Tunisia's Ennahda to oppose sharia in constitution

TUNIS Mon Mar 26, 2012 7:08am EDT

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TUNIS (Reuters) - The moderate Islamist Ennahda party, which leads Tunisia's government, will not back calls by conservatives to make Islamic law, or sharia, the main source of legislation in a new constitution, a senior party official said on Monday.

"Ennahda has decided to retain the first clause of the previous constitution without change," Ameur Larayed told Radio Mosaique. "We want the unity of our people and we do not want divisions."

The party has not formally announced its final position.

A constituent assembly, elected in October, is hashing out a new constitution as part of Tunisia's transition after popular protests ousted authoritarian leader Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali last year, sparking the Arab uprisings elsewhere.

Religious conservatives, including the third largest party in the constituent assembly, have called in recent weeks for the constitution to include sharia as the key source of legislation.

Secularists oppose the move, which they say will open the way for the religious right slowly to impose its values on what had been one of the Arab world's most secular countries.

Rachid al-Ghannouchi, the leader of Ennahda, which occupies over 40 percent of seats in the assembly, promised before the election that his party would be satisfied with the existing first clause of the constitution, which identifies Islam as the religion of state but does not specifically refer to sharia.

However, he said a month ago that Ennahda was debating the idea of including sharia and had yet to reach a conclusion.

Ennahda's stance on the role of religion in government will have a huge impact on the constitution that finally emerges, and has the potential to either inflame or defuse growing political polarization between Islamists and secularists.

In recent weeks opposition parties have exerted considerable pressure on Ennahda to clarify its position on the issue.

The group, which has promised not to impose the veil on women, or ban alcohol or the payment of interest, has gone some way to allaying secularist fears. But two large protests in as many weeks by Salafis demanding an Islamic state in Tunisia have raised fears that conservatives would seek to impose their will.

Investors fear that calls for an Islamic state will deter tourism, a major foreign currency earner for Tunisia's economy.

The constituent assembly can make the new constitution law if a big enough majority supports it. Otherwise it must go to a referendum.

(Reporting by Tarek Amara; Editing by Alistair Lyon)

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