As the world begins to understand what happened in the 'Arab Spring' that began in December 2010—and its ramifications today—the place where it was sparked is both a map and compass. Where did the movement come from and where is it going?
Of all the countries that took part in the Arab Spring, Tunisia is the one that most deserves the appellation 'free.'
But it is not quite there yet. This North African nation still has a long way to go. Its entrenched cultural and religious taboos are making the transition to true freedom a complicated process.
One indication of the challenges faced by the inheritors of Arab Spring is a recent report by the Individual Freedoms and Equality Committee, known by the acronym COLIBE.
Established in August 2017 by Tunisian President Béji Caïd Essebsi, the purpose of COLIBE is "the preparation of a reform project in accordance with the requirements of the Tunisian Constitution of 2014 and international human rights standards".
Tunisian President Béji Caïd Essebsi established the Individual Freedoms and Equality Committee in August 2017 to prepare a project of reforms that are unprecedented in the Arab world. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
The extent of Tunisia's proposed reforms, unprecedented in the Arab world, is fueling significant political controversy. The apparent purpose of the reforms is to bring to fruition the Kemalist path that inspired the founder of independent Tunisia, Habib Bourguiba.
Among the recommendations in COLIBE's report that have created the greatest sensation are the decriminalization of homosexuality and blasphemy (including affirmation of atheists' rights), and equality between men and women in rights of inheritance.
Currently, the Tunisian criminal code calls for three years of imprisonment for homosexuality, for both men and women. Male homosexuality is normally 'proven' by forced anal exams. COLIBE is calling for decriminalization of homosexuality and for a ban on the cruelty of anal exams, even if homosexuality remains illegal.
The calls to decriminalize homosexuality and blasphemy, and to equalize the inheritance rights of women with men, are opposed by political parties that claim to be post-Islamist but in practice kowtow to Islamic fundamentalists.
As for blasphemy, there is no law in Tunisia explicitly criminalizing contempt of the sacred. In practice, however, anything considered 'provocative' or 'nonconformist' is prosecuted as an attack on 'decency' and 'public morals'.
The nation's inequality in inheritance rights is the fruit of a clear Quranic injunction in Surah 4:11: 'Allah commands you as regards your children's (inheritance); to the male, a portion equal to that of two females....'
Tunisia's current law enforcing this command is one of the few tributes paid to Islam by the otherwise progressive Code of Personal Status, the civil code promulgated by the country's first leader after independence in 1956, Habib Bourguiba. The code is known, among other things, for explicitly banning polygamy.
For many in Tunisia, any attacks, real or imagined, against Islam and its decrees on sexual norms, are still considered unacceptable wounds inflicted on the culture and its values.
No surprise, then, that the progressive proposal by COLIBE has infuriated Tunisia's Islamist circles to the point of explicit threats against COLIBE's president, Bochra Bel Haj Hmida.
Even so-called secular parties have expressed no more than tepid support for the report and the proposed reforms.
The so-called "post-Islamist" party, Ennahda — a Muslim Brotherhood offshoot — has expressed its opposition to the COLIBE recommendations, although in a way that often reinforces ambiguous Muslim Brotherhood positions.
This form of ambiguity was witnessed during a public exchange with Ennahda's leader, Rached Ghannouchi, at the 2016 Mediterranean Dialogues in Rome. When asked by this author about his party's stance on the decriminalization of homosexuality, inheritance equality and the right of a Muslim woman to marry a non-Muslim man, Ghannouchi avoided answering. The essence of his rhetorical dodge was a claim that he lacked religious credentials and that the constitution bestows 'freedom of conscience' on all members of Parliament.
In a written communiqué, the Ennahda party condemned the COLIBE report as a 'threat to the family's structure and society's cohesion,' but failed to specify the particular issues to which it was referring. The same communiqué further stressed that Tunisia is a civil state with a Muslim people, and that therefore it is necessary to find a compromise between freedom and Islamic identity, and to shy away from any 'exaggeration and extremism.' It also warned about the risk of stirring up issues that promote 'polarization and division.'
Such language is typical of radical Islamists, such as that used by Yusuf al-Qaradawi -- the Egyptian-born head of the Qatar-based International Union of Muslim Scholars -- on 'secular extremism'.
Such language is also part of Islamist rhetoric to characterize individual freedoms as an 'insult' to Muslim identity, that provoke the risk of fitna (impious division, rebellion, sedition) within society.
While Tunisia's Ennahda party has avoided using the loaded term fitna, the country's former Minister of Religious Affairs, Noureddine Khadmi, has not exhibited the same self-restraint, explicitly calling for a fatwa against the fitna that adopting COLIBE's report would provoke.
The significance of this fundamentalist Islamic position cannot be stressed enough. In Tunisia, as elsewhere in the Muslim world, "public morals", "sedition", "extremism", and the "religious sensitivities of the majority" are the very bases upon which criminal prosecutions are pursued against homosexuals and atheists.
For this very reason, another crucial recommendation of the COLIBE report is a call explicitly to define the country's vague criminal clauses that refer to "public order" and "morals."
While the COLIBE report is paving the way for a real liberal democracy in Tunisia, the legislative enactment of its recommendations is an uphill fight.
Still, it is a fight that must be fought.
Democracy is not defined by how the will of the majority is implemented. Democracy is defined by how the rights of the minority are guaranteed.
The recommendations put forth by the COLIBE are a necessary first step. Now it is time for hesitant secular forces in Tunisia's parliament to embrace and implement those recommendations.
Tunisia's strong and brave civil society, which has shown the power of its voice since the 2010 Arab Spring revolution in repelling the Islamist backlash, will not back down in this endeavor.
And in the rest of the Muslim world?
Tommaso Virgili, who holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Constitutional Law, is based in Europe.