Tunisian Islam or Civil Islam

by Hélé Béji

Translations from French by Jorge A. Rodríguez Solórzano

Ancient Roman columns in Islamic hypostyle hall. The Prayer hall of the Great Mosque of Kairouan, Tunisia. Vintage postcard.

Ancient Roman columns in Islamic hypostyle hall. The Prayer hall of the Great Mosque of Kairouan, Tunisia. Vintage postcard.

Read other essays by Hele Beji with Khabar Keslan’s accompanying text.

A speech by Hélé Béji on April 9, 2015

I will discuss [1] Islam as a metaphor for the return of the religious in politics. Not as an exception, but as an emerging force in an epoch that had held the illusion of abolishing it. The Tunisian Revolution has incarnated it, not as an aftereffect of the past, but as the symptom of something yet to come, like an experience of freedom.

The uniqueness of this story emerges from its stupefying, oftentimes terrifying circumstances. But the spirit that traverses it touches on sovereign reason. Once more, the people become the source of collective inspiration, not “in spite of the fact that they are Muslims,” but “because they are Muslims.”

I will not revisit here the steps that gave the Ennahda Party, after its post-revolutionary victory in 2011, a hegemonic position within the State and society.

Our ears are still tympanized by murky sermons, menaces of damnation, calls to murder and their becoming actions, everything that, for public opinion, has predetermined the crimes presaged by the speakers in the minarets. This violent proselytizing shocked the people, like the stigmatization of the intimate faith of each individual, of a personal, civil Islam. It has nourished the psychosis of a hidden agenda of Islamists, working behind the democratic mask toward the liquidation of democracy.

The popular response against the fascist violence perpetrated in the name of religion was massive, the visceral reject of all kinds of sacred dictatorships in the name of God that culminated in the tragic divorce with Islamism during the assassinations of intellectuals and militaries, to the point of pushing Ennahda to its capitulation and exit from the government.

I recall that Bourguiba saw in Islamism the ruin of national identity, the death of the nation state. The Islamic allegiance revealed a radical principle of anarchy and disloyalty. Following the example of French monarchs who consecrated the modern nation through the separation of Church and State (we know that, in the Middle Ages, the allegiance of men was Christian before being French), Bourguiba established the Republic as the sole possessor of political legitimacy against the religious magisterium.

The revolution of January 14 disrupted this plan. It introduced in the national vision the democratic desire, where the Islamist conscience was henceforth admitted to the empire of political rights after having been sacrificed in the first republic to the nationalism of the State.

A question: will political Islam be included without endangering the nation? Will national right have the reason of divine right? Will the religious allegiance annihilate citizenship? These questions largely surpass the Tunisian framework.

Tunisians have started to answer to these. Islamism has not dislocated the nation. Their coming to power will have been, on the contrary, their learning. Rough school of responsibility that exercises the party in public matters. Facing the immense challenges of unemployment, of poverty, of unclaimed regions, declining schooling, aggravated by the blunders of a novice clergy State, the disillusionment was brutal. Citizens were upset that the Holy Book would be a lever for political ascension and of governmental carelessness at the service of a new nomenklatura that, three years under the hallows of the Republic, no longer distinguished the figures of the old regime from which it inherited scorned privileges while it hastened to profit from them.

Their mistake pushed them toward distressing revisions. One of their fatal errors was to underestimate the rooting of national sentiment and its role in the Tunisian Revolution. They saw in the uprising of 2011 nothing but a break with the dictatorship, while national momentum came back to life in the freedom movement in the aftermath of Tunisian modernity. They scorned the preceding genius of Bourguiba, his vision of a civil State that prepared the exemplary revolution of January 14. They ignored the great lesson of Tunisian reformism. This was their heel of Achilles.

Tocqueville[2] has shown us how the French revolution was also the work of the Ancien Regime, how much the centralization of the French state, attributed by contemporaries to the genius of the French Revolution, had been the slow work of the absolute monarchy since the fourteenth century. The work of the Revolution was to a great degree already accomplished by the Ancien Regime. Tunisia lived something of the same order.

Yet, all revolutionary discourse that wants to do away with history becomes a tyranny. In neglecting history, Islamists appeared as the dictators of a new empire: not the Western empire, but the Oriental one. Religious supervision has been no more supported than colonial supervision. The country saw itself disenfranchised of its sovereignty by “foreigners,” the “anti-patriots,” the “uprooted ones.” Hence, Bourguibism was awakened. 

The most notable fact is that the Islamists accepted their failure, consented to their disgrace. They resigned themselves to letting go of their power even before the new elections ratified their defeat in 2014. Facing the searing recovery of nationalism, they have gotten pretty good at the art of adaptation, of forfeiture, taken captive by the patriotic wave that gathered more broadly than the religious party.

Facing this unexpected reversal, the Ennahda Party has operated an aggiornamento that is appropriate for Muslims outside as well as inside Europe: the one of having understood, under the pressure of national forces that beat them through the ballot, that it was time to “nationalize” Islam. This conversion of a sacred doctrine into a national conscience is, for Tunisian Islam, the dawn of its reform: The Islamo-national reform. Political reason, then, began to prevail over religious passion.

Bit by bit, the tragic incompatibility between “modernists” and “Islamists” turned into a reciprocal taming. Even yesterday in Bardo place, one would throw curses from each side of the barbed wire, ready to attack. Today, the Spartans of Religion and of the Nation sit in the same government, sing the national hymn together before the Assembly and swear in unison that they will wage a war without pity against military Islam.

Béji Caïd Essebsi and Rached Ghannouchi, the tenors from two adversary armies, join their venerable fronts in great accolades. On the television chat shows, the bearded ones took an affable and cheerful air. The “moderns” peppered their statements with blessed citations. The imams abandoned their clerical gravity for the banter of intellectuals. They focus their zeal to recite the oracles of the Constitution, while the academics are happy to repeat some verses from the Qur’an. Each one of them lends the other his convert mask. The word “sharia” has disappeared from their discourses and disputes. It is a new revolution!           

In trying to find a compromise and a way of sharing power, Tunisians conceived their democracy as an original model. Maybe the only means to subordinate religion to the authority of the nation by right and not by force. It was a difficult choice, but a just one. One must dare to take the risk of trust.

Associating the Islamist party to power is smarter than leaving to it the field of opposition that offers a sound box to all discontents. Upon the first failure of the modernists, Islamism will find its advantage again. The classical schema of an opposition between nationalism and Islamism alternatingly disputing the State would be fatal for civil peace.

But above everything, the Tunisian compromise between Islamists and “modernists” is explained by the fact that Islam is not a simple political opinion, but the moral and spiritual foundation of this society, full of reminiscences, ritual courtesies, pious practices, and sacred proverbs. Having defeated Ennahda in the elections does not mean that Islam has lost its prominence in the public opinion. It is a minority politically, but it remains a majority culturally.

Let’s not forget that the spirit of the Tunisian revolution did not free itself from the popular faith, with as much philosophical force as the French Revolution (Tocqueville).[2] Tunisian modernity did not rid itself from a piousness that nourished conducts, the control of the self, inner tranquility, the cult of one’s own people and trust in others. Spiritual indifference does not exist. What one calls individualism in our region is not the same as it is in Europe. The individual is not proud of his metaphysical solitude, does not abuse of being his own founder. His freedom, similar to that of the Westerner, differs from it in one respect, which is that of size: freedom has no reality without the presence of God.

Certainly, democracy is founded on the principle of division. This paradoxical society draws from its tensions the creativity and alternation through which it renews its elites. But when religious formations enter into the arena, the debate demands more concessions and fewer partisan bids than in countries in which culture is freed from clerical intimidation, where faith is withdrawn to the secret of conscience, and where routinely disputes between right and left are played without the risk of life and death. The decline of churches in Europe has produced a confessional skepticism that is a moral force against fanaticism.

But is that always the case? The religious wars, fallen into oblivion, are they not awakened in the fanaticism of a bygone era, in France where one goes back to killing free thinkers like in the ages of the Inquisition? Even here where the safeguard of the separation of Church and State seemed invincible, it fissures itself under the earthquake of the jihadist church in the nightmare of Charlie Hebdo.

We know that French democracy has not found the link between Islam and secularism like it did with Christians and Jews. But Tunisia has maybe opened a passage. If despite their initial disagreement, Tunisian Islamism builds with the nationalists the story of a shared motherland, we will live a moral breakthrough that will not only be our own, but will be worth it for all those undergoing Islamic violence. Tunisia holds a key that can make of the Muslim a democrat in his nation. It draws the possibility of a “civil” Islam, a variant of the national spirit against Jihadism.

This singularity remains misunderstood by Western democracies, the genesis of which occurred in the decline of the religious, not in its reviving vitality. Yet, the Islamist does not define himself only as a man that fights against modern liberties, but in the name of modern liberties: Islam lives freedom as its new possibility of coming into modernity.

I will conclude with a word on the ceremony of the tragedy of the terrorist attacks in the Bardo Museum. The entire world followed the homage for the victims of terrorism, mostly tourists, and the heroic bravery of the museum guides and the intervention brigades that saved many lives. But I will focus on one scene that took place unnoticed. Unbelievable acts of greatness surface when all seems lost.

In the entry hall of the museum, at the foot of the giant mosaic depicting Neptune in his horse chariot bouncing on the waves, adorned with medallions representing the nude Nereids on sea monsters and the siren-birds, Tunisian singers offered the guests an extraordinary spectacle. Seated under the Triumph of Neptune (the name of the mosaic), in a ritual stance enhanced by their gowns and their silky turbans, they chanted sacred melodies that seemed to elevate themselves toward the god of the ocean, as if Neptune listened to them with delight while calming the elements under his trident.

Here is how Islam, the raison d’être of which was that of having defeated idolatry, celebrates the gods of Olympus, makes an homage to Rome and Carthage, to the Punic, Greek, and Latin genius. In offering a hymn shining with splendors of ancient culture, monotheism no longer condemns paganism. On the contrary, Neptune, the god of the seas and of the earth, is celebrated as an ancestor by the descendants of the prophet. Islam is an odyssey of human history and no longer its total representation. It knows that it is not at the origin of everything, that an antiquity precedes it in the depth of time, the inexhaustible past of a common human condition, a supplement of an origin that opens the infinite creation of the origin.

But the highlight of the spectacle was the presence of the entirety of Islamist leaders coming together in this apotheosis of syncretism against fanaticism, where pious choristers resuscitated the Triumph of Neptune through their passion for the beautiful in concert with the beatitude of their faith.

After the sepulchral horror of the massacre, the beauty of bodies designed with sintered glass, coral and granite made the images of life in the nymphs’ medallions glisten as if animated by the virile purity of voices. Tunisian Islam has put its humanity to music in accord with the mythological poem. Ancient inspiration married the sweetness of Revelation. The Muslim no longer has to break the work of art in order to elevate himself toward god and his faith no longer has to disavow itself in order to magnify the work. The Bardo Museum opened the pages of the uncreated Book in the vast tableau of objects created by art, life and nature. The frescoes in the Bardo, uplifted by the grace of the religious hymn, sealed together the oath of the cult of life against death that Tunisian Islam offered on that day to the human race.

[1] Text delivered for the occasion Political Islam: The End or the Beginning of a World? organized by the Arab World Institute and the Academy of Latinity, François l’Yvonnet (philosopher) and Candido Mendes (Academy of Latinity). Participants: François Burgat (director of research of NCSR), Jean-Pierre Filiu, professor at Science Po (Paris), Hélé Béji, Nilüfer Göle (Director of Studies at l’EHESS), Michel Wieviorka (sociologist), Sabah Abouessalam (sociologist, Rabat), Régis Debray (philosopher), Edgar Morin (philosopher), Farhad Khosrokhavar (sociologist), Alain Touraine (director of studies at l’EHESS), April 9, 2015.
[2] Cf. Tocqueville, L’Ancien régime et la Révolution.
[3] Tocqueville: Nowhere yet had irreligion become a general passion, ardent, intolerant, and oppressive, if it was not in France. P. 486 … In France one attacked the Christian religion with a kind of fury, without even attempting to replace it with another religion. One worked ardently and continuously to remove from all souls the faith that had filled them, and left them empty … pg. 487. [my translation]

Hélé Béji was born in 1948 in the city of Tunis (Tunisia) and grew up in a family (Ben Ammar) who took part in the struggle for Independence from French colonialism. She is published widely in Tunisia and France. These days, Hele is a member of the executive Committee of Tunisie Alternatives, Tunisia Alternatives, and Think and Do. She is also the current president of the College International de Tunis, an NGO she founded in 1998.

Jorge A. Rodríguez Solórzano is a writer, translator and chief editor of the forthcoming literature journal Moly. His translation work has appeared in Khabar Keslan and Angelaki Journal of the Theoretical Humanities. Jorge’s interest in postcolonial history and thought originated at Reed College, where he majored in French and Francophone Literature. He is currently based in Los Angeles.