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Religion and Society

Oasis in Tunis, the Reciprocal Provocation on Faith and Freedom

‘To broaden the reference horizon of both of them and not just juxtapose it: this is the central issue of the transition period that we are going through’: with his official visit to the Oasis Foundation’s Scientific Committee, gathered in Tunis from 18 to 20 June, Moncef Marzouki, President of the Tunisian Republic in the wake of the revolution and elected by the new Constituent Assembly, surprised the audience by the sharpness with which touched the deepest chords of the issue being discussed: ‘Religion in a society in transition. How Tunisia challenges the West’. With no hesitation or mincing of words, Marzouki expressed the need for a democratic state to recognise freedom of conscience before the fifty or so people coming from the Middle and Far East and Europe: ‘The challenge that we are now facing – he declared – no longer concerns only the problem of the dialogue between religions or civilisations, nor the paternalistic protection of the religious minorities by an authoritarian state. The problem of religious freedom must not be considered separately from that of citizenship and therefore democracy and the set of its values and mechanisms’. According to Marzouki, everybody is invited to take part in the debate for the construction of a new Tunisia, regardless of their religious belonging: ‘In the face of hardships created by fear, incomprehension and the extreme nervous tension characterising the transition periods – Marzouki stated – one must resist. If it is necessary to defend the freedom of conscience it is because this is the foundation of a kind of modern belonging which is citizenship. Today religious belonging establishes the belonging to a community of faith and not the belonging to the national community. One can be a Muslim, a Christian, Jew or Atheist and be a Tunisian citizen’.



While a number of the Christians present coming from the Middle East did nothing to hide their surprise upon hearing this statement on the freedom of conscience – which surpasses the freedom of worship widening it – by the President of a country with an overwhelming Muslim majority, everyone noticed how Marzouki had referred back to and endorsed some of the key parts of the speech of Cardinal Angelo Scola, Archbishop of Milan and the president of Oasis, which had been given the previous day during the opening of the meeting. In his introductory text the Cardinal had outlined the course of Oasis from its foundation to date: ‘The fresh spontaneous approach of our whole enterprise – explained Scola – lies in exploring the dimensions of Christian life, by means of the comparison between the various modalities of expression which it takes on, offering where possible a support of a cultural nature to those among them having more difficulty. Nevertheless in this initial idea the successive opening towards Muslim believers was already contained in a nutshell. The way of experiencing one’s own faith in fact can not disregard the consideration of the context in which it is collocated. Applied to the Middle East this means: it is not possible to separate the Christian minorities from the Muslim societies in which they live. This seems to me to be one of the profound reasons why the dialogue among believers cannot be reduced to a ‘seasonal or strategic choice’, but represents ‘a vital necessity’, to quote the words of Benedict XVI in Cologne’. However, ‘phase two’ of the meeting with the Muslim societies implicitly led to a ‘phase three’: how the countries hit by the revolutions interpellate the West. Moved by the historical circumstances Oasis is now in fact verifying how for example Christians and Muslims of every latitude can enlighten each other on the present crisis.


In his opening speech the Cardinal anlaysed the components of the crisis in the West, which is presented as the crisis of the universal of one religion, or better of the predominant cultural interpretation that it had taken on during the Middle Ages, and showed how it was the Muslim presence that was reminding the West that instead the question of the universal, and of the religious universal in particular, remains a central one. But if ‘Islam asks for the model that the West elaborated to undergo review, without denying the undoubted acquisitions in terms of civil coexistence’ – Scola went on to highlight – ‘it is clear that the inverse process also holds, since Islam, according to many of its thinkers, is called upon to reflect on the subject of freedom in a new way. In the troubled experience of the relationship that Christianity has established with political modernity, with its refusal, traditionalist illusion and critical assumption of positive expectations, useful elements can be found also for the Muslim peoples and for the claim for freedom that their revolutions have so powerfully put into effect’. It is in this sense that Oasis speaks about reciprocal enlightenment, of an objective cultural relevance that Christianity takes on today for Islam and vice versa. The work of the international committee was developed along these lines, with the first day being dedicated entirely to the study of the Tunisian case, by means of the contributions of important representatives of today, of both laical and strongly Islamic standpoints. The jurist Yadh Ben Achour, referred to the question of the freedom of conscience as the highest form of freedom which must be safeguarded as the basis of a truly democratic state; Malika Zeghal of Harvard University, explained what defines a Muslim state today and how the profile is presented of the one that came out of the Tunisian revolution; Ajmi Lourimi, one of the most prominent thinkers of an-Nahda, the Islamic party of relative majority in Tunisia today, outlined the role of religion in the public sphere, pointing out that in a state of rule of law the law must not distinguish between those with a beard (the Salafites) and those without, but between those who respect it and those who do not; Riadh Chaibi, with the task of organising the next an-Nahda congress, explored the definition of a party with religious reference; Ridha Chkoundali, an economist, outlined the connection between economy and post-revolution; Abdelmajid Charfi, a scholar of international renown, questioned the conciliation between Islam and pluralism; Mousaddak Jlidi, founder of the Tunisian League for culture and dialogue, spoke about democratic transition and revolution; Lotfi Hajji, chief of al-Jazeera in Tunisia, recounted the experience of a group for the defence of freedom of conscience, composed of Islamists and secularist representatives, born in Tunis years before the revolution; Abderrazek Sayadi, developed the link between individual and community and lastly Msgr. Maroun Lahham, Latin Patriarchal vicar in Jordan and formerly Archbishop of Tunis, gave his account as a Christian in the Arab revolutions.



Instead the second day left room for the reaction of the representatives of other Muslim Arab and non-Arab countries and the West before the provocations that arose. And thus, thanks to a pressing sequence of direct accounts, Oasis was able to follow the paths of Morocco, Libya, Algeria, Egypt, Bosnia, Pakistan, Indonesia, but also of Europe, in order to understand the importance and repercussions of the developments of the revolutions for the dignity and freedom of the Arab world on the rest of the world.



In the previous editions of this annual meeting of the Oasis international network the need had already arisen from many quarters for a common cultural workshop to understand the transition phase hitting the Arab world and not only, but the meeting in Tunis – which only three days before starting had been made difficult by the curfew decided by the Tunisian government following a number of violent attacks of the Salafites in the country – has for Oasis been a confirmation of the method chosen: to go through the experience of the local Christian communities and Muslim interlocutors to try and interpret a history which, marked by the process of the melding of civilisations and cultures, asks to be fully experienced and directed towards a decent life.