At an event last week in Washington D.C. Rached Ghannouchi, President of the Islamist Nahdha, the largest party in Tunisia’s elected Constituent Assembly, made the case that Tunisia is a model for demonstrating that democratic governance and Islam can successfully coexist. Although he didn’t use of the term “liberal democracy” when referring to democratic values, his words implied that the Tunisian government led by his party will uphold citizens’ legal guarantees for basic rights and freedoms.
He discussed the secular notion of citizenship and how it can coexist within the religious context of Muslim nationhood.
Ghannouchi was once banned from the United States, and he now chooses his words carefully to emphasize the importance of national unity and political consensus in Tunisia, particularly between secularists and Islamists.
Tunisians are close to achieving an important landmark since the 2011 uprising; legislators are weeks away from adopting a new Constitution which will lead the country to its new path of democratic governance.
But challenges remain. One key aspect of any transition to democracy is the extent to which basic rights, such as freedom of speech, are protected in law and practice. Tunisian civil society groups have called for the removal of Article 124 of the draft Constitution, which establishes a regulatory board for the media sector that could pave the way to government censorship.Another matter of concern for civil society is speech dealing with religion or religious symbols, which may be subject to criminal sanctions. There have been proposals to strengthen laws against insulting the sacred during the next parliament.
I attended last week’s event organized by the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy and asked Ghannouchi what his thoughts were about the controversial topic of free speech and blasphemy. Blasphemy laws empower extremists, who seek to restrict debate and dissent and who use allegations of blasphemy to incite violence. They empower state authorities at the expense of citizens to restrict free speech and freedom of religion.
Initially, the Nahda party had proposed to insert a clause to criminalize blasphemy in the draft Constitution. According to that proposal, anyone accused of insulting religion or attacking the sacred could have faced a two-year prison term for first-time offenders and a four-year term for repeat offenders. In October 2012, the proposal was dropped following negotiations between the three parties in Tunisia’s ruling coalition.
Dropping this blasphemy clause from the new Constitution was a positive step, as the clause would have increased the religious and ideological polarization of Tunisian society.
So what does Tunisia’s most influential religious political leader think about blasphemy? In his view, does insulting religion require criminal sanctions?
Ghannouchi cleared his throat, stared at the camera and spoke in clear English. To the surprise of many in the audience, he stated slowly:
“Blasphemy is not a crime. Freedom of choice is very clear in the Qu’ran; it says ‘let there be no compulsion in religion.”
It was perhaps the first time that Ghannouchi had stated publicly that blasphemy is not a crime. If it wasn’t the first time, then his message was crystal-clear. It resonated across the room.
Human Rights First supports this statement because:
- There has been a worrying rise of blasphemy cases since the Tunisian uprising, with incidents of violence linked to allegations of blasphemy or “harm to public order and to public morals,” prohibited under existing articles 121(3) and 226 of the penal code. No single incident raised more attention to the threat presented by this type of violence than the attack on the U.S. embassy in Tunis in September 2012. You can read more about this in our report “Blasphemy, Freedom of Expression and Tunisia’s Transition to Democracy.”
- The state’s role is to protect basic rights and freedoms, not to snatch them away. Those include: freedom of speech, freedom of expression and freedom of thought, conscience and religion. Tunisia’s Constitution must enshrine these liberties. Freedom of the press should be similarly guaranteed.
- Ghannouchi’s statement sets a tone that can help protect freedom of expression in Tunisia. It provides clarity for all –from the top levels of government to law-enforcement officials, judges, lawyers, journalists and free speech activists, that speech deemed “blasphemous” should not be restricted by criminal prosecution, or by public pressure for such prosecutions.
If legal restrictions of speech alleged to be blasphemous were to be removed from its Penal Code, and freedom of the press guaranteed in its future Constitution, Tunisia would protect itself from the dangers of polarization and violent incitement by extremists that still threaten the transition.