Yadh Ben Achour is interviewed by l’Humanité
Following the Tunisian revolution, Yadh Ben Achour, professor of public law and the philosophy of law, with Islam’s political ideas for his special field of research, was appointed president of the Authority for the achievement of the revolution’s aims, for political reform and democratic transition.
HUMA: What exactly is the “Authority for the achievement of the revolution’s objectives” over which you preside? Where did it spring from?
BEN ACHOUR: It all started the day after the former president Ben Alli left. I was called by Mohamed Ghannouchi, who was then prime minister, to preside over a committee for political reform. Three committees had been set up at the time: one to investigate into the events of January 2011, another into the cases of corruption, and a third one for political reform, over which I agreed to preside. It was a lawyers’ committee at first. Then the National Council for the protection of the revolution was set up: it consisted of 28 political parties, NGOs, and trade unions. The most important members of this National Council were the UGTT (the General Union of Tunisian Workers), the Tunisian League for Human Rights, the Ennadha party, the democratic Forum for Labour and Liberty, the January 14 Front…
The Council wanted the revolution’s principles to be implemented and so aimed at controlling the government’s laws, its choice of ministers, of ambassadors… Naturally the government could not approve of the creation of the national Council because there would have been two parallel institutions at the head of the State. The negotiations lasted for weeks; they were very tough. Eventually, they resulted in the setting up of the “Authority for the achievement of the revolution’s objectives, for political reform and democratic transition.” This was a synthesis of the committee for political reform and of the National Council for the protection of the revolution.
The Authority has always worked under the pressure of emergency and through successive crises. There was first the crisis about the electoral law itself, with the ban on the former governing party’s leaders (the Democratic Constitutional Rally, RCD). Then there was a conflict between the government and the Authority, which led the Executive to postpone its adoption of the electoral law, Next followed conflicts over the status of the independent electoral agency, over the postponement of the elections, and eventually over the law about political parties and their financing.
HUMA: What are the issues at stake in the oncoming October elections? On what points do the platforms conflict?
BEN ACHOUR: The constitution itself is not at stake. But people don’t know what will actually result from the Constitutional Assembly’s work. How long will it take to draw up the constitution? Will it have the power to legislate? What kind of constitution will it give us? Finally, the real question is this: is there not a risk that the Constitutional Assembly may void the revolution itself of its meaning? The risk is real enough. Everything hangs on which political parties get seats in the Assembly.
HUMA: Is it not to be feared that Islamist parties should come into office and institute Sharia?
BEN ACHOUR: There is an uncertainty concerning religiously-inspired political parties. The fear (I hope it is vain) is lest their very religious inspiration should make nothing of all of Tunisia’s great advancements, notably equality between men and women. Ennahdha clearly says that Sharia will never be instituted in matters of criminal law or family law, for instance, even less in civil law or fiscal law. Against this, there is ground to be worried if we consider the people around Ennahdha, its grassroots supporters. But above all there is the Salafist Tahrir party which recognizes only the traditional Islamist caliphate and demands the institution of Sharia. This party has been banned. The fear is that if it does not participate in the government or is not officially recognized, it might resort to violence.
The two fears are first the religious extremists and second the former members of the RCD who are coming back through other channels. The latter are here. They are hyper-active, they are trying to get hold of strategic positions in the political arena, to put forward masked candidates. So the dangers are the far-right and the counter-revolution.
HUMA: Can we talk of revolution if the economic system remains the same?
BEN ACHOUR: You’re right to ask this question. For the time being politics is set above everything else. All the talk is about elections, the constitutional Assembly, the Authority, political reform. But you’ve got to be terribly naïve to believe that once we get a new constitution, a new government, and constitutionality is back, the economic and social problems will be solved simply by waving a magic wand. Now there are no tangible proofs that things are getting better. There are signs throughout the country that this frustration will not be borne any longer, for it’s been a long wait now, – six months – and there are still no visible prospects that things are soon to change. So beside the political question, which is no doubt important enough, it is necessary to address the social question vigorously. Some regions feel let down. This must be remedied without delay.
HUMA: One word about your last book on Islam and the philosophy of Human Rights.  What makes this question so inescapable at the dawn of this post-revolutionary era?
BEN ACHOUR: This book comes pat after the two previous books. It’s a line of reasoning that develops and makes good progress. The book I wrote in Arabic in the 1990s is entitled l’Esprit civique et les droits modernes (The civic spirit and modern rights); the second, which came out in 2008, is Aux fondements de l’orthodoxie Sunnite (At the root of Sunni orthodoxy). In the latter I developed the idea that – without positing an essence of Islam that would run counter human rights – there is nevertheless a huge historical construction so that the alliance between political power, theology and the intervention of the masses in defence of their religion are such that we are practically condemned to stay put or at least that we can only creep on very slowly.
I have found historical proof of this. Every time there has been a massive revolutionary movement in thought in the Arab world’s history – for instance with the Mutazilites, Averroes, or with modern reformism, it resulted in failure. There is an orthodoxy about the political power, about religion, about the masses. The three of them in combination strike down all innovation.
It’s a pessimistic view. A way of saying that it will be very difficult for the Muslim world to come out of the woods, to confront modernity or effectively adapt a modern, democratic type of politics. In favour of human rights, equality between men and women, freedom of expression, of thought, of belief…
My latest book opens up the possibility that we could place some hope in a modern interpretation of the religious texts. ThisDeuxième Fâtiha (The second Fatiha) consisted in taking a fewQur’an verses from the sura Al-Isra (Night Journey), which offers sublime oratory and thought. There are more of this kind inQur’an. The thesis consists in saying that these verses provide a possible foundation for a modernist reading of Qur’an that can reconcile modern politics, democracy, the rule of law, constitutionalism with the spirit of Islam. On condition that the spirit, and not the letter, is taken into account. For the letter kills, the spirit vivifies. The system of Islamic thought is not definitively incompatible with modernity but everything depends on how the texts will be read.
This offers ground for hope. Can it triumph some day? I cannot tell. In Tunisia there is a revolution of a modern type because the demands put forward have nothing to do with religion. We have not heard a single religious slogan during the revolution. But a few months later we find some groups agitating in a direction that runs contrary to that of the revolution. Which means that once more the age-old, historical civic spirit that has characterized Islam holds on, that it resists, and even claims to be entitled to represent the majority of public opinion.
Consequently the Constitutional Assembly will afford the opportunity to draw clear lines and to see if Islam is really incapable of change, if it is condemned to remain in the shackles of dogma and of that archaic interpretation of religion, or if, at long last, it can be hoped that Islam will find it in itself to renew its thought and adopt democracy and the rights of man such as they are enshrined in the international conventions and texts that somewhat represent humanity’s conscience today, like the 1966 pacts on civil and political rights, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the great texts on prohibition and discrimination of women or those on the prohibition of torture and cruel and inhuman treatments. We’ll see!
For the time being, we are waiting for the Constitutional Assembly to be set up and the next months will bring the answer to that momentous question: can Islam adapt to modernity or is it, owing to the structure of its thought and to its history, definitively closed to all thought of modernity. It will be some time before we get the answer in Tunisia and in the Arab world.
HUMA: Is this question currently debated among Muslim intellectuals including in the Middle-East?
BEN ACHOUR: It is a current debate at the level of political action. Contradictory forces are battling. I hope that the confrontation will be peaceful. But at the philosophical level, it is very clear in Tunisia, there is a radical, frontal conflict that openly rages on our TV screens and in our press between a liberal, democratic, secular current, and a religion-inspired current. That is why the election of the Constitutional Assembly matters so much in Tunisia. It is not clear what will happen but when it takes place it will bring much uncertainty to an end.
We’ll know if we have gone back to our archaic, historical reflexes or if we are going to observe the revolution’s principles, which imply that democracy is no one’s property, that it belongs neither to the West, nor to the East, but that it is humanity’s common good.
 [La deuxième Fâtiha. L’Islam et la pensée des droits de l’homme (The Second Fatiha. Islam and the Philosophy of Human Rights).