Tunisia’s Bourguiba: An Arab Atatürk Wannabe

The demographically diminutive North African country of Tunisia has recently made its way into the news; and not for any good reason. Tunisia’s political élite has decided to de-Islamize the State, even though the country itself is still referred to as “part of the Islamic nation.”

Reuters reported:

– Article 5 states that Tunisia is part of the Islamic nation, and the state alone must work to achieve “the goals of pure Islam in preserving life, honour, money, religion and freedom”. A phrase in the existing constitution, which Islamists have long argued defined Tunisia as an Islamic state, has been removed. Article 88 says the president must be a Muslim.

This of course is secularization. The “nation” (which is always ambiguously defined) being Islamic doesn’t change the fact that, if the State’s identity ceases being based on Islam, then anything linked with the State—such as culture, legislation and so on—will have no grounding in Islam.

RELATED: The End of Tunisia: Has the State Abandoned Islam?

But behind this contemporary secularist radicalism there’s a sinister figure who has sadly defined much of Tunisia’s modern history: Habib Bourguiba (1903-2000).

Bourguiba: The “Moderate” Kemalist?

Like Atatürk (lit. “father of Turks”), Bourguiba is often referred to as “the father of the nation” in Tunisia.

What is ironic is that secular-nationalists invoke “pre-Islamic history” to rationalize their distancing from Islam. However, these “fathers” of their nations are strangely always some 20th-century Westernized figures.

Surely such “glorious nations” with “rich histories pre-dating Islam” would attribute their paternity test results to individuals a tad less modern—both in their timeframe and also in their thinking.

Numerous books and articles have been dedicated to the stark similarities between Bourguiba and Atatürk, which is unsurprising considering the former’s open admiration for the latter.

For instance, Safwan Masri (an academic who wrote a book about Tunisia) says in an interview with the Turkish press:

The founder of the modern Republic of Turkey, Atatürk, had been a source of inspiration for the founder of independent Tunisia, Habib Bourguiba. So in Tunisia you have had generations of many people growing up similar to Turkish people: Secular, well-educated, and with women enjoying equal rights to men,” Masri told daily Hürriyet in an interview. (…)

There were similarities at a high level. Both Atatürk and Bourguiba were visionary nation builders. Atatürk was a quintessential nation builder. He created the nation of Turkey and reset Turkey after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. As for Bourguiba, there was no other post-colonial Arab leader like him. Post-colonial Arab leaders were very focused on building their military, legitimizing their rule and building a highly nationalist narrative for their newly created nations. But in the case of Bourguiba’s Tunisia, the last thing he invented was the military and the first thing was education,” said Masri. (…)

“Both Atatürk and Bourguiba were nation builders, confident, bold, visionary, well-educated, influenced by Western ideas and Western culture. They also did something similar with regard to religion, bringing it under state control and adopting the French model of secularism,” he added.

Both were unapologetic admirers of the 1789 French Revolution along with its Jacobinism (highly centralized homogenizing State) and its laïcité (a particularly virulent and militant form of State-secularism). However, Bourguiba is generally seen as being a more moderate proponent of it; fighting “institutional Islam” like Atatürk, but not radically trying to outstrip it. This is probably because Bourguiba (d)evolved in an Arab environment, so the entire nationalist narrative regarding language for instance would remain inoperative.

Yet this doesn’t in any way mean that Bourguiba would shy away from attacking the symbols of Islam.

For example there is an infamous case from 1962 when he drank a glass of orange juice on national television during a public rally in the fasting hours of the month of Ramadan, saying that “productivism” for the nation was more important for Tunisians than fasting for faith.

Yet Another Child of Liberal-Reformism

In what’s considered the most authoritative study of Atatürk’s ideas available in English, Şükrü Hanioğlu often makes the connection between his ideology and that of the liberal-reformists of the Ottoman Empire who began to gain currency during the so-called Tanzimat reforms of the mid-to-late 19th-century.

Likewise, Bourguiba wasn’t a stranger to the liberal-reformism produced in Ottoman—and later, French—Tunisia.

It all begins with the Young Tunisians, a name which reminds us of the Young Turks (the prominent liberal-reformist group in the Ottoman Empire). In fact, the Hamba brothers—two of the three co-founders of the Young Tunisians—were themselves of ethnic Turkish origins. (Numerous Turks had settled down in the Maghreb during the time of the Ottoman Empire; mainly in Algeria but also Tunisia.)

The Young Tunisians were French-educated but they militated against French colonialism.

One of these individuals was Abdelaziz Thaalbi. He was a co-founder of the influential Dastour (“Constitution”) party and was himself under the spell of liberal-reformists; mainly Muhammad Abduh.

RELATED: The Not-So-Subtle Way Some Modern Imams Are Secularizing the Ummah

Specifying this is crucial because Bourguiba was a follower of Thaalbi in his early “anti-colonial” agitation but differed with him later—to the extent that he co-created the Neo-Dastour party in the ’30s. This would then become the main political representative of Tunisian nationalism for decades to come.

Despite the changes in nomenclature following Bourguiba’s own changes in ideology (Socialist Destourian Party), it would remain the only party allowed in Tunisia until 1981. But I’m sure liberal-secularists have no issue with the one-party system when the only authorized party is one that follows their ideology.

Despite such authoritarianism Bourguiba did meet stiff resistance. In fact, he was opposed by even Salah Ben Youssef—his once protégé and potential successor. Ben Youssef wanted to afford more space to both Islam and Arabism. Bourguiba on the other hand believed that Tunisia should be disconnected from the Arab world so it could focus on itself.

Ben Youssef was assassinated in 1961.

The real successor to Bourguiba (who at the time had been deemed by doctors to be too “mentally unstable” to continue ruling) arrived in 1987 in the form of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Ben Ali gave more public recognition to Islam, but it was mainly a political move and not one undertaken out of any genuine love for Islam, like Anwar Sadat in Egypt who just wanted to avoid the fate of his predecessor Nasser. Ben Ali was deposed in 2011 during the “Arab Spring,” a movement which he pretty much launched himself through his despotism.

The current president of Tunisia, the practicing secularist Kais Saied, is a self-styled “child of Bourguiba.”

RELATED: Tunisia Coup: Another Arab Secular Tyranny in the Making?

Anyway, our purpose here was to showcase the ideological roots of “Bourguibism” as being part of a larger liberal-reformist movement extending far beyond Tunisia, or even the Ottoman Empire for that matter.

Like Atatürk, Bourguiba was a product of such intellectual trends which are still active. And if we lack vigilance, the Islamic world may be struck by other such individualized Western calamities which are singlehandedly responsible for the potential apostatizing of millions.

RELATED: Use This One Weird Trick to Reform Islam

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The demographically diminutive North African country of Tunisia…”

This is one of the reasons why these countries are secular. Tiny countries are easy to conquer, subjugate and controle. Large countries with rugged terrains like Morocco, Algeria and Libya are much more difficult to bring under the thumb. The most secular countries in the Muslim world generally tend to be of small size and are geographically close to the West: Tunisia, Lebanon, Albania, Bosnia, Turkish Cyprus…

Yusuf ibn Tashfin

The size of a country is not defined by geographical size,but rather by the number of inhabitants (Tunisia 11 million VS Libya 6 million).Second Turkey is one of the Muslim countries with more inhabitants and rugged terrain, and yet a very secularized country.
Third, the larger a country is, the more difficult it is to manage its economy and therefore the quality of life tends to be much worse,for example India or Brazil ;poverty increases corruption, crime, drugs and prostitution

Yusuf ibn Tashfin

Unless you have a government such as the one in Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia that applies Islamic laws fully ,you can’t stop drugs, prostitution and crime ; because this are driven by poverty. Lebanon is very religious it just happens to have a large non Muslim population.Albania and Bosnia were for decades under communist rule that forced atheism with an iron fist.
Big governments are a full guaranty of having a ultra intrusive government (North Korea,India,France,Egypt,China,etc)


The religious in Lebanon are most likely Syrian and Palestinian refugees. Although you have people who are religiously committed, the Lebanese in general tend to have relatively liberal attitudes. Which is common for folks who live in very diverse environments.

The Chechens and Dagestanis have been under communist rule too. The difference is one lives in the plains and the other in the mountains.


It’s both but I’m refering to geographical size…Libya actually proves that point. Tunisians are basically secularized Libyans. Turkey is slightly different because they secularized themselves….it wasn’t done by a foreign power. Tiny countries simply can be overrun militarily very easy. Size ofcourse isn’t the only factor. There are many variables. The mentality of the populace is also very important.


I suspect that Turkish secularism can partially be explained by the fact that Turkish religious practice was always dominated by a heavy dose of Sufism – a very mystical opproach rather than the legalistic/shar3i way which is dominant in the Arabian penninsula. And often very extreme forms of said Sufism.

Yusuf ibn Tashfin

Tunisians are not Lybians, tunisian culture has an andalusi heritage thay lybian culture doesn’t for example.Tiny countries tend to fare better than bigger ones. Look at Switzerland and others.
And militarily they can form a network of alliances that can protect themselves. Also big countries are easy to conquer depending on their geography, just look at history.The bigger the country, the crappier the economy and the worse the life quality is.Why always blame sufis?….


They always claim that securalism will bring prosperity, modernisim and yet all these countries didn’t benefit any of these. The facts speaks for itself

Ahmed Al Ansari

Then the result of this obstinacy-not upholding the suunah after the death of the Prophet PBUH- was that tyrants after tyrants, fools after fools, sinners after sinners, and heretics after heretics dominated the Ummah, and each of them robbed an amount of their belongings and souls, and did not give the opportunity to any of the Imams of the household and the Ahl al-Bayt of the Prophet to stand firm on his two feet for a while and quench the dry mouths of the oppressed with sips of justice!