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Middle East and Africa

Tunisian President's speech at the annual meeting of Oasis in Tunis

Ladies and gentlemen, dear friends,



On behalf of all Tunisians and myself too, I would like to welcome you here and thank you for having chosen Tunis for this Oasis Foundation meeting.



Its aim is not only to analyse the conditions of freedom in post-revolution Tunisia but to demonstrate in what exactly the events here have upset a series of western paradigms on the question of the relationship between religion and politics.



Debates of this kind can only be encouraged, which refuse to adopt the reductive paradigms of the opposition between Islam and secularism. The Tunisian revolution stood out as not having been either a religious revolution or a secular one, but rather a revolution for the overcoming of these sterile oppositions, for dignity and freedom.



Yesterday His Eminence Cardinal Scola, evoking the challenges of the reciprocal understanding between East and West, stressed the need to broaden the references of both and not just to juxtapose them.



This is the central issue of the transition period that we are going through. The challenges that we must face today no longer simply concern the problems of the dialogue of religions or civilisations, the paternalistic protection of the religious minorities by an authoritarian state.



The issue of religious freedom must not be considered separately from that of citizenship and therefore democracy and the set of its values and mechanisms, among which freedom of expression.



The challenges are many, the sources of concern real, but nonetheless it is necessary to tone down the pessimistic description that the concerned western commentators give of the Arab world.



The debates on the balance between the freedom of expression and religious freedom, on the presence of religious symbols in public places, the sense of the holy, are not exclusive to Tunisia or Islam.



The American Supreme Court has been debating the interpretation of the First Amendment of the Constitution since the XIX century, and is still questioning the balance between the principle of recognition and free exercise.



The European Court of Human Rights recently debated the question of the crucifix and whether or not it can be hung in Italian classrooms and is a religious or cultural symbol.



In France this year the Catholics protested against a theatrical production considered blasphemous.


The Americans protested against the offensive nature of the construction of an Islamic centre in the Ground Zero area. The claim to the right to the freedom of expression does not exist anywhere without the reference to other types of moral and religious norms being questioned.



These problems do not exist in Tunisia alone. And least of all is there an Islamic peculiarity. All religions, today just as yesterday, are full of important questions. The issues of abortion and the rights of homosexuals are at the centre of Christianity’s debates today.



My intention here is not to confuse these contexts but to recall that to question oneself on the equilibrium between the different freedoms, religious freedom and the freedom of expression, belongs to all societies, western and non-western. All religions must deal with deep internal debates. Lastly, the subject of religious freedom is not always used in the name of progress but at times also to maintain the control of the religious institutions over members of their community.


These questions and debates cannot go on for ever and must lead to juridical and institutional solutions. Nonetheless the controversies are necessary as rights have a sense only if the people takes possession of them. It is by means of controversies that this appropriation takes place. It is from reasoned political conflict that a real consensus is born.


Everyone is invited to take part in the ongoing debates, all people, whatever their religious or non-religious belonging may be. Only in this way can a new common world be created. This commitment is not only a right but rather a necessity since, as Archbishop Scola said yesterday, the temptation to retreat has no sense: ‘No island exists on which to retreat, no enclosure in which to take refuge’.



What is to emerge from all this, for me the citizen of this country under change and a politician taking part in the overseeing of this change?



In the face of the hardships created by fear, incomprehension and the extreme nervous tension characterising the critical periods, an objective is needed. 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. The most important thing is that this is without hardships, in a non-conflictual, natural and comfortable way, and I would go as far as to say, coexisting and in synergy with others, recognised and accepted as different and similar at the same time.



This is our objective, this is our destiny if we want to become a little more civilised every day.



Thank you all.