A series of hot-button debates between Islamists and secularists in Tunisia and Morocco are distracting both sides from their countries’ more pressing issues and fuelling already dangerous currents of polarisation.
A key example is the recent discussion about banning or criminalising the practice of takfir – the declaration by one Muslim that another is an apostate, the term for a former adherent who now rejects Islam as a religion.
Salafis use it as a political tactic against their secular opponents, and secularists are now seeking to ban takfir. While takfir is a fundamental principle in Islamic theology, its contemporary use by Salafis is more about intimidation and even provoking violence against their secular opponents.
The effort to ban such speech, as a means of curbing its use as an intimidation and silencing tactic, is well-intentioned. However, the Salafi embrace of takfir as part of their public discourse is a symptom of the continuing social and political polarisation, not a cause.
The effort to ban or criminalise takfir, if it is successful – as it appears likely to be in Tunisia – could, at worst, create a legal mechanism that formalises the current divide between secularists and Islamists, closing off the potential for compromises in the future.
In Tunisia, the Constituent Assembly moved in favour of a ban on takfir, which is now part of the country’s new constitution. What seems to have tipped the balance in favour of a ban was a recent parliamentary debate in which Mongi Rahoui, a member of parliament representing the Popular Front, was accused of apostasy by Habib Ellouse, an Islamist member of parliament from Ennahda.
After this episode, Mr Rahoui received death threats. For pro-ban advocates, this was a vivid example of why takfir should be banned. Combined with two political assassinations in Tunisia last year – at least one of which was preceded by takfiri calls – the appeal of a ban seems natural.
But while banning or criminalising takfir might assuage the fears of those affected, it will not necessarily prevent the violence that declarations of apostasy are liable to engender. Moreover, criminalisation could create a situation in which secularists use the law to target their Islamist opponents.
More significantly, criminalising takfir risks making the broad secular-religious divide in Tunisia revolve mainly around takfir, rather than a long list of more important and productive issues. Enshrining a takfir ban in the constitution could entrench the secularist-Islamist polarisation as a fundamental tenet of the state.
In Morocco, the issue has taken on a different dynamic, focusing more on the effects of takfir on freedom of speech. In a recent video, Sheikh Abdel Majid Abou Naim, a Salafi preacher, branded a number of Moroccan intellectuals and politicians as infidels. Most notable among them was Idriss Lachgar, the secretary general of the Socialist Union of Popular Forces who called for reform of Morocco’s inheritance law (which relies on Islamic principles) and criminalising polygamy.
Fears of intimidation and concerns about freedom of speech generated some people to call for legal action to be initiated against the sheikh.
Shortly after the video incident, Morocco’s Party for Authenticity and Modernity presented a proposal for criminalisation of takfir, but the discussion remains consultative at the moment.
Even the discussion about whether to hold the preacher accountable highlights the divisiveness between Islamists and secularists – and between believers and non-believers – which seems to be making its way beyond the political sphere.
While religion has long played a larger role in Moroccan politics than it has in Tunisia, the political polarisation between secularists and Islamists seems to have intensified since Morocco’s Islamist Justice and Development Party came to power in 2011.
In Tunisia, the move to ban takfir is not likely to put an end to this particular form of rejection and denial.
In Morocco, the proposals to criminalise takfir have not yet gained wide traction but, as in Tunisia, questions of how to handle takfir, should be addressed – perhaps by religious scholars – away from the debate about constitutions.
These two countries are stuck between competing secularist and Islamist conceptions of the true and ideal nation and the role of religion in it. Narrow, angry debates over symbolic issues like takfir are more likely to widen the divide between them rather than bridge it.
And they divert attention away from more concrete issues of political and economic governance that are of much greater importance in the daily life of most citizens.