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Re-thinking Secularism in Post-Independence Tunisia

McCarthy, Rory

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The victory of a Tunisian Islamist party in the elections of October 2011 seems a paradox for a country long considered the most secular in the Arab world and raises questions about the nature and limited reach of secularist policies imposed by the state since independence. Drawing on a definition of secularism as a process of defining, managing, and intervening in religious life by the state, this paper identifies how under Habib Bourguiba and Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali the state sought to subordinate religion and to claim the sole right to interpret Islam for the public in an effort to win the monopoly over religious symbolism and, with it, political control. Both Bourguiba and Ben Ali relied on Islamic references for legitimacy, though this recourse to religion evolved to face changing contexts, and both sought to define Islam on their own terms. Bourguiba sought to place himself personally at the summit of power, while under Ben Ali the regime forged an authoritarian consensus of security, unity, and ‘tolerance’. In both cases the state politicised Islam but failed to maintain a monopoly over religious symbolism, facing repeated religious challenges to its political authority.


McCarthy, R. (2014). Re-thinking Secularism in Post-Independence Tunisia. The Journal of North African Studies, 19(5), 733-750.

Journal Article Type Article
Online Publication Date May 12, 2014
Publication Date 2014
Deposit Date Sep 2, 2019
Publicly Available Date Sep 5, 2019
Journal Journal of North African Studies
Print ISSN 1362-9387
Electronic ISSN 1743-9345
Publisher Taylor and Francis Group
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 19
Issue 5
Pages 733-750
Related Public URLs


Accepted Journal Article (298 Kb)

Copyright Statement
This is an Accepted Manuscript of an article published by Taylor & Francis in Journal of North African studies on 12 May 2014 available online:

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