Assembly Floor Erupts Over Constitution Article on Religion

By Robert Joyce | Jan 22 2014 Share on Linkedin Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share on Google Share on pinterest Print

Tags: article 6 ,Constitution ,Islam ,National Constituent Assembly (NCA) ,Religion
Ibrahim Kassas at the NCA, January 21, 2014. Image credit: Al Bawsala Facebook page.

Ibrahim Kassas at the NCA, January 21, 2014. Image credit: Al Bawsala Facebook page.

By Robert Joyce and Safa Ben Said

For the second night in a row, Tunisia's National Constituent Assembly (NCA) session ended in shouting and confusion.

On Tuesday night, NCA member Ibrahim Kassas stood from his chair and repeatedly shouted Allahu Akbar (God is great) before fainting.

Kassas, seen screaming in the video above, declined to comment to Tunisia Live.

Debate on Tuesday night centered around Article 6, which addresses the assembly's most controversial issue: the relationship between religion and the state. The measure was passed earlier this month by a large margin.

Article 6, as passed originally, says the state protects religion, guarantees freedom of belief and conscience and religious practices, protects sanctities, and ensures the neutrality of mosques and places of worship from partisan instrumentalisation. (Click for a full English translation of the draft constitution)

The text was then amended, however, on January 5 after a dispute between leftist member Monji Rahoui and Islamist member Habib Ellouz, with the latter calling Rahoui an enemy of Islam while on a radio program. Rahoui claimed the remark caused him to receive death threats. The assembly then amended Article 6 to include a ban on takfir, or accusing someone of being a nonbeliever, and as well as a ban on inciting violence.

The amendment was condemned by many religious conservatives, who sought a similar ban on insulting religion, moving lawmakers last night to suggest a compromise amendment, which would commit the state to protect sanctities from all assault and ban takfir and incitement to hatred and violence.

The deal was apparently not good enough for independent member Ibrahim Kassas, seen shouting in the video above.

The display in the assembly Tuesday night was a bad reaction to an agreement that needs more time, according to Osama Al Saghir, a member from the Islamist Ennahdha party. He said he supported the new formulation of Article 6.’

The assembly's debate comes as moves are reportedly being made to free Jabeur Mejri, sentenced to seven and a half years in March 2012 for cartoons he uploaded of the Prophet Mohammed.

Observers and civil society groups have warned that the simultaneous banning of takfir and assaults on the sacred threatens freedom of expression, elsewhere protected in the constitution. Assembly members, however, argued the measures were necessary.

I'm against any call for people to kill others. I'm against takfir because it's a call to kill, said Noomane Fehri, an NCA member with the Afek Tounes party. Fehri supported the compromise, calling assaults on the sacred similar invitations to violence. He blamed takfir for recent murders in Tunisia.

The killings of Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi were the direct result of takfir, Fehri told Tunisia Live, adding that the same went for attacks on security forces this year. The assassinations, he said, were the work of crazy religious entrepreneurs.

The crazy guys follow stupidly what the leaders say. This would ban the leaders from calling them to kill, he said. Protecting the sacred depended largely on the definition, he continued, which was limited to God, prophets, holy texts, and places of worship.

Takfir and insulting religion are not part of freedom of speech, Al Saghir said. It's not how we understand freedom of expression.

Al Saghir added that if someone wanted to criticize religion, for example by saying he or she did not believe in Islam or that what was said by the Prophet is false, that would be acceptable.

Neither member commented on whether Article 6 would allow for future cases like Mejri's. Fehri wanted the measure to be interpreted narrowly to prevent violence; Al Saghir did not speculate.

It's too early to say what Article 6 will do exactly. First, we need to finish the constitution and figure out how to put it into law.

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