The Jakarta Post
Mourad Belhassen: (Courtesy of Tunisian Embassy)" title="Mourad Belhassen: (Courtesy of Tunisian Embassy)" height="350" border="0" width="305">
Tunisia's new constitution, which came into effect on Monday, has the potential to show the world that Islam is compatible with democracy and should serve as inspiration to neighboring countries still engulfed in conflict. It is regarded as one of the most progressive constitutions in the Arab world.
However, it is not the constitution itself that will demonstrate Islam's compatibility with democracy. Time will tell whether Tunisia will truly accept what democracy represents: freedom, equality and human rights. The reaction and implementation of Tunisia's new constitution will be the true test of the abilities of a progressive constitution in a Muslim world.
The Jakarta Post's intern Arielle Milecki spoke with Tunisian Ambassador to Indonesia Mourad Belhassen about what a new constitution meant for the future of Tunisia.
Question: How has the new constitution been digested by the people?
Answer: Generally speaking it was well received. It is the result of a compromise between those who are in touch with our roots, history and our Muslim identity and the secularists and modernists who want Tunisia to usher in a new era of modernity and progress.
The modernists and progressives want to see their principles and ideas in the constitution. There were also those who wanted to inscribe sharia into the constitution. This triggered uproar because they wanted to impose a model of society that had nothing to do with Tunisia. We are a moderate country.
Of course Islam is part of our identity, but we have another side that does not relate to the type of Islam in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries. Thus, the idea was, how can we strike a balance between our attachment to this identity ' to be an Arab nation attached to a moderate open Islam ' and at the same time be a Tunisian Mediterranean society trying to progress into modernity.
Reports are saying that some citizens are not convinced that the constitution will actually make a difference to their lives. What is your response to this?
Any text, regardless of the qualities of its provisions, regardless of its progressive character, still remains a text. It depends on who will implement and respect it.
The constitution will guarantee a number of rights. Freedom of conscience is importance. It is the only constitution in the Arab world where such a freedom is guaranteed and secured.
The constitution has set up a constitutional court, which will work toward implementing and protecting these rights.
Is allowing the criminality of 'offending the sacred' a danger to human rights?
Tunisia remains a Muslim state. The population reacts to negative comments about the Prophet or the Koran with frustration and sometimes anger. Even the most open-minded person will say, you can criticize anything except for God and the Koran. This is something rooted in our culture and conscience.
We do have artists, filmmakers and writers who think that freedom of expression is something absolute. In a Muslim country like Tunisia we have to learn to tolerate different opinions. But we are part of a cultural background that does not allow this kind of thing.
This contradiction reflects the contradictions within society itself. We should not lose sight of the fact that a large portion of the society is conservative and is attached to religion.
Is democracy compatible with Islam?
Yes, of course democracy is compatible with Islam. But it depends what Islam you are talking about. If you believe in an open Islam ' an Islam that can be adopted and adjusted to society's needs ' then of course it is compatible.
If you regard Islam as static, like it was when it was revealed in the 15th century, then of course it is not compatible.
In Islam's general and generous teachings, it is compatible with democracy. Islam is open. It is that type of Islam that should be highlighted and encouraged not the Islam that teaches, for example, the exclusion of women.
Will a formal quota [in politics] for women be introduced?
There is an article for parity, which is more important than a quota. This is something new and I think it is the main innovation of the new constitution [...] Women enjoy lots of rights, but most importantly the new constitution enables women to have more say in political life. The problem is women need to be interested in politics. If women are conscious of the fact that they constitute half of society and that they must participate to shape their future then things will change.
How have neighboring countries reacted?
The reaction was quite positive. We have the assistance and understanding of our Algerian friends. They are quite supportive especially regarding our terrorist threats and protection of our frontiers. They offered very encouraging words. We have the understanding and support of our Libyan friends, though we know they are in a very difficult situation at the moment.
How can Indonesia help?
We have very good relations with Indonesia. Indonesia was a source of inspiration for our revolution. It also understood there is no another way but to compromise. In Indonesia there is room for everybody and this is what we are trying to replicate.
I'm launching a call to Indonesian investors, to come to Tunisia to invest and become interested in Tunisia. There is a lot of opportunity in our region.
Tunisia is a gateway to Africa, the Middle East and southern Europe. It could be the launching pad for cooperation. We have a well-educated population but we need investors because of unemployment. Thanks to investment we can at least partly solve this problem.
How will the new government end the economic crisis?
The economic problems are to be solved through good governance and a well-defined plan. If you do not solve the economic problems and social issues, the average citizen will say 'what's the point of rights when we have nothing to eat, when I don't have a job?' So the government is working toward finding solutions, especially the unemployment of Tunisian youth. This will require time. But I am convinced that when you have a stabile country ' politically and socially ' the economy will follow.
What will constitute a 'success' in 2014?
The important thing to ponder is how are we going to finish this democratic transition. How are we going to organize transparent and free elections, prepare for pluralistic debate and to ensure healthy competition.
If we succeed at organizing good elections that would be a tremendous success for Tunisia and it could be inspiring for our regional neighbors.
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