the Moroccan, Algerian, Egyptian, and American diplomatic missions.

The audience also included the Head of the Constituent Assembly Mustapha Ben Ja'afar, President of ALESCO Muhammad Al-'Aziz Ibn 'Ashour, the Head of the Higher Committee for Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms in Tunisia Noureddine Hachad, as well as the leaders of various political Parties such as Muhammad Goumani, Abd Al-Wahhab Al-Hani, Murad Ruissi, Muhammad Busairi Bouabdelli, and Khaled Traouli.

We are pleased to send you the full transcript of the lecture, which we hope you will find helpful (see below).


Introduction by Dr. Radwan Masmoudi:

In the Name of God the Most Merciful, the Most Beneficent

Ladies and Gentlemen, Distinguished Guests

We welcome all of you in the Center for the Study of Islam and
Democracy, we thank you for coming to this symposium and for accepting
our invitation to participate in this meeting, through which we aspire
to deepen the dialogue and strengthen the National Accord for the
success of the democratic transition in Tunisia. As you know, Tunisia is
now in front of a historical test which will determine not only the fate
of our country but perhaps even that of the region and the Arab World as
a whole in the coming period. All eyes are fixed on Tunisia, I just came
back from a tour that brought me to Jordan, Egypt and Algeria, and
believe me when I say that all sights, laden with great expectations,
are directed towards Tunisia. Since it was in Tunisia that the Arab
Spring was kick-started to reclaim freedom and dignity, Tunisia has made
great strides in this direction over its neighbors and other Arab
countries. Everyone expects a lot of us and wonders whether Tunisia will
succeed in building a genuine democracy that combines dignity, human
rights, justice, and Arabo-Islamic values.

The subject of the relationship between religion and state is one of the
most difficult and important issues facing us now at a time when we're
establishing a new constitution and governing system, which we hope will
be a democratic system that respects human rights. So, we are delighted
to be hosting Professor Rached Ghannouchi, leader of al-Nahdha who in
fact is in no need of introduction. But just as a reminder, he is one of
the Islamic Tendency Movement's founders, which became known as
al-Nahdha Movement and later al-Nahdha Party after the revolution, and
has been the leader of the party ever since and one of the movement's
thinkers and theoreticians. He is also one of the leading thinkers of
the Islamist movement both in the Arab and Islamic worlds as a whole. He
has written extensively and in depth on such subjects as freedom,
democracy, human rights and the relationship of these with Islam.

We are very pleased to host this symposium which we hope will be a
dialogue. We could have held this event in a venue of more breadth, but
saw fit to keep it small in order for it to be genuinely deep. From our
perspective, had we held this meeting in a bigger venue the quality of
the debate would have undoubtedly been negatively affected. It is
exactly for this purpose that we invited the finest thinkers of various
currents, trends, and parties to engage in a real and deep dialogue, to
study the subject at hand, and come up with appropriate solutions to it
once we have listened to Prof Ghannouchi's presentation.

Ghannouchi, once again, has militated for democracy and freedom and
taken a fierce stand against tyranny which made him pay dearly for his
convictions. He was sentenced to death, and thank God, here he is now in
his country respected and loved, while he who sentenced him is living in
exile. These are some of Ghannouchi's works:

Our Way to Civilization, Us and the West, the Right to Differ and the
Duty of Unity, the Palestinian Issue at a Cross Road, Woman Between the
Qur'an and the Reality of Muslims, From the Islamic Thought in Tunisia,
Public Freedoms in the Islamic State, Predestination in Ibn Taymiyya's
Thought, Contemplations on secularism and Civil Society, the Islamist
movements and points of change, From the Experience of the Islamist
Movement in Tunisia, and A Rebellion on Silence.

I will suffice myself with this short introduction, and ask you to join
me in welcoming Prof Rached Ghannouchi. Welcome!


Transcript of Rached Ghannouchi's speech:

In the name of God, prayers and peace be upon His Messenger, his
household, companions, and supporters.

Ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters may God's peace and blessings
be upon you.

I thank the Centre for the Study of Islam and Democracy for giving me
the opportunity this evening to speak to this distinguished elite of
Tunisian men and women and those coming from abroad. I am not here to
teach you anything, since the subject we are here to discuss has no set
instructions to be delivered but rather only points of view to be
deepened and efforts to reach a common ground that would enable our
elite to reach a consensus or at least a quasi-consensus.

Our topic is quite problematic in the sense that it deals with the
Islam's relationship to secularism. Is this relationship one of conflict
and disaccord or one of harmony and overlap? Related to this question
are issues such as Islam's relationship to governance, the relation
between Islam and Law, which are all contentious matters.

It seems that when we speak of secularism and Islam, as if we are
talking about evident and clear concepts. However, a non-negligible
amount of ambiguity and multiplicity of understandings surround these
concepts, in that we are not talking about 'a' secularism but rather a
multitude of secularisms as is the case with Islam, by virtue of what is
proposed in the arena, we are faced with various understandings of what
it means.

Although secularism seems as if it was a philosophy and the fruit of
philosophical reflections and meditations which came to fight idealist
and religious outlooks, it is not so. Secularism appeared, evolved, and
crystallized in the West as procedural solutions, and not as a
philosophy or theory of existence, to problems that had been posed in
the European context. Most of these problems emerged following the
Protestant split in the West, which tore apart the consensus that had
been dominant in the Catholic Church, and imposed the religious wars in
the 16th and 17th century. It was thus that Secularism and/or
secularization began.

This leads us to ask the following question: are we in need of
secularism in its procedural aspect? Perhaps the most important idea in
the ensemble of these procedures is the idea of the state's neutrality
i.e. towards religions and its abstention from interfering with people's
consciences. Whereas, the state's scope or jurisdiction is limited to
the 'Public Domain', religion's scope extends to the 'Private'. In the
United States religious interference in the public domain is evident,
despite the differentiation that exists there remains a significant
religious influence. Their leaders' speeches are laden with religious
content and references, and religion is debated in all electoral
campaigns where it manifests itself in issues such as prayer in schools
and abortion. This in reality is due to the fact that America was
founded by evangelical pilgrims fleeing with their religion from the
Catholic Church's persecution in Europe. It is for this reason that the
U.S. is looked at as the Promised Land, the land of dreams mentioned in
the Torah and Gospels.

As the Franco-American thinker Tocqueville once remarked that the Church
is the most powerful party in the United States. This is by virtue of
the huge influence that it enjoys, though this is not the case in
Europe. Whereas the number of those who can lead prayer in the US
exceeds 50%, in Europe it does not reach 5%.

In the European context, also, there are differences in the state's
relationship with religion between the French heritage and Anglo-Saxon
one, whereby in the UK the Queen combines the temporal and the religious
powers. The complete separation is the one that is associated with the
French experience, which resulted from the clashes that took place in
French history between the revolutionaries' state and the Catholic
Church. Even in Europe, therefore, we are not dealing with one
experience in secularism, perhaps for our purposes, since our elite is
influenced by the particular French perspective (particular even for
Europeans) where religion is totally excluded from the public sphere and
the state considers itself as the sole guardian of national identity.
This exclusion of the religious and its symbols from the public domain
is what lead France to be the only country that refused the covering of
heads for Muslim women, while we don't see such a crisis in any other
European country over the issue of headscarves. This is exclusively due
to the particular nature of the relationship between state and religion
in France which was the result of a particular historical experience.

We in turn are not faced with one understanding; perhaps the most
important procedure invented by the secular worldview on this level is
the state's neutrality. In other words, the state is the guarantor of
all freedoms be them religious, political or otherwise. And the state
should not interfere in favor of this or that party. We pose the
following question now: Is Islam in need of such a procedure? i.e. the
state's neutrality towards the various religions.

Islam, since its inception, has always combined religion with politics,
religion and state. The Prophet (peace be upon him) was the founder of
the religion as well as the state. The first pledge of allegiance made
by the group of Madina who came to Mecca was a religious pledge to
believe in Allah and his Messenger. But the second pledge was to protect
the Muslims, even by sword, should al-Madina be attacked. Al-Madina, and
this expression is of the utmost importance, used to be called Yathrib
before becoming Al-Madina (The City) which implies that Islam is not
merely a religion but also carries a civilizational meaning. It is a
transferring of people from Bedouin life to urban/civilizational life.
This is why 'Bedouinization' was considered a great sin once
urbanization had been achieved. No wonder then that wherever Islam went
it established cities and our country hosts the oldest city built by
Arabs in North Africa. Therefore, The City founded by the Prophet (pbuh)
is a clear indication that Islam is a religion of civilization, whereby
it shifted those warring tribes from a Bedouin level to a civilized one
and united them around a state.

The Prophet (pbuh) was a an imam in the religious sense as he lead
prayers in mosques, and at the same time a political imam that
arbitrated people's disputes, lead armies, and signed various accords
and treaties. Of relevance to us is the fact that upon his arrival to
Medina he established a mosque and put in place a constitution that was
called Al-Sahifah. You have precedents here Mustapha! [In reference to
Mr Mustapha Ben Ja'afar, President of the Constituent Assembly, who was
present in the audience]. This Sahifah, which is one of the oldest
constitutions in the world, contained a bundle of covenants regulating
the relations between Meccan immigrants and their hosts (these were
considered as one nation) and the Jewish tribes of Madina (also
considered a nation). Al-Sahifa considered these two religious nations
as comprising one political nation and entity that is distinct from
others. The most important concept offered by such scholars as Muhammad
Salim Al 'Awwa and Muhammad 'Umar is the distinction between the
religious and the political as corresponding to the separation between
state and religion.

The distinction between that which is political and that which is
religious is clear in the Sahifah in that Muslims are a religious nation
(ummah) and the Jews another, but the combination of the two plus other
polytheists made up a nation in the political sense. This distinction
can be witnessed in the Prophet's dealings even if the boundaries were
not always clear. Whereas the religious is the sphere of observance and
obligation, the political is the sphere of reason and Ijtihad. At times
when the ambiguity confused the companions, they would ask the Prophet
(pbuh) whether this is divine revelation (wahy) or a mere opinion. In
the case of the former they would obey, and when it is the latter they
may differ and offer alternatives. On more than one occasion did the
companions differ with the Prophet (pbuh) in his capacity as the head of
state, and Sheikh Tahar Ben Ashour has dealt in detail with the topic of
what he called 'Prophetic Statuses'.

One day the Prophet (pbuh) passed by a group in Medina cross-pollinating
palm trees and said: 'I do not see the benefit of doing so.' The Medinan
people thought that that was divine revelation and stopped treating
their trees which made their harvest of that year of a lesser quality.
They asked him why he ordered them to do so, and he replied: you are
best placed to know what is beneficial for you in your worldly affaires.
Therefore, it is not the duty of religion to teach us agricultural,
industrial or even governing techniques, because reason is qualified to
reach these truths through the accumulation of experiences. The role of
religion, however, is to answer the big question for us, those relating
to our existence, origins, destiny, and the purpose for which we were
created, and to provide us with a system of values and principles that
would guide our thinking, behaviour, and the regulations of the state to
which we aspire.

So, Islam since its inception and throughout its history has not known
this separation between state and religion in the sense of excluding
religion from public life. And Muslims, to this day, have been
influenced by Islam and inspired by its teachings and guidance in their
civic life, with the distinction remaining clear. This distinction
between the religious and the political is also clear in the thought of
Islamic scholars/jurists. They have distinguished between the system of
transactions/dealings (Mu'amalat) and that of worship ('Ibadat). Whereas
the latter is the domain of constancy and observance i.e. reason cannot
reach the truth, the former is the domain of searching for the general
interest, for Islam came to realize people's interests as confirmed by
such great jurists as Al-Shatibi and Ibn 'Ashour. These scholars have
agreed that the highest objective of all divine messages is to establish
justice and realize people's interests, and this is done through the use
of reason in light of the guidelines, objectives, values, and principles
provided by religion. Thus, there is a domain of transactions/dealings
which is constantly evolving and represents the sphere of variables, and
there is the domain of creed, values, and virtues which represents the
sphere of constants.

Throughout Islamic history, the state has always been influenced by
Islam in one way or another in its practices, and its laws were
legislated for in light of the Islamic values as understood at that
particular time and place. Despite this, states remained Islamic not in
the sense that their laws and procedures were divinely revealed, but
that they were human endeavours open to challenge and criticism. States
have also practiced a degree of neutrality, and when they tried to
interfere and impose one understanding on Muslims, as happened in the
Abbasids state, it sparked revolution. It is mentioned that al-Mansour
had become concerned with the multitude of religious views and
interpretations emanating from the same religion and feared their
divisive effect on the state. So he sent for Imam Malik and asked him to
amalgamate all these in one to unify people's outlooks. Imam Malik
produced his famous book al-Muwatta', with which al-Mansour was greatly
pleased and wanted it to become a law that binds all Muslims. This
horrified Imam Malik and asked for it not to be made so, because the
Prophet's companions have travelled to different lands and took with
them much knowledge, so allow people to choose what they see fit. This
is why we see that one school of thought is dominant in the Maghreb,
while another is so in the Levant, and yet another in Egypt...etc

It is due to the absence of a church in Islam that what remains is the
freedom of thought and interpretation. This will naturally lead to a
diversity in interpretation, and there is no harm in that except when we
need to legislate, at which time we are in need of a mechanism, and the
best mechanism that mankind has come up with is the electoral and
democratic one which produces representatives of the nation and makes
these interpretations a collective as opposed to an individual effort.
Again, in the absence of a church representing the sacred on earth and a
spokesperson of the Qur'an, the nation is the only manifestation of
divine will through its interactions and not any particular scholar,
party, or state.

When al-Ma'moun (Abbassid Caliph) wanted to impose one interpretation of
the Quran and one particular understanding of Islamic creed (that of the
Mu'tazili school), Imam Ahmed Ibn Hanbal revolted and refused the
state's attempt to dominate religion. This lead to him being persecuted
and tortured, but in the end he managed to turn public opinion against
the state and force al-Ma'moun to cede.

While the problematique in the west revolved around ways of liberating
the state from religion and lead to destructive wars, in our context the
problem is one of liberating religion from the state and preventing it
from dominating religion, and keeping the latter in the societal realm,
open to all Muslims to read the Qur'an and understand it in the manner
that they deem appropriate, and that there is no harm in the plurality
that is combined with tolerance. But should Muslims be in need of laws,
the democratic mechanism is the best embodiment of the Shura
(consultation) value in Islam.

It is of the utmost importance that our heritage is devoid of a church.
Maybe only our Shi'ah brothers hold the belief in a religious
institution, but in the Sunni world there is no such a thing save for a
council of scholars which are usually in disagreement and hold different
views. For this reason, we are in need of scholars and intellectuals to
debate and study our issues in a climate of freedom and accept that the
legislative institution is the ultimate authority by virtue of being

There is a debate that is currently ongoing in our country between
secular currents which may be described as extremist and Islamist ones
which may be described in like manner. One would like to impose their
understanding of Islam from above using state tools and apparatuses and
the other aspires to strip the state, educational curricula, and
national culture of all Islamic influences. At a time when the whole
world, including the Islamic world, is witnessing a religious awakening,
and having seen the role played by the Catholic Church in the
development of Eastern Europe, starting with the efforts of Pope John
Paul II, and also the role of the Russian Orthodox Church in the success
of Putin's presidential campaign. At such a junction in time, it is
unreasonable to object to religious influence on the state's cultural
and educational policies. In fact, we do not need do impose Islam
because it is the people's religion and not the elite's, and Islam has
not endured for so long because of states' influence but rather due to
the large acceptance it enjoys among its adherents, in fact the state
has often been a burden on religion.

As I said, many of those who belong to the Islamist current and others
fear the religion's emancipation from the state to be left as a societal
matter. Why does the state train Imams? Why does it control mosques?

The issue of the state's neutrality involves a great deal of risk and
adventure. If what is meant by the separation between religion and state
is that the state is a human product and religion a divine revelation as
the distinction was made clear in the context of the early Muslims
between the realm of revelation (wahy) and what was the realm of the
political, then it is ok. But if what is mean is the separation in the
French sense or in accordance with the Marxist experience then we may
engage in a dangerous adventure that may harm both religion and state.
The total stripping of the state from religion would turn the state into
a mafia, and the world economic system into an exercise in plundering,
and politics into deception and hypocrisy. And this is exactly what
happened in the Western experience, despite there being some positive
aspects. International politics became the preserve of a few financial
brokers owning the biggest share of capital and by extension the media,
through which they ultimately control politicians.

In this context, people are deeply in need of religion and its spiritual
and moral guidance which would enable them to distinguish between right
and wrong (halal and haram). And in the absence of a Church that
monopolises the definition of what is halal and haram, this task is left
to be debated by the elite of thinkers, the people and the media.

Should religion be entirely emancipated from the state and politics,
this would also carry some risks whereby things would get out of control
and social harmony would be endangered. The way to do it, therefore, is
to find a balance that would guarantee people's freedom and rights,
because religion is here to do exactly that. To achieve this balance, we
need to go back to the issue of distinguishing between religion and
politics and adjust the parameters of what is constant in religion and
that which is variable. We need our legislators to be well acquainted,
educated and versed in religious values, so that when they are
legislating they do not require the tutelage of religious scholars and
authorities, and the same goes for politicians. There is no value to any
religious observance that is motivated through coercion. It is of no use
to turn those who are disobedient to God into hypocrites through the
state's coercive tools. People are created free and while it is possible
to have control over their external aspects, it is impossible to do so
over their inner selves and convictions.

This is exactly why we saw two models in dealing with issue of the
headscarf/veil, the first is a veil that is dictated and imposed by the
state and the second is a veil forbidden by it. Once I was in a Muslim
country's (in reference to Saudi Arabia?) airport where all women were
covered, but as soon as the plane took off the veils flew away with it.
This is a clear failure of that country's educational system, which was
unable to guarantee people's religiosity except through coercive tools.
In Ben Ali's Tunisia, women were forbidden from wearing the veil and
express themselves in whatever appearance they saw fit, also through the
state's coercive means. This was also a failure.

The primary orbit for religion is not the state's apparatuses, but
rather personal/individual convictions. The state's duty, however, is to
provide services to people before anything else, to create job
opportunities, and to provide good health and education not to control
people's hearts and minds. For this reason, I have opposed the coercion
of people in all its forms and manifestation and have dealt with such
controversial topics such as al-Riddah (apostasy) and have defended the
freedom of people to either adhere to or defect from a religious creed,
based on the Qur'anic verse that says: 'there is no compulsion in

There is no meaning in forcing people to become Muslims, the Muslim
nation has in no need for hypocrites who manifest belief and conceal
disbelief. Freedom is the primary value through which a person adheres
to Islam, so he who announces his shahadatayn ('I declare that there is
no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his final Messenger') does so on the
basis of free choice underpinned by awareness and conviction. In this
manner, the state is Islamic insofar that it assures its actions are in
accordance with Islam's values without being subjected to the tutelage
of any religious institution for there is no such a thing in Islam.
Rather there is a people and a nation who are the decision makers
through their institutions.

When the Meccan people objected to Muhammad's religion, he asked them
not to interfere with his preaching activities and to allow him the
freedom to communicate his message to the people. Had the Meccans
accorded the Prophet (pbuh) the freedom of expression, he would not have
immigrated and left his homeland. But because his message was so
powerful, they could not offer an alternative to counteract it. This is
why Muslims consider Islam's proof to be so powerful that there is no
need to coerce people, and when the voice of Islam proclaims 'Produce
your proof if ye are truthful' this challenge is being proposed at the
heart of the political and intellectual conflict.

Thus, the greater part of the debate taking place nowadays in our
country is a misunderstanding of such concept as secularism and Islam.
We demonstrated that secularism is not an atheist philosophy but merely
a set of procedural arrangements designed to safeguard the freedom of
belief and thought as Abd al-Wahhab al-Masiri distinguished, in his
writings, between partial and total secularisms. An example of the
latter would be the Jacobin model in French history. In their war on
priesthood, the Jacobins' raised the following slogan: "strangle the
last king with the entrails of the last priest." This is a French
specificity and not the absolute definition of secularism. There is also
an ambiguity regarding Islam, for there are those who believe that Islam
can only be victorious by confiscating people's freedom and imposing
prayers, fasting, and the veil through force. This would be far from
being a success, for Allah Almighty had considered hypocrisy to be the
greatest crime, and the hellfire to be the eternal abode of Hypocrites.

The fact that our revolution has succeeded in toppling a dictator, we
ought to accept the principle of citizenship, and that this country does
not belong to one party or another but rather to all of its citizens
regardless of their religion, sex, or any other consideration. Islam has
bestowed on them the right to be citizens enjoying equal rights, and to
believe in whatever they desire within the framework of mutual respect,
and observance of the law which is legislated for by their
representatives in parliament.

This is my understanding of things, and my view with regards to Islam's
relation to secularism. I hope that I have touched on the main issues,
and I thank you profusely for your attention.


Transcribed and translated by Brahim Rouabah/CSID