Tunisia's new constitution criminalizes 'takfir'

The Tunisian constitution has criminalized the practice of takfir — the issuing of a religious edict declaring someone an infidel — a first in the Arab world.

al-monitor Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki holds a copy of the country's new constitution after signing it in Tunis, Jan. 27, 2014. Photo by REUTERS/Anis Mili.

Topics covered

tunisian islamists, takfiri, islamists, fatwa, chokri belaid

Feb 3, 2014

The Tunisian constitution, ratified by the National Constituent Assembly on Jan. 26, 2014, is distinguished by a number of particular characteristics. Chapter 6 has stirred an uproar given that it stipulated freedom of conscience and prohibited takfiri fatwas [religious edicts claiming someone is an apostate]. This came in parallel with the state sponsoring religion and protecting sanctities, which makes this chapter a first among Arab constitutions. It is especially notable since Tunisia is a country where the majority of the population belongs to the same religion and sect.

Months ago, even the most optimistic observer would not have expected this outcome. This constitutional miracle cannot be understood outside the context of the Tunisian scene since the revolution. At the time, the takfiri trend emerged over political work and was close to dragging the country over the brink. The Tunisian revolution aimed for freedom and dignity within a society characterized by religious and sectarian homogeneity, and takfirism had no place in it. Former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was not ousted for religious reasons, but rather because he tightened the grip on freedoms and unjustly distributed national wealth. Without a shadow of doubt, the former president was more religious than some of his opponents who led the revolution.

However, religious movements were on the rise after the eruption of the revolution in a bid to compensate for the lack of political platforms and visions. Therefore, they took advantage of religion to attract followers. The trend of takfiri fatwas prospered. Everywhere, schools teaching Zimqtal — an Islamic art of war invented by one of Ennahda’s supporters — were established. Additionally, large amounts of money were pumped from various sources to spread sects that are historically alien to the country. Several dangerous incidents unfolded until prominent opposition member Chokri Belaid was assassinated, a year before the issuance of the constitution. It is as if the constitution has learned a lesson: The fate of the country cannot slip toward violence and civil war. Belaid was assassinated because of a takfiri fatwa issued by one of the Zimqtal disciples, as stated in an official report issued by the Interior Ministry.

Takfiri fatwas continued to be issued, targeting opposition members, intellectuals and army and police members who were considered tyrants. Terrorist operations claimed the lives of more than 20 martyrs. In the end, the assassination of Mohamed Brahmi incited the explosion of the political process as a whole. He was a leftist and religious figure with a religious culture. He bugged Islamists who wanted to monopolize religion and hindered their plans. It is also important to mention the attack on the US Embassy in Tunisia and the death of the US ambassador to Libya. American sources consider that both operations were linked, planned by the same organization.

Internal and external pressures, especially from the United States, which does not forgive the targeting of its staff and embassies, have led Ennahda to cut ties with and distant itself from takfiris, so that it would not face the same fate of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Even so, one member of parliament belonging to Ennahda accused the National Constituent Council of apostasy. This incident was a direct reason behind adding the wording prohibiting takfir to Chapter 6. Ennahda parliament members grudgingly agreed to it in order to not bear the consequences of what their colleague had done.

All Arab societies are invited to strictly fend off political takfirism, which has spread since the 1970s and found fertile ground in the Arab uprisings. In the past, this trend has targeted intellectuals like Hussein Mroue, Mahdi Amel, Mohammad Hussein al-Thahabi, Mahmoud Mohammad Taha, Farag Foda and Naguib Mahfouz. It also targeted former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. This trend continued to aggravate until it became an industry and found a market during the Arab uprisings. Some sought to transform political and social revolutions into religious and sectarian ones. This has resulted in tearing societies apart, pushing them away from reform and entering a vicious circle of conflicts equally devastating to everyone.

Some may argue that apostasy is an existent state, just like faith. Yet, we should be careful not to mix things. Every person is an infidel from the point of view of someone with a different religion and conviction. This does not mean that killing and investing religious provisions to get rid of political rivals or those with different opinions and views should be legalized. Whoever wants to be part of the opposition or assume the seat of power should use normal means of protest, not fatwas. It is known that takfir does not only classify people, but also allows for their killing. The cleric issuing the fatwa is then a partner in crime. Is it right for any society to let people instigate murder and attacks with impunity? Isn’t it the duty of legislation to punish every crime?

Circumstances worked in favor of the Tunisian constitution, which included the first constitutional condemnation of takfir in the Arab region. It is hoped that this condemnation will be coupled with clear legal provisions, especially since the takfir trend is new to Tunisia. It emerged with the rise of political Islam and was not familiar to traditional religious institutions, which had never before accused those opposed to them with apostasy. At the beginning of the 20th century, these institutions witnessed disputes around delicate issues throughout all Arab communities, yet they did not reach a level where they accused one another of apostasy or allowed for the killing [of their opponents]. What happened with Taher al-Haddad, Ali Abdel Razzaq, Mohammad Ahmad Khalaf-Allah and others is an example of this. They faced strong opposition, yet they never targeted anyone. In fact, takfir is a political rather than a religious issue. It is the right of the state, rather its duty, to intervene to settle this issue legally, and not just content itself with announcing good faith and moral guidance.

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