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Religion and Society

Tunisia and the importance of the freedom of conscience - interview with H.E. Msgr. Lahham, Archbishop of Tunis

Elisabetta Calamelli

In your opinion how important is religious freedom as far as Tunisia is concerned? How is the relationship between cultural identity and freedom of conscience perceived and how do people relate to the truth that is religion?



In Tunisia as in the Arab world in general freedom of conscience and religious freedom are seen as two separate things. Generally speaking for Arabs religious freedom means freedom of worship. In Tunisia for example, a Christian, a Muslim or a Jew can freely practice their faith in private or within their communities. However, until a few years ago religious freedom was rarely understood in terms of freedom of conscience, i.e. the right to choose this or that faith or even no faith at all. Now the path is leading us into the direction of this notion of freedom of conscience. Nowadays Muslims, if they are truly convinced by another faith, can convert, unless there is something else behind it. It is crucial we get things right before talking about them because for a Westerner certain concepts are self-evident; not so for Arabs or Muslims.


How significant is the issue of religious freedom in Tunisia's social and public life. How is the absence of freedom of conscience felt?



It is not really that important. You see; your question reflects a Western way of thinking. For you, religious freedom is something obvious; if there is no freedom, something is missing. Today in the Arab-Muslim way of thinking things are simply not seen that way. The lack of freedom of conscience does not mean the absence of freedom of expression, whose absence Arabs and Muslims would probably feel much more. In the end though, even this situation is changing. Still if a Muslim converts to another religion, he will certainly find out very soon how important it is because even if conversion is possible under the constitution, at least in Tunisia his family and the wider society will not easily accept it; he will have to bear the stigma of being someone who left Islam and leaving Islam is like giving up one's nationality as a Tunisian, Algerian or Moroccan. This is indeed a heavy moral burden to bear.


Many people in Europe religion in public life and strong cultural values and identity are something negative. Is religion seen as a negative factor for the society and the state in Tunisia?



Two things: there is Europe, the West, and then there is the East. The West has lost its religious identity; by contrast, the East has not. Generally speaking, in the East society, religion and family are intertwined. First, one's religious affiliation and identity come first so that even people who are not practicing will not be seen as non-practicing with no religion. Take for instance one example, although not a great one perhaps. If France when you ask, "Do you believe in God?", perhaps 60 per cent will say Yes; 35 per cent, No, and the rest, I don't know. If you are in Tunisia or Algeria, you'll get 99.9 per cent Yes, which does not meant that they are all good practicing Muslim. In such countries identifying with Islam is not seen as a liability; it is not something imposed that one cannot get rid of. In Muslim societies God is everywhere; his name is mentioned more than 200 times each day. Even if one does not practice, one ends up repeating his name at least a hundred times a day.


Basically people are free for you?



It is not a question of being free or not. Being religious comes natural, even at a social level. We are spontaneously that way. And if we are that way, it is not because we feel free, or if it is not that way, it is not because we do not feel free. When a Muslim gets up, he says 'Allah'; when he gets into a car, he invokes 'Allah'. It has nothing to do with freedom or lack thereof. It is a way of being.


Do you believe the West and the East can offer each other something? And how could it be done?



The West can offer Arab Muslims a more individualistic sense of religious identity so that faith is truly experienced as a personal choice and an individual relationship to God. This is not something that is self-evident. On the other hand, the East can offer the West a stronger sense of religious identity. I think both are necessary; one completes the other; one improves the other. We must always start from the premise that no one has a monopoly over truth; not even religious truth. For this reason we must always be prepared to embrace those elements of truth that others can offer us. We must be fully ourselves whilst realising that we need what others can offer us to better ourselves.


How can we really know ourselves and our identity? How can the give-and-take you talk about occur?



Now, if you Westerners really want to contribute to a dialogue between the East and the West or between Muslims and Christians, you must present this choice of faith—even if it is not as socially relevant to you as it is in the East or is not experienced in the same way—as something that gives real meaning to life and transforms it. This way we can avoid the kind of religiosity that is typical of a life without faith. This is something valuable that the West can offer. We must realise that if we cannot live our faith, if it has no place in our life, in our choices, it is meaningless to say that we are religious. This is a priceless gift for it makes our faith grow. On the other hand as I said, the East in dialogue with the West can give God back his old role in society, family and work.


I think that in talking to one another we should not see one's interlocutor as a limit but rather as an invitation to better ourselves.