As Pakistan mulls over rewinding the clock back a millennia-and-a-half by imposing Sharia under the Taliban gun, Tunisia is celebrating arguably the most progressive constitution in the history of the Middle East. That the Pakistani state has been busy succumbing to terrorists’ demands staring down the barrel of TTP’s gun, while Tunisia carved out constitutional conformity between Islamists and secularists, showcases the contrasting directions the two countries are seemingly headed towards. There are lessons to be learnt for Pakistan in the way Tunisia has dealt with Islamist extremism through the power of constitution.

While the Pakistan government is busy negotiating with the outlawed Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), similar negotiations had been going on between the secularists and the Islamists in the National Constituent Assembly of Tunisia. On January 26 this year, the assembly passed the Tunisian Constitution with an overwhelming 200 votes from 216. The historical document is a massive triumph for secularists, since it ensures that Islamic law has no influence over legislation in Tunisia.

Islam as the state religion according to Article 1 of 1959’s constitution has been retained in the latest constitution. However, Article 6 of the constitution that protects “freedom of conscience and belief” reduces the ‘state religion’ clause to symbolism, especially since it unequivocally prohibits takfir (the allegation of apostasy). Juxtapose this with the Second Amendment to Pakistan’s Constitution which sanctions the process of takfir by ‘officially’ declaring Ahmadis to be non-Muslims. There’s a meme circulating on social media which points out the irony engulfing the fact that the constitution that excommunicated the Ahmadis has been excommunicated by the Taliban.

By sidestepping the anti-blasphemy clauses proposed by the Islamist al-Nahda party, the Tunisian secular parties, al-Mottamar and Ettakatol, also protected their country from the blasphemy merry-go-round, which has been taking Pakistan on a ride in the recent past. That even the al-Nahda voted down Sharia as the source of legislation speaks volumes for the vision Tunisia collectively has for the future.

If the Pakistani state imposes Sharia in the country, as the TTP desires, the women would be the ones to suffer the most. The TTP has called for a ban on women barring them from wearing jeans and appearing in public without covering their heads. Tunisia, meanwhile, is vying to ensure the progress of Tunisian women through stipulations in the constitution.

Article 45 “seeks parity between men and women in elected assemblies”; Article 20 highlights how men and women are “equal in rights and duties,”; Article 21 could be used to alter the inheritance laws on the basis of gender equality and Article 2 that defines Tunisia as “a civil state based on citizenship and the supremacy of law”, could be used to ensure that all gender related matters have civil interpretations and not religious ones. Article 2 is also an ideological safety net for the secularists.

Now, there clearly is ambiguity in the religious clauses and the ones related to women, but ambiguity is a necessary evil when you’re trying to reach a compromise between forces as contradictory as Islamism and secularism. However, what the constitution has done is that it has ensured that civil law supersedes religious law, which makes it incredibly difficult for religious fundamentalists to force their ideology on anyone.

The Tunisian Constitution is the perfect example for democratic transition towards secularism in Islamic countries. It is virtually impossible to completely separate religion and state in Islamic countries through a democratic process, and some milestones have to be reached before the Islamic states can touch down on secularism. Tunisia has given everyone an exemplary stepping stone.

An important difference between Tunisia and Pakistan is the demographics of the two countries. 98 percent of Tunisians are Arab-Berber and speak Tunisian Arabic. 99 percent of Tunisians are Muslims and barring a few thousand most of them are Sunnis who belong to the Malikite madhhab. Now compare this with Pakistan, which is an ethno-lingual hotchpotch and hosts a multitude of religious sects. Of the 97 percent Muslims in Pakistan around 20 percent are Shias, who are being butchered owing to takfir resulting in what unquestionably is Shia genocide.

The clamour of the likes of Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ) – formerly Sipah-e-Sahaba – and LeJ (Lashkar-e-Jhangvi) to excommunicate the Shia population is the logical corollary of the Ahmadis being guillotined out of the Islamic realm in 1974.

In Pakistan, where multiple nationalities, cultures, languages and ideologies reside; where allegations of apostasy and blasphemy – that the TTP have been using to destructive effect – are seemingly ubiquitous, and a massive barricade in the path to citizenship equality, adopting a more pluralistic approach is a burning necessity. And yet it is Tunisia, as demographically homogenous as Islamic states get, which is embracing pluralism by incorporating it in the constitution.

This simply is because the demographics in the future aren’t solely going to focus on ethnicities, languages and sects, more importantly the focus would be on ideas and ideals. The split in Tunisia between al-Nahda, and al-Mottamar and Ettakatol, is a divide between religious fundamentalism and secularism; a divide that every society has historically had to traverse; a divide that has been staring Pakistan in the face since its inception.

Tunisia has collectively opted for the more secular, the more pluralistic half of the divide and set the ball rolling towards progress through universal equality. Pakistan is currently on the negotiation table with fundamentalists whose only agenda is to shove their ideology down everyone else’s throat. Maybe there’s a lesson there for those willing to learn.

n    The writer is Web Editor, The Nation.