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The Islamic State in the Democratic Republic of the Congo: what does it mean? – Dr. Barend Prinsloo

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The Islamic State in the Democratic Republic of the Congo: what does it mean?

By Barend Prinsloo

Head of the Security Studies programme at North West University in South Africa

Volume 7 (2019), Number 9 (June 2019)

For the second time in 2019, the Islamic State (ISIS) took responsibility for attacks in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The first attack occurred on 18 April 2019 and the second on 30 May 2019. The media attributed these attacks to MONUSCO and the Military of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (FARDC), to the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) which has extensive roots in Uganda’s Islamist circles. ISIS’ complicity is so far only anecdotal and the ADF has often been accused of working with other extremist groups around the world.  If these attacks were carried out by ISIS in conjunction with the ADF, it would imply that the former Syrian caliphate is again expanding its territory and influence further south on the African continent. This article will look into the evidence and implications of ISIS involvement.

Context

By February 2019, military losses have forced ISIS to relinquish the idea of ruling a geographical “caliphate”, but the group retained the long-term aspiration and continues to proclaim it online. ISIS was reported to still control between 14,000 and 18,000 militants in Iraq and the Syrian Arab Republic, including up to 3,000 foreign terrorist fighters.[1] As widely reported in the media, ISIS officially declared that it still has a presence in the following countries and regions: Iraq, Syria, Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, “Khorasan” (the Afghanistan-Pakistan region), “the Caucasus”, “East Asia” (mostly active in the Philippines), Somalia, and “West Africa” (mostly active in Nigeria).[2]Not known by many, ISIS has divided Africa into several different provinces or wilayah (some smaller ISIS provinces are not included in this discussion):

  • The Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) with an estimated 100 to 400 fighters that combined its efforts with the Al-Qaida affiliated Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam Wa al-Muslimin (JNIM)and is connected to transnational crime.[3][4]
  • In West Africa, ISIS’ grouping is called the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP). ISWAP was born from Boko Haram when it pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and ISIS; five days later, Baghdadi recognized the pledge. Thus, at least on paper, Boko Haram ostensibly ceased to exist. In its place, the Islamic State West African Province (ISWAP) was set up[5]. Beginning in May 2019, ISIS began to attribute insurgent activities in the Mali-Burkina Faso-Niger tri-border area to ISWAP.[6]
  • In video released by al-Furqan media on 29 April 2019, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in his first appearance for five years, was seen handling documents about some global affiliates, including one entitled “Wilayah Central Africa”[7] or the Islamic State Central Africa Province (ISCAP).[8] Although ISIS only formally recognised ISCAP in April 2019, the Central African province was previously mentioned by Baghdadi in an August 2018 speech, implying ISCAP had existed for almost a year before ISIS first publicly attributed an attack to the wilayah.[9]

In the aftermath of the 30 May 2019 attack on MONUSCO and FARDC, ISIS claimed responsibility – even though FARDC stated that the ADF lost 26 soldiers (some say 23 soldiers) without any linkage to ISIS.[10] Nonetheless, the link between ISIS and ADF has been a longstanding likelihood:

  • In 2017, the ADF in DRC began to emerge as a new destination for would-be ISIS recruits in Africa. Though ISIS certainly does not regard the ADF as part of its Caliphate, some ADF members expressed support for ISIS, and ISIS could well see the advantage in having a territorial foothold in sub-Saharan Africa.[11]
  • In a video that surfaced online in October 2017, an Arabic-speaking ADF militant appeared to pledge allegiance to ISIS and called on individuals to join them in DRC. The speaker stated “I swear to God that this is Dar al-Islam [House of Islam] of the Islamic State in Central Africa.” The video featured the MTM name and the newer ISIS flag. It did not feature any of the group’s high-ranking Ugandan leadership, nor was it officially recognized by ISIS in any form, so it cannot be viewed as an official pledge of allegiance, or bayat, by the group. It does however show further support for ISIS within the ADF. The video was also popular among ISIS supporters, and was widely shared by pro-ISIS media.[12]
  • The author has reviewed photos published by ISIS of ISCAP fighters as well as unpublished documents and could identify at least three ISIS/ISCAP fighters with a high degree of certainty as well as several of their weapons to be among the deceased fighters. It is thus highly likely that ISIS/ISCAP have formal ties with the ADF at the moment.

Implications

A formal acknowledgement of cooperation between the ADF and ISIS is still nowhere to be found. However, ISIS appears to model its wilayats on the administrative systems of the Ottoman Empire and Abbasid Dynasty.  This would imply that they would continue to seek contiguous boundaries of influence. It would make sense for them to work with other extremist groups and expand some of their smaller provinces in Somalia to Tanzania and Mozambique. South Africa could find themselves the crosshairs in more ways than one: many media reports have singled out the South African contribution to MONUSCO’s effective response on 30 May 2019.  ISIS have also noted this fact.

 

 

[1]https://www.un.org/sc/ctc/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/N1901937_EN.pdf

[2]https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-47691006

[3]https://www.un.org/sc/ctc/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/N1901937_EN.pdf

[4]https://thedefensepost.com/2019/05/30/islamic-state-greater-sahara-west-africa/

[5]https://ctc.usma.edu/islamic-state-africa-estimating-fighter-numbers-cells-across-continent/

[6]https://thedefensepost.com/2019/05/30/islamic-state-greater-sahara-west-africa/

[7]https://thedefensepost.com/2019/04/30/islamic-state-new-central-africa-province/

[8]https://thedefensepost.com/2019/05/30/islamic-state-attacks-dr-congo-army-un-mavivi-adf-killed/

[9]https://thedefensepost.com/2019/04/30/islamic-state-new-central-africa-province/

[10]https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/05/dr-congo-forces-kill-26-rebels-ebola-zone-beni-190530145255054.html

[11]https://hiraalinstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/The-Islamic-State-in-East-Africa.pdf

[12]https://thedefensepost.com/2018/12/04/tentative-ties-allied-democratic-forces-isis-dr-congo/

Islamism, Crisis and Democratization: Implications of the World Values Survey for the Muslim World (Perspectives on Development in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Region) – Hussein Solomon and Arno Tausch

Islamism, Crisis and Democratization: Implications of the World Values Survey for the Muslim World (Perspectives on Development in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Region)

By Hussein Solomon and Arno Tausch

This book systematically assesses the value systems of active Muslims around the globe. Based on a multivariate analysis of recent World Values Survey data, it sheds new light on Muslim opinions and values in countries such as Indonesia, Iran, Tunisia, Egypt and Turkey. Due to a lack of democratic traditions, sluggish economic growth, escalating religiously motivated violence, and dissatisfaction with ruling elites in many Muslim countries, the authors identify a crisis and return to conservative values in the Muslim world, including anti-Semitism, religious and sexual intolerance, and views on democracy and secularism, business and economic matters. Based on these observations, they offer recommendations for policymakers and civil societies in Muslim countries on how to move towards tolerance, greater democratization and more rapid economic growth.

For more details concerning the book, here is the following link:

https://www.amazon.com/dp/3030228487

The South African Black Muslim Conference 2019: Prospects and Problems – Mawlana Dr. MAE (Ashraf) Dockrat

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The South African Black Muslim Conference 2019: Prospects and Problems

By Mawlana Dr. MAE (Ashraf) Dockrat

University of Johannesburg

Volume 7 (2019), Number 8 (May 2019)

The South African Black Muslim Conference (SABMC) held from 19-21 April 2019 was organised by the Gauteng Muslim Shura Council. The conference was aimed at, amongst other, establish Black Muslim think tanks. When first announced, the idea stirred up debate in the South African community, who in recent years, has experienced growing tensions between the Indian and Black Muslim groupings.

Touted as being a “Blacks only” event, it raised the eyebrows of those who felt that this went against the tenets of the religion itself. The absence of Black Muslims in leadership positions in Muslim organisations, the fact that Mosques and community structures in predominantly Black neighbourhoods are run by Indian communities and some of the racist attitudes of their co-religionists have seen the establishment of independent shurah (consultative councils) such as the Gauteng Muslim Shura Council, the Tshwane Muslim Shura, the Soweto Muslim Shura and others. These councils are composed of theologians and non-theologians and unlike the traditional Muslim organisations are open to female membership as well. In its composition, the councils are varied in terms of the theological persuasions of its members and closely reflect the various influences the convert community has experienced over the last few decades. Class differences also play a role with the emergent middle class professional taking up significant leadership positions within these new organisations. Religious education varies with some Deobandi trained ulama and other more informally trained scholars who are looked up to for guidance.

Making a case for a Black Muslims Conference Thandile Kona, President of the Muslim Youth Movement of South Africa, writes in the tabloid Al-Qalam (February  2019): “In the South African context, Black Muslims have been on the receiving end of exploitation, paternalism, toxic charity that breeds dependence, patronising attitudes and in some cases, outright racism. These have left deep seated psychological damage in the families and communities of black Muslims. There was also some measure of ambivalence and deference to the established Indian and Malay Muslim communities that coloured the relationships. This was with the hope that the rest of the community would assist the indigenous communities in the establishment of Islam across apartheid-created communal borders. This has proven not to be the case; instead we have seen our communities turned into battlegrounds for hegemony of one charity organisation over another or of some kind of vested interest over others. Admittedly, Black Muslims also have to shoulder some of the blame, but that’s a topic for another article.”  The author also explains that the “Blacks only” event is not racist because the concept document for the conference calls for an event that will attract “all the Muslims who have an interest in developing Islam amongst the Black Muslims.”

In a recent article “The Coming of Age of the Black Muslims of South Africa: The way Forward”(Media Review Network, Apr 30 2019) the Zimbabwean academic Dr Mustafa B Mheta reports on and shares some of his impressions of the SABMC. Mheta argues that the theme “Shaping Mzansi Muslim Discourse” provided an opportunity for the presenters and participants to deal with pertinent problems that affect the Black Muslims and offer solutions to deal with these. He points out that the presenters were “a very competent team from diverse professional backgrounds. From Lawyers, Engineers, Accountants, Ulama (Islamic Scholars), Politicians, Activists, Businessmen, Poets and Academics.” Racial slurs were absent and “Black people gathered believed over the years, they have not been treated as equals by the Indian Muslims. “Many of the Black Muslim leaders who spoke at the conference emphasized the fact that the conference was not meant to outdo the Indian Muslims, but to build a Black Muslim society in South Africa that can begin to do things on its own. Many emphasized that there should be no animosity towards any group of Muslims, we are all brothers and sisters in Islam.”

“Black Muslims and Educational Challenges”, and the challenge of balancing cultural traditional practices into Islamic praxis was debated. Identity featured as an important theme throughout. Professor Sulaiman Dangor in his article titled “The South African Black Muslim Conference: Points for Reflection (Muslim Views May 2019) provides a detailed summary of the discussions that took place at the conference.

In my own assessment to say that this was the first Black Muslim Conference is not factually correct. Under the Auspices of the African Muslim Union there was a similar conference held in the 1990’s in Durban. The Indian theologian Mawlana Rafiek Shah was invited as a guest speaker and Professor Sulaiman Dangor who attended the conference reported on the event in the Muslim Views at the time.

While the “coming of age” metaphor is a good one, there remain some growing pains. For one, the established Muslim community is determined to continue with their religious activities on their own terms in the predominantly Black areas. They make no bones of the fact that they have not had much success in bringing locals to work in administrative positions in these organisations. The calls made at the SABMC will want to see organisations and Mosque committees in townships and rural areas that are run by Black Muslims. This poses a tremendous challenge for their emerging leadership and the young adult will have to prove him/herself. They will have to provide bursaries and other much needed support to their own if they want to break free from what they see as the shackles of dependency.

Who speaks on behalf of South African Muslims is also an issue. Is it the established theological bodies or the new men and women on the block? This tussle has already played out where the King of Morrocco recognises the Amir of the Gauteng Shura as the representative of South African Muslims on his Council of African Ulama. Furthermore, just as internal dissent has plagued established Muslim organisations, so too the Black Muslim movement is not free from its own woes.

At time of publication, the Conference report and resolutions have not yet been published. Whoever said that the coming of age is not without both its prospects and problems?

Challenges confronting Sudan in a post-Bashir era – Professor Hussein Solomon

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Challenges confronting Sudan in a post-Bashir era

By Hussein Solomon

Volume 7 (2019), Number 7 (May 2019)

On the 19th December 2018, a wave of public protests began across Sudan following the tripling of the bread price overnight. Whilst these protests had its origins in economics, it quickly morphed into a political movement with calls for Bashir to step down. Heavy government repression and the resultant civilian casualties only served to incense popular opinion further. By 1 March 2019, and with protests escalating in size and intensity across the country, Bashir opted to step down as the leader of the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) in favour of his deputy Ahmed Harun. He, however, remained as President of the country. This, predictably, did not appease the anger of citizens towards him or that of the NCP.  The call by protestors for Bashir to step down as President of the country grew ever more intense and crowds of protestors grew ever bigger. Second, Ahmed Harun, like Bashir himself, is sought by the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes in Darfur and given Harun’s own proximity to Bashir, it did not serve to endear him to the ever-growing protesting crowds on the streets of Sudan. Having given up control over the ruling party, and having little of a constituency beyond this, it was unlikely that Bashir would be able to continue as president for much longer. The end of the Bashir era was predictable. Despite the use of repressive measures, the protestors won the day and in April 2019 Omar al-Bashir was ousted from power.

Two sets of challenges confront Sudan  in this post-Bashir era. The first relates to domestic threats in the form of the men in uniform and their unholy alliance with Islamists. Tensions have escalated between protestors and the military with the latter insisting that the army maintains “sovereign powers” during this transition period. Sudanese civil society however are demanding a rapid return to civilian rule and distrust the military’s notion of a transition period, especially when no time frame is discussed as to how long this would last, when fresh elections will be held and so forth.

In this volatile situation, Islamist preachers have opted to support the military. It should be noted that these same Islamists are no friends of Sudanese democracy, having supported two coups, one in 1969 by General Nimeiri and the 1989 coup which brought Omar al-Bashir to power. These Islamists in sermons have been attempting to discredit protesters arguing that they intend to undermine shari’a law whilst serving as Trojan horses of the West in imposing Western concepts of freedom, democracy and human rights. The rhetoric emanating from the Islamists suggests that only the military can guarantee Sudan being an Islamic state. Ignored in this rendition is the fact that the men in uniform have no solution for an inflation rate upwards of 70 percent and the consequent rapid devaluation of the Sudanese pound. Moreover, since the military coup in 1989, the lot of the average Sudanese citizen has deteriorated calamitously. Perhaps, more to the point is the institutionalized corruption which the men in uniform have presided over. This was graphically illustrated when a raid on Omar al-Bashir’s home uncovered over a 100 million British pounds in cash.

The second set of challenges lay in the foreign arena with countries such as Egypt, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Qatar all scrambling to seek to exploit the political vacuum and turmoil in the country in an effort to advance their own interests. Consider Saudi Arabia and the UAE. These two countries have provided liquidity to Sudan’s Central Bank and own large tracts of fertile land in Sudan growing food there to ensure their own food security. In addition, in exchange for providing protection to Bashir from the International Criminal Court, these have managed to woo Khartoum from its alliance with Tehran and secured its cooperation in their military campaign in Yemen as well as its support for the Gulf Cooperation’s Council’s isolation of Qatar. Their support for Bashir and the authoritarian system he presided over hardly endeared them to Sudan’s protesting masses. As such, protesters have rejected a US $3 billion aid package offered by Riyadh and Abu Dhabi on the basis of fears that this aid package is meant to keep the old regime in power without Bashir as the figure head. Mohamed Yusuf al-Mustafa, head of the country’s most powerful union – the Sudanese Professional Association – summed these fears up best when he declared: “A soft landing for the old regime is being orchestrated by some Middle Eastern powers so they can keep their allies in power”.

In all this, the West has largely remained distant from these developments. Given Sudan’s strategic importance in the Horn of Africa, Western countries need to involve themselves in support of the pro-democracy activists in the country as well as placing pressure on the military establishment to step aside whilst also exerting pressure on their international backers to respect Sudan’s sovereignty.

Understanding Inter-Communal Conflict in the Sahel – Professor Hussein Solomon

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Understanding Inter-Communal Conflict in the Sahel

by Hussein Solomon

Volume 7 (2019), Number 6 (April 2019)

By the time government forces reached Ogossagou in central Mali, on the 23rd March 2019 the charred remains of women and children in their still-smouldering homes was all that remained of a once-vibrant Fulani village. 153 people were brutally killed that day as members of the Dogon ethnic group – a hunting and farming community – attacked the village in their long-simmering dispute with the Fulani over land use.

All across the Sahel the situation mirrors that of central Mali with inter-communal violence escalating. On the 11th February 2019, UngwarBardi, an Adara settlement was attacked by Fulani in which 11 people were killed in Kaduna State in Nigeria. Whilst media attention is often focused on Nigeria’s restive north-east with a Boko Haram insurgency going on for years, it is often forgotten that since January 2018 these inter-communal conflicts have killed six times more Nigerians than that of the militant Islamists.

Whilst these conflicts have existed for decades and fundamentally involve disputes over land between herders like the Fulani and Hausa and farmers like the Tiv and Tarok, these conflicts have grown more violent in recent years and has spread over wider parts of the Sahel. Several reasons account for this intensification in conflict dynamics. First, the Sahel is one of the most environmentally degraded regions in the world with climate change contributing to temperature increase 1.5 times higher than the global average. With this comes desertification and increased competition for arable land. The centrality of arable land is also highlighted by the fact that more than 33 million people in the region are defined as food insecure. Add to this a regional population growth of 2.8 percent per annum and the conflict dynamics escalate further.

Second, there is the question of weapon flows emanating from Libya and other countries into the Sahel which increases the lethality of inter-communal conflict. The need to secure borders to prevent this illicit flow of arms is imperative. Third, the inability of governments in the region to secure the peace together with the breakdown of traditional conflict resolution mechanisms have compelled local communities to form tribal militias which have further reinforced cleavages along ethnic and religious lines. In some cases, governments have exacerbated inter-communal conflict with the enactment of legislation which bans the open grazing of cattle. In 2018, Benue State in Nigeria passed such a ban in an ill-advised attempt to prevent conflict. This worsened the situation since herders viewed the ban as a direct attack on their way of life and lost faith in the government’s ability to serve as an honest broker.

Fourth, there is the question of individual governments attempting to respond to the problem on a national level without understanding the full implications of the regional crises they are confronted with. Consider the Fulani. They constitute the world’s largest semi-nomadic group and are found across West and Central Africa – from Senegal to the Central African Republic. Policy, therefore, needs to be informed by both regional dynamics and local particularities and cooperation amongst states need to be paramount.

Governments in the Sahel need to be more creative and be less reliant on brute force in responding to this conflict. Some countries are demonstrating this creativity. In the case of Senegal, tensions between farmers and herders are muted on account of the enforcement of a legal regime which insists on cattle being registered and the designation of alternative areas for grazing land following government consultation with both herders and farmers. In Dori, in north-eastern Burkina Faso, the local government has provided financial support to farmers, introduced beekeeping and assisted with the reforestation of areas. More holistic solutions such as this are needed if one wishes to see a de-escalation of inter-communal violence in the Sahel.

Algeria: Between Democracy and Jihad – Professor Hussein Solomon

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Algeria: Between Democracy and Jihad

By Hussein Solomon

Volume 7 (2019), Number 5 (March 2019)

Algeria’s 82-year-old President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has certainly lived a charmed life. He has been in politics since the dawn of his country’s independence and has suffered setbacks from which he has recovered. Serving as Algeria’s president for 20 years, he watched whilst the Arab Spring unfolded in the region. Tunisia’s Zinedine El Abidine was forced into exile in 2011. Libya’s strongman, Muammar Gaddafi was killed by his people and Egypt’s latter-day pharaoh, Mubarak, was overthrown. Not seeking to emulate their fate Bouteflika moved quickly to placate a restive population by providing subsidies, increased government jobs and public sector pay increases. All this was financed by oil revenues. For a while, it seemed the population was placated and it was business as usual for Bouteflika and the `pouvoir’ (power) behind him representing members of the military, secret services and businessmen.

However, recent events suggest that a combination of external and internal factors are finally catching up with Bouteflika and his cabal. In Sudan, the tripling of the price of bread sparked nation-wide protests which resulted in Sudan’s long-running president to step down from the ruling party. Similar economic issues has also sparked tens of thousands of Algerians to take to the streets, the largest protests the country has seen since the Arab Spring uprising eight years ago.

Algeria has always been heavily dependent on its oil and gas reserves, but this has not translated into economic benefits for the ordinary citizens. Indeed, the distribution of this largesse has always been opaque, resulting in Algeria being perceived as one of the ten most corrupt countries on the planet. To complicate matters, oil revenues have fallen by 50 percent and there has been a marked decrease in public services including health, education and housing. Whilst fiscal and trade deficits spiralled upwards, international reserves plummeted and the depreciation of the currency followed. This served to further impoverish ordinary Algerians whilst more than 270,000 educated Algerians sought greener pastures elsewhere with negative consequences for the economy. Moreover, 50 percent of the population is under the age of 30 and youth unemployment is over 20 percent. Frustrated and impoverished youth were the foot soldiers of the Arab Spring and so they have proved again in Algeria as they took to the streets.

In a desperate bid to postpone the inevitable, Bouteflika did attempt to assuage popular anger by promising to serve only one year should he be re-elected for an unprecedented fifth term in the poll to take place on the 18th April. He further proposed to call for early elections and not stand for a sixth term. Popular anger was unabated and the continuing protests compelled him to withdraw from seeking a further presidential term and postponing the April poll for fresh candidates to contest the elections. Whilst this does hold the promise of a new and democratic Algeria, there are dangers too. The question is whether the pouvoir will allow the democratic space to open up – knowing full well that a democratic Algeria cannot allow their aggrandisement of wealth at the expense of the nation to continue or do they dig in their heels and risk civil war?

There is another aspect to this and this relates to the jihadist threat. Militant Islamists have been a problem for this blighted country since the 1990s. It is now clear that Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) seeks to exploit the chaos in the country to advance its own agenda in the same manner it did in Libya following Gaddafi’s ouster. On the 10th March, Abu Ubaydah Yusu al-Anabi, a senior AQIM commander, and Algerian national referred to Bouteflika and the Algerian government as corrupt and illegitimate and spoke of the need to replace it with an Islamic government. He also spoke approvingly of the protests and of the socio-economic plight of Algerians at the hands of Bouteflika’s government. This was clearly an attempt on the part of AQIM to exploit the existing challenges in Algeria to advance its Islamist agenda.

As Algerians celebrate the demise of the Bouteflika era, there is a desperate need not to embrace the message of the jihadists whilst also challenging the pouvoir – knowing full well that their military and intelligence structures are compromised by their role in Algeria’s secret state but that they need this security apparatus to fight the jihadists if they do not want to have a repetition of the 1990s. Professionalism and patriotism is what is needed on the part of Algeria’s serving men and women in uniform now more than ever.

Reflecting on the Moderation of Tunisia’s Islamists – Professor Hussein Solomon

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Reflecting on the Moderation of Tunisia’s Islamists

By Hussein Solomon

Volume 7 (2019), Number 4 (February 2019)

It was Tunisian Muslims who in 2010 took to the streets of the country to overthrow the decrepit kleptocratic rule of President Zine El Abdine Ben Ali. Since then Tunisian Muslims have, by and large, been embracing traditional Islamic values whilst furthering the democratic project. Following the overthrow of the Ben Ali dictatorship during the Arab Spring, Muslim intellectuals utilizing the Qur’anic concepts of consensus, consultation and justice argued that democracy will only be viewed as legitimate if it speaks to the specificities of Tunisia’s histories and the needs of its citizens. The leader of Ennahda, an Islamist turned Islamic party, Rachid Ghannouchi, categorically called for the emancipation of women given the historic specificity that for more than sixty years Tunisia had the `Arab world’s most progressive and women-friendly family code.

To be sure, Ennahda did make mistakes with the hubris of one first coming to power and initially seemed to be more concerned with ensuring full control over the repressive state apparatus than reshaping these Ben Ali institutions to make it more responsive and accountable to citizens. Faced with a popular backlash, they quickly backtracked and reached out to the political opposition as well as to civil society groupings to rule more inclusively. Whilst critiquing Ennahda, it is important to give them credit too. Following the overthrow of Ben Ali, this party emerged the winner in elections for the Constituent Assembly in October 2011. Whilst in the assembly, Ennahda joined with secular parties to forge a coalition government. Moreover, Ennahda did not insist that the source of Tunisian law be Islam. This was a clear repudiation of the Islamist narrative regarding God’s sovereignty. Ennahda’s stance enforced the position of democrats everywhere – that in a democracy, the people were sovereign. Such a position was also in keeping with the principle of freedom of religion which Ennahda also championed.

The leader of Ennahda, Rachid Ghannouchi, reinvented the party as a party of “Muslim Democrats” similar to Christian Democratic Parties in Europe. As such, he split the party into two. One part, the formal political party, and the other focusing on proselytising. This split between the two was also reinforced with Ennahda enacting new rules for party members. Its politicians are forbidden from speaking at mosques and its clerics are not allowed to lead the party. Whilst these seismic changes rankled more conservative Ennahda members, Ghannouchi passionately argued that the, “…presence of religion in society is not something that is decided or set by the state. It should be a bottom-up phenomenon and, with an elected parliament, to the extent that religion is represented in society, it is also represented in the state”.

To be sure, the moderation of Ennahda was also rooted in political expediency. Following the street protests in Egypt which served as setting the scene for the 2013 military coup which ousted the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Ennahda sought a tactical retreat rather than following the fate of the Brotherhood. Ennahda therefore handed power over to a technocratic government in January 2014. From its very founding, there was a discernible nationalist trait in Ennahda, which facilitated its ability to compromise and to find common ground with the secular opposition to Ben Ali’s tyranny. Ghannouchi, moreover was a pragmatic nationalist and sagely noted, “In this transitional situation, what we need is a broad consensus”. It was for this reason that political expediency aside, the moderation of Ennahda was not merely a political ploy but a deeper ideological change. This was to hold positive consequences for the future of the Tunisian state and society.

The creative genius of Tunisian Muslims was also on display in terms of how to deal with the thorny issue of secularism. Instead of Western notions of secularism, the Tunisians embraced the concept of a dawla madaniyah (civil state). In a civil state religious leaders accept the fact that the people are ultimately sovereign and make laws through their elected representatives. At the same time, the authorities in a civil state respect the legitimate role of religion in the public arena. In the process, an indigenous Islamic secularism is being realised. This stands in sharp contrast to previous attempts at secularism in the Muslim world such as in Ataturk’s Turkey or Reza Pahlavi’s Iran where secularism was enforced by a tiny political elite against the wishes of the religious majority. Tunisia’s form of Islamic secularism demonstrates its organic roots and therefore has a greater possibility of achieving success.

The scale of the reforms being undertaken in Tunisia is wholly unprecedented in the Islamic world. Following the 2011 revolution, a series of consultations occurred throughout the country regarding a new Constitution. This was duly enacted in 2014. However, there were other laws still on the statute books which contradicted the 2014 Constitution. To bring these laws in line with the constitution, President Beji Caid Essebi established a Commission for Individual Freedoms and Equality on 8 June 2018. Two months later the Commission duly proposed a raft of reforms that included decriminalizing homosexuality and ensured equal inheritance between the sexes. Prior to this legislation, sons were entitled twice the inheritance of that of their sisters. In addition, Muslim women were allowed to marry non-Muslim men. Prior to this, a ban was enforced which prevented Muslim women from marrying outside of their faith. Whilst some Islamic conservatives have condemned these societal reforms, believing it to be un-Islamic, and staged a march in the town of Sfax to protest the Commission’s proposals, the march only attracted one thousand people – out of a population of 11.4 million Tunisians and the protest march was only confined to one town. Human rights campaigners as well as the overwhelming majority of Tunisians supported the reform initiative. Given widespread domestic abuse, the government passed a bill criminalizing violence against women and in October 2018 another bill that outlawed all forms of racial discrimination got the nod from legislators and the public.

Whilst Tunisia’s young democracy continues to face challenges in the form of Islamic State’s violent terrorist actions, youth unemployment and growing extrajudicial police action, its democratic foundations continue to consolidate thanks to the pragmatism and moderation of Tunisia’s Islamists.