Finding the Balance Between Religion and the State: Lessons from Tunisia

Article Summary
Fahmy Howeidy discusses the inclusive approach taken by Tunisia’s various political factions in addressing religion-state relations both before and after the revolution. This stands in contrast to the ongoing struggle between Egypt’s secular and religious parties, which still have much to learn from their Tunisian counterparts, says Howeidy.

It is indeed praiseworthy that the citizens of Egypt are united in honoring the spirit of the revolution. However what raises our concern the most is the resistance of Al-Azhar [the highest seat of Sunni Islamic learning, located in Cairo] to this unity. At the same time, we observe with astonishment the failure of the political powers to achieve unity within their ranks.

1.  I am ignorant of the practical value of the statement issued by Al-Azhar on Wednesday 11 January, which was delivered in front of 60 individuals from among Egypt’s leading public figures. It was said that the statement was intended to honor the spirit of the revolution. However, there are several questions concerning the reasons behind involving Al-Azhar in politics, the circumstances surrounding the issuance of this statement, and the parties who drafted the statement. The fact that the statement was issued two weeks prior to the first anniversary of the 25 January revolution - an event surrounded by controversy - raises many more questions,  especially after Al-Azhar called for cooperation between the youth of the revolution and the representatives elected by the people for the purpose of building the future of Egypt.

In addition to the aforementioned, there are some who have said that the statement did not underline the importance of rectifying the mistakes committed by the military council, and the need to hold accountable those responsible [for incidents of violence], because it aimed to achieve reconciliation between the military council and society before handing over power to the citizens.

I admit that the statement has greatly appreciated moral and ethical value, as did previous [statements]. This is mainly because the statements have consistently focused on highlighting public freedoms and the desired identity of Egypt's future government. However, I am not convinced that all Egyptian political forces endorse the content of this statement, including its 12 points.  Moreover, I cannot imagine that Al-Azhar has become a player in Egypt's political game that calls on the political forces to take a unified stance regarding ongoing political developments.  I rule out the possibility of Al-Azhar becoming a religious authority similar to the Vatican. The latter has religious and spiritual authority and plays political roles - most of which are not publicized - something that has been documented by a number of Western books.

Many intellectuals call for separating politics from religion. However, they do not object when politics interferes in religion, or when religion is employed to serve the political whims. The separation between politics and religion is merely theoretical, even in the Western and secular models. Such models utilize religion in politics - the United States and Israel present the best examples of that.

Furthermore, the Islamic teachings do not only explain the relationship between humans and God, but also governs this relationship.  Islam also conveys ethics, which are the basis and foundation of religion.  The Muslim scholars referred to those teachings to defend society and confront unjust rulers. They are the ones who first discussed ways to face the unjust rulers and called for resisting and shunning them.  Some scholars even said that if a religious figure meets up with an unjust ruler, he will lose his authority as a result .

In the Egyptian history there is a story about Omar Makram, a hero who revolted against the Turkish Wali Khourshid with the Muslim scholars.  Makram was responsible for supporting Muhammad Ali Pasha to reach power in 1805.  But Muhamamd Ali exiled Makram and then limited the role of Al-Azhar scholars.  He did that to avoid a scenario similar to the one that got him to power. Since that time, Muhammad Ali’s family made sure to monitor, contain, and tame the role of Al-Azhar.

The same situation persisted until after the revolution, during the mid-20th century. Gamal Abdel Nasser wanted to include Al-Azhar in his national project, while Anwar al-Sadat was focused on camouflaging his treaty with Israel.  Mubarak, on the other hand, did not make use Al-Azhar; not because he is a high-minded person, but because he did not adopt a national project [that includes all social and political components].  As a result, Mubarak subjected Al-Azhar to the control of national security.

We hope that Al-Azhar carries out its role independently, without the control of the [government] authorities.  We know that it is originally an institute of educationinstitute that propagates [religion].  Its role is not limited to Egypt but also the Islamic world at large.  If Al-Azhar desires to carry out responsibilities that are outside its normal scope, then we hope that it becomes a platform for defending society and not authority.  We wish that Al-Azhar becomes the righteous voice needed to confront tyranny, and political and social injustice.  We cannot forget Al-Azhar’s role in confronting the French campaign in Egypt.  In case the circumstances prevent Al-Azhar from committing to the abovementioned, then we and the Islamic world hope that it is able to play a major role in spreading knowledge and advocacy.

3.  On a brighter note, the statements of Al-Azhar contributed to removing tensions present in the political arena, but did not improve the general situation.  Efforts are underway to attract and unite the disputing sides and to list the characteristics needed to form a committee assigned to draft the constitution. Furthermore, controversy still surrounds the duties of the committee and the level of its authority, something that indicates that Egypt has not yet reached the desired national consensus.  Even though the results of the elections of the People’s Council played a role in identifying the most popular political forces in Egypt, the accomplishments of these forces were not spared from criticism and denigration. We even heard some express skepticism over the authenticity of this council in reflecting the goals of the revolution.

It has become obvious that the political forces have failed to attain the desired consensus, and this failure can only be changed if a sudden event occurs in the midst of the ongoing negotiations. This failure incriminates all political forces, which have surprisingly proved incapable of identifying the common factors between them during this critical stage for the country. In this regard, I assume that the Tunisian experience makes everyone hopeful that consensus can be reached between the different political forces. In the Tunisian scenario, the forces were lucky enough to reach consensus in the first stage following the revolution. Their conflict with former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali compelled them in 2005 to unite efforts against him, and enforce their stance by disregarding their differences and agreeing on common grounds.

Beginning at that time, they held meetings with the Islamists, seculars, nationalists, communists and Nasserists. These parties then formed the October 18 Committee for Rights and Freedoms. The negotiations held between the Tunisian [political] movements led to an agreement over their shared positions, primarily concerning public freedoms, women’s rights, gender [relations], and relations between religion and the state.

I do not believe that there is a debate on the issue of public freedoms and women’s rights in Egypt; for this reason I will only discuss the relationship between the state and religion, as this is the issue most surrounded by controversy. The document stated the following:

If we analyze the visions and positions [of these parties] and the modern political experience of Tunisia in terms of the relationship between the state and religion, we find three challenges facing the Tunisian people in the process of achieving a true democratic transition and establishing a healthy relationship between religion and the state. These three challenges are:

1. Tyranny exercised by the authority. One of the components of this tyranny is placing Islam under the control of the political will of the existing regime. Utilizing religion in such a way demonstrates the authority’s constant desire to enforce religion in society. The authority uses religion in such a way as to benefit its own interests and monopolize the parameters of religion.  In so doing, the authority also intends to control the selection of religious scholars according to their allegiances, and to regulate the content of their speeches.  The authority also seeks to infringe on the personal freedoms of its citizens, who come from different religious, political and ideological backgrounds.

2. Tyranny exercised in the name of religion. This is a product of the belief that Islam is the ultimate solution. This conviction enables the authority to forcibly interfere in the personal lives of citizens and violate their essential human rights and freedoms, as well as the principles of democracy.

3. Tyranny in the name of modernity. This [kind of tyranny] operates by eliminating religion from public life through arbitrary action on the part of the state security [apparatus], intended to provoke a clash between the state and religion. This concept does not, however, perpetuate the regime or the existing violations of freedoms and human rights; nor does it further disrupt the achievement of democracy.

To confront the aforementioned challenges, the 18 October Committee was inspired by the creative interaction between our Arab and Islamic culture and the elements of the modern state, especially those related to human rights and collective and individual freedoms, since they are requirements of progress, development and pride.

Regarding the nature of the state, the document listed the following points:

1. The desired democratic state cannot be [anything] other than a civil state based on the principles of the republic and human rights. It should derive its legitimacy from the will of the people, who are responsible for electing individuals to preside over government institutions and hold them to account. In this state, the ruler and the citizen will be governed by rules and regulations set by the elected constitutional bodies. These bodies should ensure that citizens have the right to implement plans and programs derived from their own personal thought.

2. Regardless of the convictions and beliefs of many, politics is in fact a product of human nature.  This means that politics is in no way characterized by any form of holiness, which makes it a free arena for dialogue, and competition between visions, programs, and political and civil components coming from different backgrounds.

3. The desired democratic state is based on the principles of citizenship, freedom, and equality.  Based on that, the state will guarantee that the citizens’ freedom of belief and opinion is protected, and that it exerts effort to fight any form of discrimination based on religion, belief, gender, and social and political affiliation.   The state will protect the freedoms and basic rights of citizens which mainly shape the democratic system.

4. The desired democratic state commits to the protection of the physical safety of its citizens and prevents all forms of torture and physical and moral violations that degrade the person’s dignity.  The 18 October Committee for Rights and Freedoms vows that all of its programs abide by these essential principles.  It is also committed to implementing the UN Convention of 1984 against torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatments or punishments. The committee ensures that it will develop the mechanisms necessary for eradicating the practice of torture in Tunisia.

5. The responsibility of the desired democratic state is to give Islam a privileged status since it is the religion of the majority. However, Islam should not be monopolized or used for personal interests. This should be done while ensuring that all beliefs, opinions and the freedom of worship are protected.

6. The identity of the Tunisian people was formed following a long historical journey, which is still developing as a result of the creative interaction between its Arab and Islamic components on the one hand and modern [components on the other]. Based on this, the desired democratic state should abide by the following:

a) The protection of the Arabic language since it is the official national language in the government, education institutes, and the Tunisian culture.  Arabic should be rooted in society, while preserving openness to other languages and different cultures.

b) Using all the positive attributes of the Arab and Islamic culture of the Tunisian people and developing it to encompass modernity. It will in turn contribute to the enhancement of the human civilization in the form of constructive interaction, which will be used to confront hegemony that intends to eliminate cultural diversity and impose a mono-cultural identity in Tunisia.

c) Ensuring that Islam becomes part of education without being exploited for any political gains.  This comes as part of the education system that guarantees the right to education and the promulgation of the values of scientific thought, critical thinking and diligence. These will shape the image of Tunisians, making of them citizens armed with national identity and modern principles.

7. The desired democratic state will defend the just causes of the Arab and Islamic peoples based on freedom, democracy and social equality. It will unite its efforts toward confronting domestic tyranny and all forms of colonialism, and foreign hegemony to protect the right of self-determination and build a common future [for the Arab and Islamic nations.]

These principles - agreed upon by the different political forces in Tunisia - are responsible for the successful consensus reached [there] following the revolution. They enabled the political forces to transition into power without encountering a crisis. Following the failure of the different efforts made in Egypt over the past month, we now have the right to ask: Is it true that the political forces in our country are not amenable to consensus?

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