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Tunisia debate turns personal: 'Pray more and turn down that Metallica'

Tensions between Tunisia's secularists and newly empowered Islamists are playing between brothers and sisters, mothers and daughters, as the country drafts a new constitution.

By Correspondent / April 19, 2012

Salafists protest against Nabil Karoui, the owner of Nessma, a Tunisian private television station, outside a court in Tunis April 19, 2012. Karoui is on trial for 'undermining' sacred Islamic values when his channel broadcast the animated film Persepolis, about Iran's 1979 revolution.

Anis Mili/Reuters

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Tunis, Tunisia

When her daughter began wearing the Islamic headscarf three years ago, Amel Bennajeh was so upset that she kicked the teenagers out of the house. They have since reconciled their relationship, but not their views.

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“I still don’t approve of her clothing,” says Mrs. Bennajeh, sunglasses perched on her coiffed hair. Her daughter, Rania Mkaddem, sits beside her, smiling patiently.

Their disagreement over Islamic dress mirrors a larger debate unleashed by revolution here last year that ended decades of dictatorship: Will the new Tunisia be a secular state, an Islamic one, or something in between?

That question underlies a trial hearing today for Nabil Karoui, a TV station owner accused of offending public morals and a recognized religion in October 2011, when his station aired the cartoon film “Persepolis.” The film includes a depiction of God, considered forbidden in Islam.

How Tunisians handle the debate over religion – particularly in the writing of a new constitution now under way – could offer lessons for other Arab countries such as Egypt and Libya, where popular uprisings have empowered Islamists long persecuted by autocratic regimes.

“At a time when we are looking to the Tunisian government to set an example by enshrining full respect for human rights in the country’s new constitution, it is disturbing to see this trial continuing,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, deputy director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa program.

“Prosecuting and convicting people on the basis of the peaceful expression of their views, even if some might find them offensive, is totally unacceptable and not what we would expect from the new Tunisia," she said. "It’s reminiscent of the violations of the ousted Ben Ali government and must stop.”

The sharia debate

Today in Tunisia, the moderate Islamist Ennahda party leads a coalition government with two secularist parties and dominates a national assembly that is tasked with writing the new constitution.

Debate has focused on whether that constitution should invoke the Islamic sharia, or “way” – roughly, the commandments and moral sense of the Quran.

Last month thousands of mainly conservative salafi Muslims marched in Tunis to demand sharia and denounce, in the words of one placard, “secularist dogs.”

The next day, Ennahda pledged to keep the first article of the current constitution, which cites Islam as Tunisia’s religion without referring to sharia. "Tunisia is a free, independent and sovereign state. Its religion is Islam, its language is Arabic and its type of government is the Republic," reads a translation provided by the University of Richmond in Virginia. 

 Secularist parties have welcomed the move.

“We’re in a transitional phase,” says Noureddine Arbaoui, a member of Ennahda’s executive bureau. “Tunisians must join together and make compromises for democratic transition to succeed.”

“We in Ennahda don’t want a religious state, but nor is our state secular,” he says. “We feel that the first article of the constitution is enough to meet people’s desire that Islam play a leading role in Tunisian life.”

However, the article invites interpretation, says Slim Laghmani, a law professor at Carthage University, near Tunis. He says that former presidents Habib Bourguiba and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali used it to justify a half-century of aggressive secularism.

Mr. Ben Ali, who ruled from 1987 until his ouster last year, outlawed Ennahda and jailed thousands of conservative Muslims after the party scored well in 1989 elections.

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