Since the departure of President Zine al-Abidin Ben Ali from Tunisia on January 14, polarization has been growing between “Islamists” and “secularists.” No Islamist or secularist slogans were heard during the uprisings, which were described in Tunisia and abroad as uniting all political trends in Tunisian society and as being “secular.” Ajmi Lourimi, a member of the Political Bureau of al-Nahdha, the main Islamist political party, told me on June 9, 2011, that the revolution was a secular revolution. Not a secularist revolution, but secular in the sense that it was neither Islamist nor secularist. Indeed, the Islamists participated in the uprisings, but kept a low profile, a strategic decision driven by their fear of being used as a pretext for repression. The revolution, whose roots were socio-economic, was also a reaction against authoritarianism and corruption and as such united Tunisians from all walks of society.

However, months after January 14, while Tunisians have started to register for the elections of the constituent assembly that will take place on October 23, 2011, the old rift between “secularists” and “Islamists” has deepened. Each camp seems more entrenched every day and fights against the other through the written press, as well as the audiovisual and electronic media. Mutual accusations are regularly launched: Islamists accuse secularists of trying to impose their own views on their fellow Tunisians, in particular through the High Committee for the Realization of the Objectives of the Revolution, the Political Reform, and Democratic Transition. Deep tensions have opposed the few High Committee members who belong to al-Nahdha and the High Committee’s president Yadh Ben Achour. Al-Nahdha has accused him of being partial to the secularist members of the Committee and of trying to impose a secularist agenda on the Committee’s deliberations. Secularists have in turn accused the Islamists of not being real democrats, clamoring that they use a “double language.” For the secularists, al-Nahdha’s representatives speak the language of human rights and democracy in the media but adopt a much more radical stance with their own electoral base. They are suspected of aiming to put into question the rights of Tunisian women through a revision of the Personal Status Code, which they have often denied.

The polarization is taking so much space in public debates that it could endanger public peace and the political transition itself. The members of al-Nahdha announced their withdrawal from the High Committee on June 27, 2011 and have not come back despite the efforts of some mediators such as Justice Mokhtar Yahyaoui to negotiate an agreement. Al-Nahdha continues to denounce the lack of representativeness of the High Committee–the Islamists being a minority–and the High Committee’s absence of legitimacy, since it was not elected but was instead put together in an ad hoc and protracted process that started right before the departure of former President Ben Ali. According to Ghannushi, leader of the Nahdha party, the High Committee overextended its role by acting as a parliament and by drafting laws that should have been the responsibility of the upcoming elected parliament. However, al-Nahdha’s criticism of the committee goes beyond procedural issues. According to some analysts, it was the drafting of a law on the financing of political parties prohibiting any foreign funding that provoked the ire of al-Nahdha. Whatever the explanation is, there is a fear, among secularists and Islamists alike, that a political transition will not take place if the gap between these two camps is too wide and is politically instrumentalized.

The debate has gone beyond the High Committee and al-Nahdha, with issues emerging around the arts–a movie (titled Neither master nor God) showing was violently disrupted by Salafists in Tunis recently—and the need to protect “the sacred values” of society. A collective of imams has sent a letter to the prime minister to request a criminalization of any attack against “sacred values.” This atmosphere of mutual suspicion and fear related to the role of Islam in society is not new and not restricted to Tunisia. It begs the question of the limits that a society might assign to its freedoms, and of who defines them following what procedures: after all, all secular liberal democracies have their own “sacred values,” even if they are not necessarily religious. One can envision that article 1 of the old 1959 constitution will be reasserted in the new constitution: “Tunisia is a free, independent and sovereign state. Its language is Arabic and its religion is Islam. Its regime is a Republic.” This seems to be the only statement on which secularists and Islamists agree on. There remains to be seen how they will interpret the statement that “the religion of the state is Islam.” For Ajmi Lourimi, who articulated a minimalist interpretation of the article when we met on June 9, article 1 simply describes the identity of the majority of Tunisians. It is not certain that all al-Nahdha representatives think in these terms, and it will be interesting to observe the internal differences of interpretation as they emerge over time.

What is sure is that the principle of a religious establishment will carry on in the “new state,” an expression I often heard in Tunisia recently. The exact extent of that establishment will have to be determined. The good news is that after more than 50 years of a foreclosed space for public deliberations, Islamists and secularists now express themselves openly on the question, even if not always clearly. These contentions around religion signal that the electoral campaign has already started –despite the fact that it does not officially start until October 1st, 2011- and that we can expect cultural wars to play a deep part in it.

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