Overturning Islamists, Tunisians Reject Sharia Law

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Islamists thought that their Ennahda party’s electoral victory in Tunisia’s elections signaled a new era where sharia-based governance would sweep the region. But now, in a stunning setback, Tunisians rejected sharia as a source of legislation and Ennahda has been forced to step down.

Ennahda’s downward spiral began last February with the assassination of a liberal critic. The party condemned the murder, but demonstrators justifiably saw Ennahda as part of the same Islamist current as the attackers. A second assassination of yet another liberal critic in July brought protests to new heights.

Again, Ennahda was not involved, but the party was blamed for tolerating the spread of Islamic extremism in the country.

The decisive political change in Tunisia wasn’t that Ennahda lost support. It was that its secular opponents united. The party came to power with a plurality — about 42% of the vote. The rest was split between liberal parties. The Islamists’ advantage wasn’t popular will as much as it was anti-Islamist disunity.

Ennahda repeatedly refused to step down from power before the next elections. Eventually, faced with growing protests and the prospect of being forcibly removed like its Muslim Brotherhood comrades in Egypt, Ennahda caved.

The Islamist Prime Minister resigned and power is now in the hands of a transitional government that will serve until elections are held.

Ennahda calculated that it was better to step down than continue to do potentially irreversible damage to its brand. Party founder and spiritual leader, Rachid al-Ghannouchi, is an Islamist extremist with a knack for marketing. He is widely viewed as a “moderate” by the media and is promoted by major Muslim-American organizations.

Ghanouchi is already repositioning himself and his party. One of his first moves after Tunisia’s constitution was approved was to be interviewed by CNN to generate favorable coverage. In explaining how Tunisia rejected sharia, he made it sound like it was a consensus decision that his party was happy to go along with.

“There was some dispute about enshrining Sharia, that’s why we had to push away the controversy and we settled for what was said in the 1959 constitution about Tunisia as an Arab country,” he said.

A careful reading of his words exposes what he really means: Ennahda wanted Sharia but couldn’t win the fight.

The Muslim world usually looks favorably upon officiating Sharia as a source of law in constitutions – meaning, the backlash against Islamist parties doesn’t always equate with a backlash against sharia governance. Rather, the parties’ failures are blamed on personalities, instead of ideology.

That is why the revisions to the Tunisian constitution are so significant. It isn’t just a rebuke to a single political party; it’s a rebuke to the entire Islamist ideology.

The Tunisian assembly rejected two articles: One that would establish Islam as the law of the land and another that would identify the Quran and Sunna as the principal source of legislation. Instead, the country is defined as a “civil” republic.

The Islamists were outraged. One Islamist political leader said that the failure to institute sharia would “allow Satanists and idolators to organize public events.”

Another politician from Ennahda blasted an opponent as an “enemy of Islam,” an offense punishable by death under sharia.

The assembly responded by approving articles banning the incitement of religious violence and takfir, or the labeling of a Muslim as an apostate.

There are loopholes in the constitution that Islamists will exploit in the future, but other parts of the document limit their ability to overreach.

For example, the constitution does certify Islam as the state religion, as the original constitution did. However, as Robert Zaretsky articulates, “In terms of jurisprudence, this was tantamount to recognizing the Dallas Cowboys as America’s football team.” Tunisia’s previous secular governance prevented this section from merging mosque and state and, indeed, the new articles are also designed to prevent that.

Like, for example, Article 6 which reads: “The State is the guardian of the religion. It guarantees the liberty of conscience and belief, and the free exercise of religious practice. It is the protector of the sacred, guarantor of the neutrality of mosques and other places of worship from all partisan ends.”

On the one hand, it bans mosques from politics and certifies religious freedom. On the other hand, language like “the guardian of the religion” and “protector of the sacred” is vague enough that Islamist prosecutors, judges and politicians will interpret it to suit their agenda.

Zaretsky also points out that Article 20 establishes gender equality in terms of rights and, most importantly, duties. Islamists argue that sharia grants men and women equal rights because the separating of duties is not a violation of equal rights. This article prevents that argument from being deployed.

In the future, there will be a legal battle in Tunisia over what parts of the constitution take precedence when there is a contradiction. Those questions will be settled by those who are in power. Fortunately, it seems like that won’t be the Islamists — at least, for now.


Ryan Mauro is the ClarionProject.org’s National Security Analyst, a fellow with the Clarion Project and is frequently interviewed on top-tier TV stations as an expert on counterterrorism and Islamic extremism.

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Meira Svirsky

Meira Svirsky is the editor of ClarionProject.org

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