State and Religion


The Arab uprisings have brought the Islamists to power in places such as Tunisia, Egypt, and Morocco. In Tunisia and Egypt, religious institutions are taking on more public significance. Al-Azhar, already present in the public sphere under Mubarak, has engaged with political questions about democracy, the constitution and fundamental rights after the resignation of Mubarak. In Tunisia, al-Zaytuna has not taken on an obvious political role yet. This is because it was reduced under Bourguiba and Ben Ali to a small institution of higher learning, separated from the Zaytuna mosque, and tightly put under the grip of the regime. In post-colonial times, Al-Zaytuna was prevented from playing a political role, even in the service of the authoritarian state, and its educational role was also limited by the regimes of Bourguiba and Ben Ali. Therefore, it could not acquire the political leverage that I showed al-Azhar had gained after the 1970s in my book Gardiens de l’Islam (1996).

However, more than a year after the revolution of January 14, 2011, the Zaytuna mosque is slowly re emerging by taking on the challenge of teaching.

Responding to a complaint filed by a group of lawyers, the court of first instance in Tunis ordered on March 19, 2012 to unseal the administrative offices of the “hay’a ‘ilmiyya” (the scientific committee) in the Zaytuna mosque. The offices had been sealed since Bourguiba’s time. These lawyers are linked to the association “Friends and alumni of the Zaytuna Mosque.” As shown in this case, as well as in the case of the trial against the director of NessmaTV for the broadcast of the Persepolis movie, courts and litigations are playing an important part in the politics of post-revolution Tunisia.

As a result, on March 31, 2012  the doors of the administrative offices of the scientific committee in the Zaytuna mosque in the old city of Tunis were unsealed. This was done on the basis of the court order and of a document signed by the current government of Hammadi Jebali and the shaykh of the Zaytuna mosque, Houcine Laabidi.

On May 12, 2012, the reopening was celebrated in a ceremony in which Rashid Ghannushi, the leader of the Islamist Nahdha party, the minister of religious affairs Noureddine Khadmi, and the ministers of higher education and education were present. The government is therefore showing support for the project, but does not seem to want to make the mosque a state administered teaching institution or to be involved in the devising of the curricula. The Zaytuna mosque will offer a four year education track for graduates of primary schools and a baccalaureate that will lead to higher studies at the Zaytuna. Boys and girls will be separated. The boys will study at the Zaytuna mosque and the girls at the close-by mosque Sidi Youssef. But the government, led by a coalition between the Islamist party al-Nahdha and two center left parties, did not initiate the project. Rashed al-Ghannushi evoked his years of learning at the Zaytuna in the 1950s and reminded the audience that modern sciences and Islam were taught together without contradicting each other. For him, it was in the post colonial period that a policy of marginalization and silencing (insilākh) made modernism and Islam contradictory. After the revolution, he added, Tunisians are reconciling with their past history.

Indeed, Bourguiba put an end to Zaytuna’s primary and secondary teaching in 1958, two years after the independence of Tunisia. The Zaytuna higher teaching (in the mosque and beyond it, for instance in the provincial annexes of the mosque) was replaced by a small faculty of theology in the Faculty of letters in Tunis. A whole world, with its culture and traditions were ended by the Bourguibian project of unification and reform of education. The post-colonial reforms were prolonging a long period of colonial transformations of education in Tunisia, which saw the emergence of new schools that were intended to produce new elites at the service of the modern administration.

Bourguiba’s policy was very badly taken by traditional elites, the Zaytunis, students and ulama who had played a role in the nationalist struggle against the French occupier. For Bourguiba, Zaytuni education was backward, and it was necessary to control it and “rationalize” it in order to make it “modern.”

After 1987, Ben Ali continued the same policy, accusing Zaytuna’s graduates of disseminating Islamist ideology in the public schools, where many of them taught religious education. The Zaytuna University, which was co-educational, was censored like all the other Tunisian institutions of education. Its library was emptied of any books that could become politically subversive. A rationalist and liberal interpretation of Islam was imposed to faculty and students. Therefore, the post-revolution teaching project is presented by its proponents as a reversal of the politics of tajfīf al-manābi’ (the policy of drying up the sources of religion). Doubtful commentators recently asked if the new Zaytuna project will help Tunisia improve its ranking at 6700 in the Shanghai academic ranking of world universities. However, the reopening of teaching in the Zaytuna mosque is first and foremost presented as a religious, moral, and cultural enterprise that should reinforce the Islamic and Arab identity of Tunisians. Hopefully, the freedoms that have developed since January 14, 2011 will allow for rigorous intellectual debates on the content of religious education and for a plurality of styles of teaching and interpretations, unless the rift between the secularists and the Islamists continues to overwhelm post-revolution politics.

It is striking that the revival of teaching in the Zaytuna mosque is not the result of government policy making but originates from the mobilization of civil society groups who use the courts of law to change the culture of their society. In addition, it seems that those at the origin of this new project do not call for the help or the control of the state. They have appealed to private donations, and the daily newspaper La Presse of May 8, 2012 reports that around 800 boys and 300 girls have already registered. There seems to be an ambitious project that echoes Nasser’s vision of Islamic education in the Azharite primary and secondary institutes in Egypt: an Islamic teaching founded on a combination of religious and secular subjects, to prepare for any professional field.

It is too early to say if and how the project will take shape, but it is worth noting that religious education has flourished after the revolution, especially for primary and secondary schooling. One question that begs to be answered is if and how the state will regulate these new initiatives. The Zaytuna university, still administered by the state, and situated on the outskirts of the Southwestern part of the old city where the Zaytuna mosque is located, is also experiencing internal transformations in post-revolutionary Tunisia. I will write  about it in a future post.

Hamadi Jebali, secretary general of the Islamist Nahdha party, winner of the Constituent Assembly election of October 23, 2011, declared at a meeting of his party on November 13, 2011, that Tunisia was entering the 6th Caliphate. This comment provoked strong reactions and condemnations from the Tunisian political elite, as well as political cartoons lampooning Jebali as the next “caliph” of Tunisia. Jebali and his lieutenants attempted to deflect the controversy by saying the quote had been taken out of context. What is this all about?

In the Muslim political imaginary, the khulafa’ al-rashidun represent an idealized moment in history, that of the first four caliphs, the rightly-guided, who came after the prophet Muhammad: Abu Bakr al-Siddiq, Umar Ibn al-Khattab, Uthman Ibn Affan, and Ali Ibn Abi Talib. The period from the death of the prophet in 632 to that of Ali in 661 marks a golden era after which political history is conceived as having degenerated. However, Umar Ibn Abd al-Aziz (717-720) from the Umayyad dynasty is often seen as part of the rightly-guided Caliphs and defines what is often dubbed the “5th caliphate”. He exemplifies the possibility of being a pious and just ruler in times of corruption.

Jebali used that reference from Islamic history to speak about political regeneration within an Islamic idiom. Representatives of al-Nahdha insisted afterwards that the reference to the caliphate was symbolic, and did not put into question al-Nahdha’s commitment to the republican regime and to the people’s will as the foundation for government. However, their adversaries responded that words mattered, and that the evocation of the caliphate in public political discourses was not simply a “symbolic matter.” Indeed, the notion of Caliphate is also related to that of the Islamic state, and mentioning the caliphate in times of political transition is not a small matter.

The controversy around the 6th caliphate illustrates the new public contentions emerging in Tunisia around the language that Tunisians now use to discuss politics. For 55 years, the language of liberal democracy was used in an authoritarian context. During the first months of a more democratic context, Tunisians have been giving free reign to their freedom of expression in the streets, the new media, the written press, the radio and the television, and the new tribunes of political parties, state institutions and civil organizations. A new variegated terrain for politics and new political idioms are emerging, and this new phase of the political history of Tunisia will certainly be punctuated by this sort of controversies. A new political language is being negotiated, and one point of contention will be if and how the Islamic tradition will be woven in this language, and what legal and institutional impact it will have.

The other political parties have reacted strongly, so strongly that Ettakattol has suspended its participation in the negotiations for the formation of the new government, asking Jebali to clarify his position. Although al-Nahdha has won the election, being the party that obtained the most but not the absolute majority of seats, the Islamist party faces the constraints of having to govern in a coalition. More broadly, it is now in the public eye: its leaders’ discourses are closely watched and echoed by the new media. Paradoxically, their discourses did not count much in Tunisian politics before the revolution since they were not in power or not even part of the legal opposition, whereas today their margin of maneuver is limited by the strong resistance they encounter from the rest of the political elite.

The Islamic public figures who will govern Tunisia will now be forced to define their political language with more clarity, in particular in the ways this language relates to Islam and to the future political reforms. Their platform speaks of a “civil state,” which is in contrast with the institution of the caliphate. Al-Nahdha’s leadership knows very well that these two concepts have been in conflict in the modern history of Islam: Muslim intellectuals have discussed the legitimacy of the caliphate as well as alternative forms of political institutions in the 20th century, from Egyptian Ali Abd al-Raziq to  Tunisian Abd al-Aziz al-Thaalibi. These are not debates that one can describe as “foreign” to the history of the intellectual life of Tunisians. Will al-Nahdha demonstrate its political and intellectual rigor by providing public intellectuals who will fully and thoughtfully engage with such urgent questions? After 55 years of authoritarianism, during which the very articulation of truly public political discourse was of the order of the impossible, will we be able to think clearly and deeply about the language we want to articulate when we speak about politics? This will involve much more than mere words pronounced in Arabic or French to please specific constituencies. In the end, whether we want a “republic” or a “caliphate” will depend on the specific meanings we give to these two institutions, how we relate them to past political histories and how we imagine their future.

Hamadi Jebali’s comment is not just a matter of “symbols.” If the mention of the caliphate was simply the consequence of a moment of carelessness, he needs to clarify his position. Today in Tunisia the mention of a republic is less contentious than that of a caliphate, but we should not forget that it was under a republican regime that authoritarianism flourished for more than half a century. In the new post-revolutionary Tunisia, language –its form and its meanings– matters. How the elected government, and the parties participating in it, al-Nahdha, the Congress for the Republic, and Ettakatol, describe and define the future political institutions matters, because Tunisians want to know how those whom they have elected will reform their political institutions to ensure democratic life and political accountability.

In 1966, Daniel Crecelius published a seminal article titled “Al-Azhar in the Revolution” in The Middle East Journal (vol. 20, no. 1). The article explored the role of al-Azhar in the 1952 revolution. He framed the role of al-Azhar in the context of a broad process of modernization that had weakened the religious institution, whose members were not able to respond intellectually to deep social and political transformations. Indeed, Nasser’s regime brought the ulama to heel and submitted al-Azhar politically. In my view, if the ulama did not “react” politically and ideologically, only acting by obstructing the Nasserist reforms, it was not necessarily because they were inherently “anti-modern” and conservative, but because they had no choice, as members of the institution of al-Azhar, other than to submit to the diktat of the regime. For many of them, the submission of al-Azhar to the state and its nationalization in 1961, which was officially described as a “reform” (iṣlā) or a modernization/evolution (taḥdīth/taṭwīr), was a trauma. They viewed it as the destruction (tadmīr) of al-Azhar. The ulama I interviewed in the 1990s in Cairo and in other cities and towns of Egypt did not uniformly criticize Nasser’s reforms modernizing the curriculum. In fact, some praised this transformation, and others condemned it. But they all complained about the loss of independence of their institution that made their interpretation of the tradition of Islam submit to the demands of the authoritarian regime.  Since 1961, the ulama have often expressed more or less explicitly desires to become independent from the state: not that they refuse to have a relationship with the state—they are attached to the centrality of their institution and to the power and resources being a state institution confers to them. However, they would like to become free of any pressures from the executive branch of the state in order to conduct their roles of educators, preachers, legal scholars, and religious intellectuals. The complexity of the current political position of al-Azhar is precisely related to the tension between its desire to become independent on the one hand and its interest to keep its weight and centrality as a state institution. The revolution of January 25, 2011 has given al-Azhar an opportunity to reiterate its demands to become independent and to start thinking about the details of its future relationship with the state as well as about its political engagement defined more broadly.