The fate of the Arab Spring and its implications for Islamic democracy are far from certain, but Tunisia and its revolution have made substantial progress in ensuring religious freedom and tolerance in the country’s political structure, writes political scientist Alfred Stepan in the Journal of Democracy (April).
In comparison to Egypt, the revolution in Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began, has taken greater strides toward establishing an autonomous and democratic political society. This is because Tunisia, through a process of negotiation between religious and secular actors, was able to incorporate what Stepan calls the “twin tolerations”—non-interference by the government in religion and religious parties, while religious groups and parties refrain from asserting special claims based on access to the divine—much earlier than Egypt.
Embracing these twin tolerations is a “move that is friendly toward liberal democracy because the embrace involves a rejection not only of theocracy, but also the illiberalism that is inseparable from aggressive, ‘top-down,’ religion-controlling versions of secularism such as Turkish Kemalism or the religion-unfriendly laicite associated with the Third French Republic”, Stepan adds. Tunisia is also different from Egypt in that it has drawn on a “useable past,” including early constitutions that made religion distinct from political power and a more recent declaration (2005) stating that “there is no compulsion in religion.
This includes the right to adopt a religion or doctrine of not.” Stepan concludes that since Tunisia is the only Arab country to enact the requirements of a democratic transition, “analysts and activists alike should pay it more attention, especially for its example of how secular and religious actors can negotiate new rules and form coalitions.”
(Journal of Democracy, 1025 F Street, Suite 800 Washington, DC 20004)