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

February 17, 2019

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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.

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