The initiative of Caid Essebsi

Sunday 20/08/2017

In a historic move that was largely ignored for days by Western media, Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi has created a bit of an unexpected socio-political drama. On August 13, Women’s Day in Tunisia, Caid Essebsi took a stand that is unprecedented in the Sunni Arab world and has an enormous potential for controversy. He argued in favour of equal inheritance for both genders and for Muslim women to be allowed to marry non-Muslims.

The conservative pushback was predictable. Al-Azhar, the Sunni world’s oldest seat of learning, expressed its opposition to Caid Essebsi’s ideas. There are sure to be others in the region who take issue as well.

This is because any political initiative that involves religion is bound to be controversial in the Arab-Muslim world. Caid Essebsi’s is no exception. However, the Tunisian leader’s dramatic words can better be understood within the political and social context of his country.

Tunisia has had a tradition of pro-women activism since the early 20th century. Tahar Haddad, a sheikh in the Zeitouna mosque, advocated for women’s education and their full participation in society at a time when many Western universities were opposed to admitting female students. Haddad’s ideas paved the way for Tunisia’s 1957 Personal Status Code, which banned polygamy and repudiation of a wife outside court-mandated divorce.

It took courage and an immensely popular and visionary leader such as Tunisia’s first president, Habib Bourguiba, to get parliament to enact that legislation.

Caid Essebsi, who regards himself as Bourguiba’s disciple, probably wanted to build on his legacy. He has, in fact, delivered where Bourguiba couldn’t. Tunisia’s first president is believed to have found the issue of equal inheritance too difficult to push.

Caid Essebsi’s second proposal — for women to be able to legally marry non-Muslims — is likely to be, at least theoretically, less difficult to promote. The Quranic text on the issue is more open to interpretation; there is no law to abrogate, just an administrative decree dating to 1973. Even so, Caid Essebsi is taking on a rule that has long gone unchallenged despite its deleterious effects on Tunisian women, particularly expatriates in the West. Until now, they were unable to register weddings to non-Muslims in Tunisia.

So why these initiatives and why now? Some say it’s all about political calculus. That after three years of cohabiting with Islamists in government, Caid Essebsi may be trying to distance himself from Ennahda, the main Islamist party or even to push it into showing its true colours. Elections are due in 2019 and it is possible the Tunisian president is seeking to consolidate the sizeable female base that voted him into office in 2014.

It is also possible the 91-year-old president is seeking a place in the history books as a daring reformer.

Outside the boundaries of Tunisia, Caid Essebsi’s move could be seen as throwing a stone in an otherwise placid pond. For so long conservatism reigned supreme in the Arab- Muslim world. Stale tradition has put a damper on any momentum for religious reform and established a yawning divide between Muslims and the rest of the world.

The lack of movement ironically worked in favour of the ultraconservatives and theoreti­cians of religious extremism who have eventually managed to exert a strong influ­ence on the marginalised fringes of their societies.

Religious institutions across the Arab world have been busy trying to co-opt Salafists only to end up all too often copying them. These bodies should be in the business of introduc­ing serious doses of reform instead of system­atically opposing all attempts at change.

Caid Essebsi’s suggested reforms were based on his perception of the needs of his society and its ability to absorb change. Other Arab Islamic leaders and enlightened thinkers should assess the needs of their own societies for today and tomorrow and keep their minds tuned to finding modern interpretations of the faith.

The only threat to Islam is stagnation and fear of progressive reform. That’s when extremists control the agenda.