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No blasphemy clause in Tunisia’s new constitution: speaker

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A controversial blasphemy clause proposed by the ruling Islamist party will not be included in Tunisia’s new constitution, the speaker of the National Constituent Assembly told AFP.

“There will certainly be no criminalization,” Mustapha Ben Jaafar said.

“That is not because we have agreed to (allow) attacks on the sacred, but because the sacred is something very, very difficult to define,” he added.

Tunisia under the dictatorial reign of ousted dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali saw the dominance of ultra-secularists who did not allow women to don the Islamic headscarf.

But late last year, Tunisia’s moderate Islamist Ennahda party won the country’s first democratic elections after the Arab Spring uprisings.

However, uneasiness between Islamists and secularists in the country is still ongoing.

President Moncef Marzouki has previously warned that radical Islamist militants pose a “great danger” to the Maghreb region, and amid a wave of violent attacks blamed on Tunisia’s Salafists on targets ranging from works of art to the U.S. embassy.

The plan to criminalize attacks on religious values sparked an outcry when it was first announced by the Islamists in July, with the media and civil society groups fearing that it would result in new restrictions on freedom of expression.

Government critics have also warned of creeping Islamization in the North African country since president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s regime was swept away in a revolution last year.

Jaafar said that Ennahda, the Islamist party that heads the ruling coalition, will accept dropping the blasphemy clause even though it remains at the heart of its political agenda.

Ennahda had even wanted to see its proposed ban on attacks on the sacred become international law, but had modified its position, added Jaafar, who heads Ettakatol, a leftist party allied to the Islamists in a coalition government.

“Sometimes we hold talks within the troika (three-party ruling coalition) and we feel that they (Ennahda) are prepared to let their opinions develop, to move the lines a bit,” said the speaker of Tunisia’s interim parliament, which is tasked with drafting a new constitution.

Ennahda had initially wanted to see its proposal adopted in the new constitution and the penal code, threatening jail sentences for those transgressing the law.

Since violence erupted across the Arab world last month, notably in Tunis where the U.S. embassy was attacked, after a U.S.-made film mocking Islam was posted on the Internet, Ennahda has gone further and called for international law to proscribe attacks on the sacred.

Jaafar argued that freedom of expression and press freedom should be protected in all areas, as a key achievement of the revolution that toppled the Ben Ali regime.

“There is a fundamental achievement of the revolution that should never be called into question, and that no one should be able to challenge, which is the freedom of expression and of the press.”

Ettakatol and another centre-left party, the president’s Congress for the Republic, joined Ennahda to form a coalition government after parliamentary elections in October last year, the first since Ben Ali’s ouster.

Ennahda has been strongly criticized for failing to rein in Tunisia’s increasingly assertive Salafist movement.