In Tunisia, authorities enforced for the first time measures against citizens who publicly ate or smoked during the fast of the holy Muslim month of Ramadan, which ended recently. Such moves have sparked anew the public debate over religion’s status in that country. Tunisia, where the popular uprisings that spread throughout the Middle East and North Africa in 2011 began, is in many respects a success story, especially in view of the gloomy reality existing in the other states that were rocked by these uprisings.
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Since the toppling of President Zayn al-Abidine Ben Ali (in January 2011), Tunisia has held a number of elections that have led to orderly regime changes; has drafted a new constitution that lays the foundations for new governmental institutions and a democratic regime; has begun investigating the injustices of previous regimes; has solicited public testimonies by victims of these injustices and is pursuing a process of national reconciliation. Tunisia is widely recognized as a Western-oriented, socially stable country. Nonetheless, the current debate over the month-long Ramadan fast is nothing new in modern Tunisia’s history and emphasizes to what extent questions concerning religion and state are far from being resolved there. Like other countries, including Israel, the debate also emphasizes Tunisia’s unique history.
This year, early in Ramadan, five citizens were arrested and sentenced in the city of Bizerte (located northwest of the capital Tunis) for the crime of “public indecency” after being caught smoking or eating in public. The local prosecution charged them with “provocative” behavior and the court sentenced them each to one month in prison. Note that Tunisia’s post-revolution constitution, drafted after the 2011 revolution guarantees freedom of religion while imposing on the state the vaguely-phrased requirement “to be a guardian of religion.”
Officially, there are no laws in Tunisia obligating its citizens to fast or preventing them from eating in public during this month of fasting. Most of the country’s restaurants are closed during daytime hours when Muslims are required to fast. Some restaurants do open their doors, albeit surreptitiously, taking care to curtain their windows. The arrests and trials in Bizerte seem to contradict the attitude of many Tunisians, which is characteristically moderate on questions concerning religion’s status in Tunisia. Thus, although the Bezerte affair’s importance should not be exaggerated, it does offer a glimpse into the tensions regarding religion and state.
Compared to other Muslim and Arab states, Tunisia is considered a country whose modernization has contributed to the growth of a secular social orientation. This perception stems from Tunisia’s unique characteristics, which developed under the regime of Habib Bourguiba (1903-2000), Tunisia’s first president, who governed from 1957 to 1987. He is recognized as modern Tunisia's founding father who led the national struggle against the French authorities.
These characteristics include the state’s distancing from religion in its effort to modernize Tunisia’s society and economy, as well as the unique status of women in Tunisia (who enjoy full equality and are impressively integrated in all spheres of life, including the economy). Tunisia has also adopted a moderate political stance that has drawn it closer to Western countries, distancing it from the ideologies that have flourished in other Arab states – from pan-Arab nationalism promoted by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser to political Islam that gained considerable ground in North Africa in the late 20th century. Nevertheless, one should not draw conclusions that Tunisia has not been exposed to other ideas that conflict with Bourguiba’s policies. Contrary to the approach Bourguiba and later Ben Ali promoted, many Tunisians have adhered to their traditions. Over the years, they became an oppositional force that vied for power with the secular group that supported Bourguiba.
Tunisia's secular orientation is manifested in policies promoted by Bourguiba, such as designating Sunday as Tunisia’s official day of rest to preserve economic links with Western countries. There are those who compare Bourguiba’s “secular” policies with those of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in modern-day Turkey. However, despite their joint ideational approach, a sharp distinction must be made between the two leaders. Unlike Ataturk, Bourguiba preferred justifying his policies through religious discourse and for religious reasons. During the Tunisian nation’s struggle for independence, he supported the demand of religious leaders that Muslims who adopted French citizenship should be denied burial in Muslim cemeteries on the grounds that acceptance of French citizenship constituted severance of their ties with the general community. He justified the socialist approach to economic questions that he adopted in the early 1960s as a return to the way of life followed by the Prophet Mohammed and his disciples, whose communal way of life was based on total economic sharing. Ataturk did not act in a similar fashion and, in certain respects, went much further than Bourguiba in the measures he undertook on religious issues in Turkey.
A major event related to the question of religion and state involves his struggle against the fast of Ramadan. Bourguiba was critical of the impact created by an entire month of fasting that, in his view, paralyzed the economy, seriously impaired industrial productivity and disrupted life in general in Tunisia. Here as well, the Tunisian president adopted a religious terminology to justify his call on Tunisia’s citizens to refrain from fasting during the month of Ramadan, claiming that the fast hampered the struggle (jihad, holy war) against poverty and for economic development as part of the central goal of economic independence for Tunisia. Hs even used the term fatwa (religious ruling) in the phrasing of his arguments against observance of the Muslim commandment to fast during Ramadan, which constitutes one of the five pillars of Islam. For an observant Muslim, this call to refrain from fasting was no light manner.
Bourguiba even went one step further in his campaign against fasting. He again called on Tunisians not to fast at a mass rally he organized in Tunis during Ramadan in 1960, publicly consuming a glass of orange juice in the early afternoon hours to make his point. It is hard to imagine any Arab or Muslim leader carrying out such an act today, and it is not surprising that the majority of Tunisia’s citizens did not obey the call of the Supreme Combatant, as he was often dubbed. Although they highly esteemed his efforts on behalf of Tunisia and agreed that development of the country’s economy required major efforts and headed the national agenda, refraining from observance of the fast was too extreme a measure for most Tunisians, who continued fasting during Ramadan. In this case, preserving tradition took precedence over their other considerations.
Opposition to Bourguiba’s religious policies increased with the rise of Islamist political groups and their transformation into a movement that, after several phases, adopted the name Ennahda (“renewal”). Referring to Tunisia’s social reality at the time, the movement’s leader, Rachid al-Ghannouchi, declared that he felt “an alien in my own country” because of the secularizing trends promoted by Bourguiba and Ben Ali. Nevertheless, unlike the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Ennahda never claimed it aspired to Tunisia’s transformation into a theocratic state. Over the years, its leaders repeatedly asserted their commitment to democracy (unlike Tunisia’s pre-2011 leaders) and to principles such as advancing the status of women in Tunisia.
Ben Ali’s regime brutally suppressed the movement; its leaders were either imprisoned or exiled. After Ben Ali was deposed, the movement gained considerable ground. It assumed a central place in Tunisian politics, enjoying extensive public support (whether because of identification with its ideas or because of the perception that this was a “pure” political party untainted by any association with the Ben Ali regime) that was not, however, overwhelming. The movement did not win an absolute majority in the Constituent Assembly elections in 2011 and was forced to set up a coalition government with secular parties. This coalition, which ruled the country until 2015, adopted a new constitution that dealt with the issue of religion and state. Ennahda also had to deal with a large secular opposition bloc that won the presidential and parliamentary elections after the constitution’s ratification. The slogans of the demonstrators who protested this year’s arrests and imprisonments – such as “Why does it bother you if I eat and smoke?” – attest to the fact that this opposition bloc has no intention of maintaining silence in the face of recent events. Tunisia’s political tradition will probably lead to compromise or a reduction of the tensions concerning religion. The main conclusion to be drawn from this protest is that, in Tunisia – like other states in North Africa, the Middle East and the West – the disputes over questions of religion and state – are still far from being resolved.
Dr. Daniel Zisenwine is a research fellow at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace. His research topics include modern North Africa’s political and social history. He is currently writing a book on the history of the Ben Ali regime.