When the Arab revolutions sprung forth from Tunisia on January 14, 2011, spreading through Egypt, Yemen, and Libya, the slogans from the crowds called for freedom and dignity. But in Tunisia, once the Islamist Ennahdha party rose to power, it tried to replace revolutionary slogans of freedom with slogans of identity.
In the opinion of Tunisia’s Islamists, the freedoms of press, demonstration, expression, belief, and women’s rights should not conflict with the country’s identity, moral values, and the sacred in general. But the question to be asked is: Who determines these moral values? What is the relationship between freedom and sanctity? What identity do we choose for our communities? Is it a modern identity or an identity of the Muslim Brotherhood or Salafist?
The freedom of the media in Tunisia was the first freedom to be targeted by the Ennahdha party. The Islamists want to make the public media a government-controlled media. When Tunisian journalists refused to abandon their professionalism and neutralism, Islamists thus called them part of a ‘media of shame.’
Ennahdha and its allies set up a sit-in tent in front of the public television station’s headquarters for more than a month to protest and condemn those who work in the company. Scuffles took place between government supporters and journalists. One of the Ennahdha members in the National Constituent Assembly stormed the station’s headquarters and threatened the employees because they did not ally themselves with the ruling party’s policies, especially regarding the media sector. The journalists, however, refused to adapt to any political party. This action forced the Ennahdha-controlled government to accept the independence of the media.
The concept of blasphemy has also been a focus of this struggle over freedom and religion. Islamists have also tried to insert articles in the draft constitution criminalizing blasphemy. The Tunisian political elite, as well as intellectuals and journalists, fought against this project and forced Ennahdha to abandon this effort. Ennahdha altered their tactic by choosing to empower the judiciary, not the government, to decide on the issue of blasphemy.
The Islamist takeover of the mosques and the imposition of a particular style of religious discourse was also considered, by the opposition, a violation of the sanctity and neutrality of mosques frequented by Muslims of all sects. This would limit the freedom of religious discourse. It is noticeable that since the revolution, the Islamists took control of the mosques and divided them with various types of Salafists, including both reformists and jihadists.
Ennahdha’s approach to Salafism has been problematic. Ennahdha leader Rached Ghannouchi said: “Salafists are our sons and they did not come from Mars. We must engage them in dialogue.” The government’s policy aims to give more freedom of activity for Salafists. In addition, Ennahda did not seriously negotiate with them and could not mitigate their radical ideas. The result was the development of terrorism in Tunisia.
We find on the Internet videos that embody the soft handling of Salafists by Ennahdha. In one, for instance, Ennahdha leader Rached Ghannouchi urged Salafists to exploit the Ennahda Movement’s rise to power to establish their own schools, universities, and other Salafist institutions. Those videos have created a sensation amongst the Tunisian public.
Islamic parties see freedom as being limited to advancing their call own to religion. In their opinion, freedom is bound by what to them is a religious truth. They want to influence the thoughts of those they consider insufficiently religious in order to prevent the spread of infidelity.
The mistake of the Islamists in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya is the confusion between the concepts of ‘religion’ and ‘religiosity.’ Freedom of belief naturally leads to freedom of religion, but this is rejected by the Islamists because they want to impose a particular form of religiosity, their version of Islam.
The concept of freedom and responsibility for the Islamic parties in Arab Spring countries more broadly is a loose one because, first, it does not keep a distance between the religious arena and the political area. Second, it confuses freedom of cultural creativity with an interpretation of the sacred that in truth varies from one group to another. The absence of a unified scientific vision of the concept of freedom and responsibility was one of the factors that led political Islam to a severe structural crisis in the Arab Spring countries.
There is a difference between Islam and Islamism in defining the concept of freedom and responsibility. Islam as a religion guarantees freedom as a universal value, and connects the idea of responsibility with achieving freedom. In other words, it does not accept restrictive freedom for the sake of responsibility. The greatest freedom allowed by Islam is the freedom of belief through the Quran verse, “let him believe and whoever wishes, let him disbelieve,” and freedom of diversity in the Quran verse, “and still different … so he created them,” and freedom of communication and openness to the other through the Quran verse “and made you into nations and tribes.”
Thus, Islam is a religion that guarantees freedom and makes it a universal value. That is why we say that Islam corresponds, in essence, with democracy and freedom. Islamism, however, is a political doctrine that has a specific interpretation of a religious text and sometimes a special, arbitrary interpretation of the concept of freedom enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Freedom and responsibility are at the heart of establishing democratic conditions in the countries of the Arab Spring that did not materialize in the first phase of the 2011 revolution. Will it now be achieved in the period we are calling the ‘corrective revolution?’
Dr. Alaya Allani is a history professor at Manouba University. This post reflects the opinion of the author and not of Tunisia Live as a publication.