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Religion and Society

The Tunisian Exception: the Islamist Compromise

Ennahda party declared it is framing its actions in terms of “transition and change”. Is a move towards a “Muslim Democracy” along the lines of European Christian Democracies possible?

It has been defined an historic turning point: during its tenth Conference, held in Hammamet from May 20 to 22, the Tunisian Ennahda party decided to abandon religious preaching (da’wa) in order to focus on political activity. For the party leadership, which had already announced that it was framing its action in terms of “transition and change” right after the 2011 revolution, this decision should sanction Ennahda’s departure from political Islam and its entry into “Muslim democracy.” However, the meaning of this evolution has yet to be evaluated.

 

In political language, the novelty is undisputed, as highlighted by a reading of the final statements of the past two conferences: the 2012 conference opened with a resounding citation of the Qur’an (“And remember when you were few, deemed weak in the land, fearing lest people should carry you off by force, He sheltered you and strengthened you with His help”), evidently intended to celebrate the triumphant return of Ennahda in the Tunisian public sphere, and among the intellectuals referenced by the movement, Muslim Brotherhood founder Hasan al-Banna was mentioned unashamedly. The communiqué of the 2016 congress is less emphatic, lacking Qur’anic quotes and entirely focused on the “strategic choices of the party.”

 

 

Specialization rather than Secularization

 

 

However, this does not represent a party’s departure from religious reference, nor its secularization. Rachid Ghannouchi, the historic leader of Ennahda, declared in an interview with CNN that, in the mind of a Muslim, there is no separation between religion and politics. Rather the change is explained in terms of a “functional specialization:” “every sphere must be entrusted to specialists,” said Ghannouchi, and if “religious affairs are the responsibility of religious experts, political affairs must be handled by politicians.” Essentially this means that party leaders will no longer be allowed to hold leadership positions in civil society organizations, including religious organizations, nor preach in mosques.

 

Furthermore, Ghannouchi explained in a long interview with pan-Arab newspaper, al-Sharq al-Awsat, that the totalitarian nature of Islamist movements was connected to the historical context in which they appeared, concluding candidly that, “after the fall of the totalitarian State and of the government’s totalitarian party” (Ben Ali’s party) Ennahda shifts “from totalitarianism to political specialization.”

 

 

Nevertheless, what has been described as a natural evolution was actually quite a rude awakening. Following the revolution in 2010, Ennahda presented itself, also owing to the majority obtained in the 2011 elections for the Constituent Assembly, as the force that was naturally entrusted with leading the transition by virtue of the combination of Islamic awakening and democratic awakening. The path was much more uneven and dramatic than expected and the Islamists, restrained by a mature and determined civil society, had first to give up their Islamization projects, then abandon power and finally suffer defeat in the legislative elections of 2014. However, unlike the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, Ennahda and in particular its leader Ghannouchi decided to avoid clash, accepting a roadmap which in the name of national dialogue led to the drafting of the new Constitution and a coalition government with former arch-rivals Nidaa Tunis. Hammamet’s turning point falls within this framework, by leveraging the Fundamental Law which, the product of a political compromise, ambiguously establishes the relationship between religion and politics, stating that “the State protects religion, guarantees freedom of conscience and […] assures the neutrality of mosques” (art. 6).

 

 

Ali Laarayedh, an Ennahda historic senior official and president of the tenth Conference, has thus felt able to say that the evolution of the party is made possible by the fact that society’s identity and religion are now guaranteed by the State.

 

In this sense, the transition from Islamism to Muslim democracy marks Ennahda’s integration in the very same State against which it had been fighting for decades, a passage sealed by the “blessing” imparted to the party Conference by Béji Caid Essebsi, the current President of Tunisia and symbol of the old regime. In this regard, Moncef Marzouki, historic democratic opponent to Ben Ali who was President of Tunisia during the transition and former ally of Ennahda, wrote on al-Jazeera that “instead of confirming the alliance with the forces that herald projects for the future, in many Arab countries political Islam is becoming a part of the very regimes that the people of the Arab Spring rose against.”

 

 

A matter of adjectives

 

 

Others, in Tunisia but not only, are skeptical about the exact scope of the Ennahda change, which they consider to be the umpteenth sleight of hand implemented by the party to disguise their real plans. The issue is probably more complex and is not necessarily linked to the sincerity of the intentions, as much as to an imperfect connection between theoretical reflection and practical choices within the Islamic political organization. For example, it is unclear what a Democratic Muslim party entails. Many observers have suggested Ennahda take a path similar to that of European Christian Democratic parties, but this parallel remains to be explored. Regarding Christian Democracy, the Italian Catholic philosopher Augusto Del Noce wrote that “Democracy is not a straightforward term and assumes full meaning through the conception of human nature that it presupposes, that is, through the adjective that specifies it.” According to Del Noce, the duty of the Christian Democracy was to “claim a spiritual principle in man that is independent from society.” In the postwar period, this came to assume an anti-totalitarian function, and starting in the 1960s, it should have meant the rejection of democracy as a negation of “every absolute value.” What does the adjective “Muslim” add to democracy? Ghannouchi himself has affirmed that unlike the past, today all Tunisian parties recognize themselves in Islam and none are hostile towards it. So, what’s Ennahda’s Islamic specificity? In order to bring its evolutionary process to fruition and make it transparent, Ennahda will have to respond to these questions. The debates of the tenth Conference do not say much about it. The final statement merely says that the party’s Islamic reference implies a value system that does not differ from common human values except for its ability to “renew” such values.

 

 

In his opening speech at the party’s Conference, Ghannouchi also stated that after the defense of the Islamic identity and the defense of democracy, it is time for Ennahda to focus on the economy. Thus, the party is choosing, at least apparently, to put material results ahead of its ideal inspiration, a move reminiscent of the early Turkish AKP. It is a comprehensible decision, especially when one considers the context of deprivation from which the Tunisian revolution sprung, but which risks, especially in case of failure, leaving the arena of preaching open to more extremist organizations.

 

 

Commenting on the turning point of Islamists, the Tunisian intellectual Muhammad Haddad wrote that such resolves none of the country’s real problems. Ennahda has essentially proven that it can adapt to change. It still has to demonstrate that it is capable of leading it.

 

 

*Translated from the Italian original

 

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