UPDATE 1-Tunisia's ruling Ennahda to oppose sharia in constitution
* Role of Islamic law divisive issue in Tunisia
* Constituent assembly drafting new constitution
* Secularists fear influence of conservative Islamists (Releads with Ennahda news conference, adds quotes, detail)
By Lin Noueihed and Tarek Amara
TUNIS, March 26 (Reuters) - The moderate Islamist Ennahda party, which leads Tunisia's government, said on Monday it would oppose naming Islamic law, or sharia, in the new constitution, an issue that has threatened to derail the country's transition to democracy.
A constituent assembly, elected in October, is hashing out a new constitution after popular protests ousted Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali last year, sparking the Arab Spring uprisings.
Religious conservatives, including the third largest party in the constituent assembly, have called in recent weeks for the constitution to include sharia as the key source of legislation.
Secularists oppose the move, which they say will open the way for the religious right to impose its values on what had been one of the Arab world's most secular countries.
The debate has polarised Tunisian society and prompted people to demonstrate in the streets.
Rachid al-Ghannouchi, Ennahda's co-founder and leader, said the group would instead be satisfied with retaining the existing first clause of the constitution, which identifies Islam as the religion of state but makes no mention of the role of sharia.
"We saw that Tunisians were divided over the issue of sharia. We don't want Tunisian society to be split because the revolution can only succeed with national unity," Ghannouchi told a news conference at the party's headquarters in Tunis.
"The Tunisian people are united over Islam and we don't want to include another term that will divide the Tunisian people."
Ennahda occupies more than 40 percent of the seats in Tunisia's constituent assembly and its position in the sharia debate will have a huge impact on the wording of the document, which could take a year to debate, draft, revise and approve.
The rules specify that each clause of the constitution wins at least 50 percent approval in the assembly and the document as a whole wins two-thirds approval in no more than two readings. If it fails to win a big enough majority, it goes to referendum.
With its secular coalition partners, Ettakatol and the Conference for a Republic, Ennahda could secure close to the necessary majority. It is likely to be joined by the secular opposition parties that have fiercely criticised Ennahda but have little hope of removing any reference to Islam, as some had initially suggested, after faring poorly in the elections.
Ennahda's position is likely, however, to meet enormous opposition from more conservative Salafi Islamists who are not properly represented by any bloc in the assembly but have stepped up street protests demanding an Islamic state.
Secularists fear that Ennahda has been too soft on Salafis who have become more assertive since the revolution and have attacked or threatened theatres, cinemas and journalists, and most recently Tunisia's tiny Jewish community.
Ghannouchi promised before the election that his party would be satisfied with the existing first clause of the constitution. That position was clearly stated in Ennahda's manifesto.
However, he said a month ago that Ennahda was still debating its vision for the constitution, suggesting splits between the right flank of the party and its moderate mainstream.
Ghannouchi said on Monday that there were some within Ennahda's ranks who had opposed the decision, taken by ballot at an assembly of the party's most senior committee this weekend.
He said 53 senior Ennahda officials voted in favour of the motion to keep sharia out of the constitution, about a dozen opposed the motion and "seven or eight" abstained.
However, Ghannouchi said that Ennahda was looking for consensus over the constitution and would not seek to impose the view of a small majority of people in such an important document. Nor would it ignore the protests of Tunisia's secular elites by going straight to a referendum on the issue.
He said sharia had become associated in the minds of some secular Tunisians with "violence and terrorism" and had been besmirched by the actions of groups such as Afghanistan's Taliban.
For Ennahda, Islam and sharia were inseparable and the mention of Islam in the constitution was enough.
"Constitutions that last are not based on 51 percent... They are based on consensus, or ijmaa in Islamic language, or at least near consensus. Sharia so far does not represent consensus for Tunisians. Islam does represent consensus so we will build our constitution on Islam," he said.
"The Tunisian elite is an important section of society that must be reassured by Islam. Today it is reassured and that is good and we don't want to come with new debates that will divide Tunisian society." (Writing by Lin Noueihed; Editing by Alistair Lyon)
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