Monday, May 06, 2013

Radia Daoussi Hennessey on the Threat of an Islamist Constitution in Tunisia

Radia Daoussi Hennessey
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One of the Iraqi students who took my EWIS graduate-studies writing course last winter is a great advocate of universal human rights, and of course women's rights, so I thought of her yesterday when I read Radia Hennessey's article, "Tunisia's Theocratic Temptation" (New York Times, May 2, 2013), especially these words about the problematic constitution that has been drafted for Tunisia under the influence of Islamists:
Two renowned Tunisian constitutionalists have wisely declined to be part of the panel appointed to review the draft constitution. Both Yadh Ben Achour and Kais Saied realize that the text is rife with impossible contradictions (a state religion and Tunisia as a civil state), severe omissions (the universality of human rights) and that highlighting these deficits could endanger their safety.
This sounds very similar to the problems my student was writing about. She went even further than Hennessey, critiquing cultural relativism and radical multiculturalism, arguing that these undermine human rights and women's rights. But Hennessey might well agree, for she's rather adamant:
It is a constitution that paves the way for a Shariah-based theocratic state with no checks and balances -- and immune from future change or amendment. The obsession with religion has so derailed the work of the Constitutional Assembly that the nature of government is not even well established in the draft text.
Tunisia is a liberal Arab state, seemingly Europeanized, so why don't more people openly oppose this seriously compromised document? Ignorance and fear:
My cousins, who are doctors, nurses or bankers, misunderstood the concept of secularism. They equated it with atheism. It took hours of conversation to convince them that secularism protects the right to practice religion by ensuring no one has the right to tell you how to worship. And the few who do know what a secular state means are terrified to advocate for it because there is the threat of Salafist extremists.
One reason that her cousins might not have known that "secularism protects the right to practice religion by ensuring no one has the right to tell you how to worship" is that, strictly speaking, this isn't true. Secularism does restrict "how" to worship. It doesn't restrict beliefs, but it does restrict their practice. Salafis -- a particularly rigorous strain of Islamists -- would find their religious practices restricted, for they wouldn't be allowed to force others to practice Islam as they do. Secularism does restrict religious practice -- and a good thing, too! Radia Hennessey is right to press for secularism even if her defense of it is not entirely correct. And she warns:
The separation of mosque and state, as a way to ensure the freedom of religion, is an urgent imperative if this so-called Arab Spring is not to dry up.
Is anybody listening?

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