Tunisia: Democracy after secularism


Elizabeth Shakman Hurd
Elizabeth Shakman Hurd is associate professor of political science at Northwestern University and the author of The Politics of Secularism in International Relations.

The rise of so-called Islamist parties in the wake of the Arab Spring is a product of democracy, not an obstacle
Rachid Ghannouchi, founder of Islamic party Ennahda, faced torture under the secularist administration of then President Bourguiba [AP]

Chicago, IL – In an interview last June, Ajmi Lourimi, a member of the Political Bureau of Ennahda, described the revolution in Tunisia as “a secular revolution. Not a secularist revolution, but secular in the sense that it was neither Islamist nor secularist”. This statement suggests that the so-called Arab Spring has scrambled the secularist-Islamist divide. Parties and movements are creating and operating in spaces defined by something else. This is a remarkable development. Whether they succeed or not, these efforts merit the attention of those interested in the political and religious implications of the revolts across the Middle East and North Africa.

It is not easy to scramble deeply entrenched categorisations. They have long histories. At the time of Tunisia’s independence from France in 1956, President Bourguiba pursued an aggressive secularisation programme aimed at entrenching his power and currying favour with Western allies. His government sought to imitate Western secularist models by marginalising Islam. Sharia courts were abolished, the Zaytouna (a renowned centre of Muslim learning) closed, headscarves banned, and the ulama debilitated.

“For Bourguiba,” one scholar remarked, “Islam represented the past; the West was Tunisia’s only hope for a modern future.” So while European and American forms of what we know as “secularism” emerged out of political and legal disputes within and between Christian-majority states and societies, in Tunisia secularisation was a state-imposed political project associated with the marginalisation of Tunisian history and traditions. Different trajectories of secularisation carry different political and religious histories into the present.

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The rise of Ennahda

Oppositional forces arose, including but not limited to those who later became known as “Islamists”. Many Tunisians disliked Bourguiba’s enforced privatisation of Islam, autocratic state power, and tacit support for continued European economic and political interests. Opposition culminated in the formation of the Islamic Tendency Movement (later the Renaissance Party, or Ennahda), led by Rachid Ghannouchi.

Who is Ennahda? Can they be categorised as Islamists? Possibly. Secularists? Probably not. Something else? Perhaps.

Ennahda began as an apolitical cultural society. This changed in January 1978 when Bourguiba used the military to crush protesters associated with the group. Combined with the success of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, repression convinced Ghannouchi to relate Islam directly and specifically to the lives of the people. In 1979 he became the leader of the more overtly politicised Islamic Association (Jamaah al-Islamiyya), which developed the concept of a “living Islam” concerned with wages, poverty, workers’ rights and national and cultural identity. In 1981 the Islamic Association became a political party and called itself the MTI (the French acronym for Islamic Tendency Movement).

Bourguiba refused to issue a license legalising the party and cracked down hard on its leaders, torturing Ghannouchi and imprisoning him for three years. Severe repression of Islamic groups, symbols and traditions continued, and another violent crackdown ensued in 1987. Ben Ali, like his predecessor, refused to allow the MTI into politics. The party was classified alongside pro-Iranian groups such as Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah, and banned.

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The modernising autocratic state prevailed, but only in the short run. In January 2011 the Tunisian people forced Ben Ali out of office in response to rampant corruption, economic mismanagement and severe and sustained political repression.

For many Tunisians, “secularism” had long been associated with the attempt by the state to denigrate local conceptions of community and authority and in support of outside interests. Ennahda (the name taken by MTI in 1989) represented an alternative Islamically-oriented vision, standing against historical injustices perpetrated by the regime against its people.

It is hardly surprising, then, that in elections last fall Ennahda secured just over 40 per cent of the Assembly’s 217 seats. The three parties holding the largest proportion of seats in the Constituent Assembly are: Ennahda (with 89 seats), the CPR, headed by Moncef Marzouki (29 seats), and Ettakatol (the Rally, headed by Mustapha Ben Jaafar) (20 seats).

But, one might say, Ennahda could still be an Islamist party that threatens democracy. Look at what happened in Iran. Look at the results of the elections in Egypt, in which the Muslim Brotherhood, banned under Mubarak’s regime, won the biggest share of parliamentary seats (38 per cent) according to the High Elections Committee. Its Freedom and Justice party (FJP) has named Saad al-Katatni, a leading Brotherhood official who sat in the old parliament as an independent, as speaker of the assembly. The hardline Islamist Al-Nour party came second with 29 per cent of the seats. The liberal New Wafd and Egyptian Bloc coalition came third and fourth, respectively.

There is room for doubt. As Asaf Bayat points out, we should attend carefully to the limitations of Islamist organisations’ positions and shortcomings in the areas of individual rights, religious pluralism, and democratic practice, just as we would assess our own parties across the spectrum in the United States or elsewhere. We should be wary of what critics describe as Washington’s new “love affair” with the Islamists, and need to engage voices across the political spectrum. Ed Husain is right to point out as he did last week that, “It is essential that the Obama administration continues its interaction with the Muslim Brotherhood while also maintaining relations and support for opposition groups and other political players inside Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood cannot become the new NDP.”

‘Pull of the possible’

Yet outside actors should also consider what Middle East Report calls the “pull of the possible”, and reach out to actors, parties and tendencies that refuse to be defined by the political limitations imposed by a secularist versus Islamist frame. Importantly, such possibilities might be represented not only by Ennahda or the MB, but also among those that do not identify as Islamically-oriented at all but – and this is crucial – are also not averse to working peacefully with parties that do.

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Take the CPR. In the Tunisian election, parties that differentiated themselves successfully from Ennahda but said they were willing to work with it. That emphasised the importance of the secular nature of the state while expressing respect or understanding for the religious feelings of many Tunisians, and did quite well. Among them was CPR, a non-Islamic centrist party led by a physician and dissident human rights activist that did not support an anti-Islamist platform. Part of the reason for CPR’s success, as Melani Cammett has argued, was a refusal to buy in to the scare tactics employed by other parties against Ennahda, while also acknowledging the revolutionaries’ calls for dignity and respect.

Overcoming the urge to classify actors as secularists or Islamists will take some work. The US failed to see the Egyptian revolution coming in part because it followed the lead of the Mubarak regime and divided the world into two camps: radical Islamist threats to the regime and friends of Mubarak (and the US). In failing to gauge the power and position of the majority of Egyptians who did not (and do not) choose to have their identities contained in either of these categories, the US was blind to other political possibilities that were (and are) available, possibilities silenced by Mubarak and kept off the international radar screen by powerful interests in Egypt and abroad.

If interested parties in the region, the media, or the international community re-instrumentalise the secularist-Islamist divide it could jeopardise the long-awaited transition to democracy in the Middle East and North Africa. As Moroccan reformer and blogger Aboubakr Chraïbi insists, “Let’s be clear: it is not Islam that is at stake in the revolutions taking place in the Arab world, it is democracy, or more exactly the demand for democracy.”

Democratic voices that are non-secular and non-theocratic exist across the Middle East today, and not only in Tunisia. Now would be a good time to listen to what they have to say.

Elizabeth Shakman Hurd is associate professor of political science at Northwestern University and the author of The Politics of Secularism in International Relations.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

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