Blasphemy, Freedom of Expression, and Tunisia’s Transition to Democracy

The transition to democracy currently underway in Tunisia is the most promising reform process taking place in the Arab region, two years after the mass protests of the spring of 2011. Progress towards securing basic rights and freedoms in a new Tunisia is an important goal in itself, but it would also have a beneficial impact elsewhere as a positive example that democratic change is achievable in a majority Muslim, Arab country. Conversely, if Tunisia’s transition were to stall then this would be a drag on hoped for human rights progress throughout the region.

Tunisia has much greater importance to American strategic interests than its relatively small size would suggest. Tunisia’s new constitution and its clauses relevant to the protection of human rights will set a precedent for democratic transition in the Arab world. Despite setbacks and challenges Tunisia is moving forward with its transition process in a relatively consensual non-violent manner that compares favorably with similar transitions elsewhere.

Whether and how blasphemy and other speech deemed offensive to religion or religious symbols is regulated in Tunisian law is a contentious issue in the transition process. Rights and freedoms would be threatened by any broadening or strengthening of laws criminalizing allegedly blasphemous speech and several such proposals have been made since the revolution that ousted former President Ben Ali.

Human Rights First visited Tunisia from March 28 to April 3, 2013 in order to explore the current state of the debate on blasphemy and freedom of expression in the country at a time when it is in the process of drafting a new constitution and considering legislative reforms in many areas to sweep away the authoritarian legacy of the Ben Ali years. We met with civil society activists, human rights defenders, Tunisian policy makers, officials at the U.S. embassy, academics, and others. We also presented our global findings and recommendations on blasphemy and human rights at a major international conference.   Also speaking were senior Tunisian political leaders including: Prime Minister Ali Laaryedh, Foreign Minister Othman Jerandi, President of the National Constituent Assembly (NCA) Moustafa Ben Jaafar, President of the Ennahdha Party Rached Ghannouchi and representatives of several other Tunisian political parties.

A positive aspect of Tunisia’s transition is the opportunity it has created for open debate about issues related to Islam and human rights, including the impact on human rights conditions of an Islamist political movement holding power. Thus, in the course of the visit, Human Rights First heard a variety of opinions on whether there was a need for legal penalties for insulting religion. Reflecting on the atmosphere of open debate, NCA President Ben Jaafar observed, “This week I felt that change is already here, at least in its initial stages.”  He said that he was drawn to this conclusion because he had heard ministers “speak frankly and admit to mistakes,” and heard government leaders “condemning political violence.”

Recommendations to the Tunisian Government

The Tunisian government should take the following steps to protect against violence, ensure freedom of expression, and promote responsible debate about religion, state policy, and law. The United States and the international community should consider these steps as benchmarks of progress in Tunisia’s transition.

  • Senior Tunisian officials should make clear public statements that violence is never an acceptable response to speech, before, during, and after such incidents.
  • Investigate and prosecute those responsible for violence in response to allegations of blasphemy.
  • Ensure that no laws are expanded to restrict freedom of speech in violation of international standards, including criminal or other penalties for blasphemy, insulting the sacred, defamation of religion, or similar offenses.
  • Ensure that the existing legal framework in Tunisia is not used to stifle free expression.
  • Ensure that any criminalization of speech is narrowly defined in law and precisely and consistently interpreted, to diminish the possibility of abuse.
  • Reduce the existing penalties attached to punishments for speech that does not incite violence.
  • Ensure that anyone charged with alleged blasphemy or insulting religion benefits from full legal protection and is able to be represented by a lawyer; take steps where necessary to protect such lawyers from intimidation and harassment.
  • Ensure that any judicial proceedings in cases related to blasphemy are not influenced by mob violence, including providing protection when necessary to judges, lawyers, law enforcement officials, and journalists reporting on such cases.
  • Protect and secure all those whose lives are threatened and endangered on account of blasphemy–– including defenders of those accused of blasphemy as well as parliamentarians, government officials, lawyers, and journalists who speak out against it.
  • Ensure that the media can freely report on debates surrounding blasphemy, as well as individual cases, without suffering from pressure, censorship, or intimidation.
  • Encourage nonviolent repudiation and rebuttal of speech deemed offensive or blasphemous by some, without resorting to criminal sanctions.
  • Invite international experts to provide legal expertise to the relevant bodies in government, as well as the Tunisian lawmakers and members of the Constituent Assembly and the future parliament, on issues relating to the legal implications of blasphemy, freedom of speech, and their importance to securing Tunisia’s peaceful transition to democracy.

U.S. Policy and Recommendations for the U.S. Government

There appears to be a lack of urgency in the U.S. government’s policy response to the seismic changes underway in Tunisia. In low-key remarks at the CSID conference, U.S. Ambassador Jacob Walles announced that the U.S. government was providing a total of $350 million in aid for Tunisia’s transition for the three years after 2011. In contrast, the German ambassador stated that Germany is providing 250 million euros per year in bilateral assistance (more than twice the U.S. contribution), in addition to its contributions to substantial European Union economic support programs. Moreover, the activists we spoke with seemed unaware of support the U.S. government is giving to advance human rights and democracy. Part of this may be attributable to the severe understaffing of the embassy in the aftermath of the September 2012 attack. However, by now the context in which the attack took place should be fully understood and the threat to Americans or American interests in Tunisia is surely much lower than in many other countries where the U.S government operates fully-staffed diplomatic missions. Restoring full capacity to the embassy, especially in its efforts to promote peaceful democratic transition and economic development, should be a priority.

Even if there is skepticism about the power of Tunisia’s example, as Ambassador Walles suggested in his remarks to the conference, when he said that “Tunisia was not a model for anyone” there should be no doubt about the high strategic cost of failure.  The alternatives to successful democratic transition are unpalatable to the United States.  There can be no return to the authoritarian order of the past, while a failing state that became increasingly lawless and unstable and that failed to sustain sufficient economic activity to support its population would result in economic, security and other challenges that could be extremely costly to contain.  Tunisia offers a realistic prospect of a successful democratic transition and the U.S. government would be well advised to support this outcome more vigorously.

The German government, in particular, has made a strategic choice to invest in the success of Tunisia’s democratic transition and, perhaps, stands to benefit economically in the future from expanded trade and sales of German goods. However, Germany’s strategic calculation to make Tunisia its single largest recipient of bilateral assistance was driven by concern over the negative implications of the possible collapse of transition processes in Tunisia and elsewhere in North Africa. Similar concerns should invigorate U.S. policies towards supporting democratic transitions in Tunisia and elsewhere at a time when these countries are in need of economic support.

Civil society activists we spoke with would welcome support from the U.S. government for strong legal protections for basic rights and freedoms and for the work of civil society organizations active in a range of human rights fields.  The U.S. government is not regarded with the level of suspicion and hostility that it faces in some other countries in the region.  There is an opportunity for the U.S. government to promote universal values of human rights in Tunisia and it should be doing more to take advantage of that opportunity.

  • The U.S. government should renew and reinvigorate its commitment to promoting and supporting a peaceful democratic transition in Tunisia. To that end, the embassy should be restored to full strength and emphasis given to implementing programs that support human rights and democracy.
  • In addition to providing necessary economic support and other technical assistance that the U.S. government is able to give, the U.S. government should make clear the importance it attaches to securing clear legal protections for basic freedoms in Tunisia’s new constitution and revised laws.
  • The U.S. government should emphasize that the issue of potential restrictions on speech and expression in accordance with religious precepts is of great importance to the success of the transition.  While Tunisia should be commended for the progress it has made to date in forming a functional coalition government involving secular and religious parties and in openly debating and negotiating the legal framework that will govern a new Tunisia, the concern that an Islamist party in power will use religion to stifle dissent, discredit its political opponents, and to constrain the rights and freedoms of the people remains.
  • The U.S. Embassy in Tunisia website and the Fact Sheet describing U.S. assistance to Tunisia that is currently distributed by embassy staff gives very little priority to the issue of promoting and protecting basic rights and freedoms.  This omission should be rectified so that U.S. policy could much more directly address the anxieties felt by many in Tunisia, and by others who may be considering investing or doing business in Tunisia, that a majority Islamist government could be harmful for the climate of respect for human rights in the country.
  • The U.S. government should be much more visibly making the case to the Tunisian government that improving legal safeguards for basic rights and freedoms will improve Tunisia’s prospects for achieving a successful transition.

Published on May 7, 2013


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