In Tunisia: 'We Have No Idea' If Secular Or Islamist Views Will Prevail

Apr 7, 2011

All Things Considered host Robert Siegel and producer Art Silverman continue their reporting from Tunisia, where the changes that have swept across much of North Africa and the Middle East got their start.

Yesterday, we heard some of the conversation Robert had with Tunisian activist Sihem Bensedrine, who says that in some ways not much has changed since President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was forced to step down in January as protests swelled in Tunisia.

Today, Robert looks at the question of which way the "new" Tunisia might go — toward a secular democracy or toward an Islamist state. And among the people he spoke with was widely read Tunisian blogger Big Trap Boy — a 35-year-old legal consultant named Mohammed.

"Are you as a secular Tunisian confident that people like you ... are in the majority?" Robert asked. "Or is it possible that there are lots of hidden Islamists out there?"

"We have no idea on the real size of the secular part of the population or the Islamist part of the population," Mohammed says.

But he suspects that "many Muslim people [in Tunisia], they are going to follow ... the Islamist parties" because they identify with them.

There will be a problem for some Tunisians, he adds, of knowing "where politics start and where religion ends."

Much more from their conversation, and Robert's interviews with other Tunisians, will be on ATC later today. We'll add the as-broadcast version of his report to this post when it's ready. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit



From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block.

Our co-host, Robert Siegel, is in Tunisia this week. He's reporting on the slow move toward democracy there. In January, protests forced the ouster of long-time dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.

Today, Robert reports on a dilemma Tunisia shares with other countries in the region: What role will political Islam play in a democracy?


It is the central question in this North African country, which was the first to overthrow a dictator in this year's Arab revolution. Here in Tunis, I'm at one very visible sign of how the conflict between secular Tunisians and Islamists is playing out.

I'm right off the avenue Habib Bourguiba, where there's a construction site, and on the corrugated wall surrounding the site, there is graffiti. A long line of cursive letters in black paint says, in French: Vive La Tunisie, libre, democratique et laique. Long live Tunisia: free, democratic and secular.

But on top of that last word, laique, secular, someone has spray-painted in green Islamique.

In this country, where there have been no free elections and until recently very few polls, no one really knows how many Tunisians prefer the first version of that slogan and how many prefer the second.

Mr. ALI LAARAYEDH (Spokesman, Ennadha): (Through translator) Our understanding of Islam is an understanding which includes all the modern humanitarian gains. Thats why we are different from Iran and different from some Islamic movements, which may have a restricted understanding of Islam.

SIEGEL: Thats Ali Laarayedh. He's the spokesman for the biggest and most moderate Islamist party, Ennadha, or Renaissance. The party was suppressed by the Ben Ali regime and like other leaders of his party, Mr. Laarayedh spent time in prison, fourteen years, he says thirteen in solitary confinement.

Islamists were absent from the protests in December and January that toppled Ben Ali. I asked him whether Ennadha wants to impose Islamic law, or Shariah, and whether it wants to roll back womens rights. He told me the party supports all the gains of Tunisian women, which include the abolition of polygamy, the right to sue for divorce, a ban on arranged marriages and equality in the workplace.

On the last right, he said, reality should live up to the letter of the law.

Mr. LAARAYEDH: (Through translator) Concerning the second part of your question, Shariah, if what is meant by it is that we are inspired by Islam just as Christian democratic parties are inspired by Christianity, then yes. But if what is meant by it is are the laws decided by the religious authorities in another era, then no.

SIEGEL: It's not so much that secular Tunisians reject what Mr. Laarayedh's party has to say, its that they just don't believe him.

Mohammed is a Tunisian blogger, a 35-year-old legal consultant who perfected his English during a two-year stay in Orlando. The fact that he told me his first name is a big deal. He is known to several thousand online readers here simply as BigTrapBoy.

We got together in a hotel lobby bar. Mohammed is adamantly secular in a country where that's pretty common. You see women here with covered heads, but you also see many in revealing European dress.

Mr. MOHAMMED (Blogger): Well, you would want to believe them but, you know, there is some things that make you doubt, you know, this kind of speech because, first of all, even the leaders of these parties, you know, they are - we got used to them saying the thing and the opposite in another, you know, place, another conference, and even the leaders of these parties, you know, between them, they don't have the same advice.

And most important is we don't really care about what the leaders of these, you know, parties say. What we care about is what's going to happen if they access power and what the young generation, which is following them, what they think.

I think they have more extremist points of view. It's not easy to believe, you know, what these people are saying.

SIEGEL: A big problem, it seems, for Tunisia, is that for all these decades of dictatorship, you didn't have free elections; you didn't have lots of polls. So people don't really know how many Tunisians think this, how many think that. Are you, as a secular Tunisian, confident that people like you, people with your attitudes, are in the majority, or is it possible that there are lots of hidden Islamists out there, maybe in the cities and towns in the hinterlands?

Mr. MOHAMMED: What you're saying is true. We have no idea on, you know, the real size of the secular part of the population or the Islamist part of the population. And the other problem is 99 percent of the population is a Muslim population. So many Muslim people, they are going to follow, sometimes, the Islamist parties just because, you know, they think it's a problem of identity, even if they don't believe in their political programs or in their ideology.

Some people, you know, are going to have this problem of where politics start and where religion ends.

SIEGEL: Now some explanation of what Tunisians mean when they say secular, or actually laique, laique in French. Tunisia's colonial inheritance is the very same French idea that the great, Turkish Westernizer, Ataturk, embraced for his country: No religion in politics.

And to be sure of that: the government will license, pay and regulate the imams. Its very different from our concept of separation of church and state.

I asked Mr. Laarayedh of the Ennadha party about all those skeptical secularists.

What do you say to those secular Tunisians I have met who say Ennadha, your party, is saying that now, but if they achieve power, they won't be moderate, they'll take the country in a more Islamist direction?

Mr. LAARAYEDH: (Through translator) I will tell them that our cultural vision and our culture is the first guarantee. The second is the people. The people must be awake and have centrist thinking because there are no other guarantees.

SIEGEL: There are smaller Islamist parties in Tunisia that are truly extremist. The Tahrir Party wants to impose Islamic law and also to restore the caliphate: rule by religious leaders.

By way of contrast, when I asked Mr. Laarayedh whether Tunisia should help the U.S. in, say, stopping al-Qaida in the Maghreb, the group's North Africa affiliate, and he said: Of course, theyre dangerous.

Already, Tunisian Islamists have gained some small symbolic ground here. Until last week, when women had their pictures taken for ID cards, those who wear headscarves had to take them off. Now its their choice.

In Tunis, this is Robert Siegel.

BLOCK: Tunisia has been a popular vacation destination for years, but ever since January's revolution, the number of visitors has dropped off, and that's starting to have an impact on the economy.

Tomorrow, Robert tells us about that as he continues his reporting from the capital, Tunis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.