Tunisia’s governing Islamist party said it will not support making sharia, or Islamic law, the main source of legislation in a new constitution and will maintain the secular nature of the state.
Ennahda’s stance on an issue that has increasingly polarized the country since the January 2011 revolution was criticized by hardline Islamists who wanted full blown sharia but welcomed by secular parties.
Ennahda, which emerged as the biggest party after Tunisia’s first democratic elections last year, said on Monday it would keep the first article of the 1956 constitution in the new basic law now being drafted.
The article enshrines the separation of religion and state, stating that: “Tunisia is a free, independent and sovereign state, its religion is Islam, its language is Arabic and it is a republic.”
“We are not going to use the law to impose religion,” Rached Ghannouchi, leader of the moderate Islamist party, told a press conference.
Islam is Tunisia’s official religion and the constitution stipulates the president should be a Muslim but the state is largely secular.
Some had voiced concern that the Islamist party would seek to curb women’s rights and other liberties in an Arab country known for its progressive laws.
But Ghannouchi said Ennahda would not “introduce ambiguous definitions into the constitution that risk dividing the people”, adding that “many Tunisians do not have a clear image of sharia and erroneous practices in certain countries have aroused fear.”
The statement has angered Tunisia’s ultra-conservative Salafists, who have been pushing for sharia to be recognised as the main source of law.
At least 8,000 hardline Islamists staged a demonstration in central Tunis on Sunday to press their demands and Ennahda’s stance came as a disappointment Tuesday.
“This is a betrayal of all those who voted for this party ... and the principles of the Islamist movement,” Hechmi Haamdi of the hardline Islamist Al-Arydha movement told AFP.
Progressive Democratic Party member Meher Hanin, however, said the announcement had “lifted the ambiguity” on Sharia’s place in the law.
“This will allow us to advance in the writing of the constitution,” said Hanin, whose party is in parliamentary opposition.
“Ennahda has made clear declarations; the secular character of the state is maintained. Now it must honor those commitments,” he added.
Mohamed Bennour, spokesman of Ennahda’s governing coalition partner Ettakatol, the Islamist party’s decision bolstered national unity.
“We hope they will suit actions to words,” he said.
Ghannouchi, an Ennahda founding member, had in the 1970s called for strict application of sharia in Tunisia to restore order in a society he said had become depraved.
But he has toned down his discourse in recent years.
A Muslim majority of more than 90 percent has lived peacefully for years with religious minorities, including Jews.