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Religion and Society

Turkey and Tunisia: a Possible Parallel?

Ennahda’s announcement divides the Islamists, fails to convince the Secularists and opens a debate in countries where the experiment of the separation of mosque and politics has already been done

The recent decision of the Tunisian Islamist party, Ennahda, to separate political activity from religious activity has sparked debate among Muslim intellectuals. Within the Arab world, the announcement has raised the dismay of both the Islamists, who consider it to be a concession, and the Secularists, who accuse Ennahda of creating two competing discourses. Beyond the Arab world, Ennahda’s announcement has opened up deliberation in Turkey, where the Islamist AKP party has already taken a similar path over the years, only to experience recently an authoritarian drift that has led some intellectuals to wonder about similarities and differences between the two parties.

 

 

A Break in the Islamist Front

 

 

The Palestinian Bashir Musa Nafi‘, among the great Islamist intellectuals, accuses Rachid Ghannouchi, the Ennahda leader, of “having turned his back on the Islamic political identity, of no longer considering preaching one of his priorities” and of having transformed his movement into “a secular, Tunisian, national party which has severed its ties with the Muslim Brotherhood.” Ennahda made its first mistake in 2011 when it announced its transformation from a movement into a political party, thus renouncing its role in preaching in favor of a strictly political role. “This means that Ennahda relinquished preaching the moment that political life was free again in Tunisia. Since political Islam is necessary for the life of Arab and Islamic societies […], the void it leaves behind will be filled by nihilistic Salafi-jihadist groups and formations closed to ISIS.”

 

 

Furthermore, for the Islamist intellectual, the distancing from the Muslim Brotherhood and from political Islam would be serious for the accusatory tones that Ghannouchi used towards “a sizable political movement, which is the majority political trend in a considerable number of Arab States.” Musa Nafi‘ credits the forces of political Islam with having fought for the independence of their countries, the freedom of the people, and the establishment of a just government for nearly a century. According to Musa Nafi‘, the novelty of Ennahda’s argument resides in a language that “sanctifies the State,” one which is much closer to that of Vladimir Putin than that of democrats. This argument – explains Nafi‘ – would be comprehensible if Tunisia was an important state or if its history were filled with success. But this is not the case: Tunisia is young, it was born in the mid 18th century and it has a history studded with failures: it was unable to safeguard its own independence from colonial powers and it was unable to produce its own rebirth (Ennahda is Arabic for rebirth). The Islamist intellectual concludes: “Rather than a discourse of sanctification, what Ennahda could offer post-revolutionary Tunisia is a critical confrontation with the State.”

 

 

The Concerns of the Secularists

 

 

Secularists, conversely, are wary and suspect Ennahda is playing a double game. Leila Babès, Franco-Algerian intellectual and professor of Sociology of religions at the Lille Catholic University, believes that Ennahda does not circumvent the impasse of all political and religious movements that have arisen in the Islamic world. The contradiction inherent in their ideology, between the quest for power and the criticism of authority, impedes them from thinking thoroughly about the political dimension, she explained to Oasis. According to Babès, Ennahda’s move in Tunisia is dictated by the contingency and the awareness of its fragility. Unlike Egypt, in which the Brotherhood is well rooted and influential, in Tunisia the equilibrium is much more complex, the Islamists’ forces are balanced by the Secularists’ ones, and therefore, Tunisian Islamists would have had no choice but to make an attempt at reform.

 

 

Beyond the reliability of Ghannouchi and of Ennahda’s project, Babès is convinced that the Maghreb is experiencing a gradual secularization, if nothing else by virtue of the geographical proximity of Europe whose values Tunisia and Morocco in particular are looking at, and the work of Habib Bourguiba, the founder and first President of modern Tunisia. Bourguiba was courageous – explains Babès, “he carried out audacious reforms which at the time earned him a death fatwā from the mufti of Saudi Arabia, but he was unable to remove the part of the constitution that says ‘Islam is the State religion’ because the ulamas of Zeytuna – Tunisia’s oldest mosque and an important place of religious study, Ed. – prevented him from doing so.”

 

 

The Comparison with the AKP

 

 

The polarization between Islamists and Secularists, often both hostile though for different reasons, regarding Ennahda’s evolution, is less evident in Turkey, where intellectuals seem to be more interested in comparing Ennahda’s course of action with that of the Turkish AKP.

 

 

Among Turkish intellectuals, Mustafa Akyol stands out. Fifteen years ago – reminds the Turkish intellectual – even the AKP announced a change of course and its founders had begun to define themselves as “conservative Democrats,” which in their language meant “practicing Muslim Democrats.” As long as the party was weak, it was “moderate,” but as soon as the leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan managed to consolidate power, he revealed himself as an autocrat. Therefore – explains Akyol – if Ennahda takes any inspiration from the Turkish experience, just as Ghannouchi declared multiple times for that matter, its breakthrough is not a reassuring sign. However, the facts and the Tunisian experience at the moment seem to reassure hopes: unlike Erdoğan, an overtly assertive politician in search of personal power, Ghannouchi is a quiet and non-egocentric intellectual and the balance of power in Turkey, where the military has played a prevalent role, is quite different from Tunisia, which in 2011, during the democratic transition, saw the formation of the Quartet for national dialogue, which was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2015. Moreover – Akyol continues – in five years of democratic experience Ennahda has achieved many more results when compared to those achieved by the AKP in the last fifteen years. Mustafa Akyol’s conclusion is therefore that “Ennahda should avoid identifying itself with the Turkish model.”

 

 

*Translated from the Italian original

 

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