Famous last words for a free society, or even one less beset by Sharia than it might be: "Oh, that can't happen here."
Reports on the role of Islamic movements in the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings have placed considerable faith in the "secular" elements of those societies to resist Sharia's regressive influence on human rights. But one cannot passively invoke as protection the institutions that Sharia's proponents will attack and destroy once they are strong enough to go on the offensive, especially not when recalling how flimsy the veneer of a modern, secular society turned out to be in Iraq.
Last week, Sheikh Rachid Ghannouchi and other members of the Islamic al-Nahda Party returned to Tunisia after more than two decades in exile. Ghannouchi's return--and the warm welcome he received at the Tunis airport--touched off concerns about a resurgence of political Islam in the North African country.
No one is more concerned than Tunisia's women, who have enjoyed more than half a century of political, legal and personal freedoms unprecedented in the Arab world. The 1956 Personal Status Code gave women a key role in Tunisian society; it abolished polygamy, allowed women the right to divorce and gave them access to birth control and abortion.
Today, 99% of Tunisian women are educated. Women participate actively in politics, law, medicine, academia, media and business.
Mariam Saari, a Tunisian women's rights activist, told VOA she was surprised by how many women supporters turned up to welcome Ghannouchi.
"Tunisian women, we have freedom, we get paid the same as men. We can vote. We can divorce. We can make our own businesses, for years now," Saari said.
She wonders how women, in light of their hard-won gains in Tunisia, could support a religious figure who has publically declared his commitment to Sharia--or Islamic law--under which women have fewer rights and liberties than men.
In the biography, Rachid Ghannouchi: Democrat within Islam, Azzam Tamimi describes Ghannouchi as supporting a balance of democracy and what he calls the "moral authority" of Islam. Critical of the Personal Status Code and anti-polygamy laws at first, Tamimi writes that by the 1980s, Ghannouchi had decided the code was "acceptable" to his al-Nahda movement.
"What Rachid Ghannouchi advocates," Tamimi told VOA, "is a democratic system that gives the people the ultimate choice of freedom. They choose their government, government is accountable to the people, and he doesn't see any incompatibility between the democratic procedure and Islamic values.
The "democratic procedure" will be a means to an end. As long as it is good for the cause of Islam, there is no "incompatibility." When its usefulness has been exhausted, it will be discarded.
"And I have him on the record saying that if the Tunisian people were to choose Communism as a system of governments or liberalism as a system of government, we have no choice but to accept that and respect it and try to change it through democratic means in the following election." [...]
Yes, a democracy is only as good as the values that inform its participants, and lacking constitutional protections, people can willingly vote themselves into tyranny. But they would delude themselves by thinking an Islamic regime will be as easy to dislodge as it will be to vote into power. It is much easier to submit to tyranny than to overthrow it. Just look at Iran.
Tunisia has been strongly secular ever since it won independence from France in 1956. Both Presidents Habib Bourguiba and Zine al Abeddin Ben Ali suppressed the Islamic veil on women or beards on men. Tunisia's legal system is based both on French civil and Islamic codes. Sharia courts were abolished in 1956, but the constitution declares Islam the state religion and stipulates that the President of the Republic must be a Muslim. Ghannouchi has, in the past, gone on record as saying that the Quran and Sunna are the "ultimate law." [...]
[Larbi] Sadiki paused for just a moment and then added, "It's just not the time for that. He won't do that."
"It's just not the time for that." Gee, that's reassuring.
Though elections will not take place in Tunisia for several months, women's groups in Tunisia will likely remain vigilant. Miriam Saari said she is not terribly worried. The fight for women's rights is part of the fight for democracy, she said. "Tunisian women love their freedom too much to give it up."
Don't underestimate the battle ahead.