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A month of ideas.
Giancarlo Bosetti Editor-in-chief
Association for dialogue and intercultural understanding
Freedom and Democracy
Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Tunisia: from Ennahda to Muslim Democracy
Is This the End of Political Islam?

Azzurra Meringolo

Goodbye to political Islam. From now on the Tunisian political party Ennahda will be a Muslim democracy, or at least that is how its leader Rashid Ghannouchi renamed it on the eve of the last party conference held, finally, in May on the beach at Hammamet. Seven provisions were voted on, ranging from the manner in which the party will be organised to financial issues. This tenth conference was marked by the adoption of a motion on the basis of which Ennahda’s political activities will be separated from religious work that was at the basis of the birth of this movement, condemned to work in secrecy for decades.

The motion attracted the attention of many analysts all over the world. While some have spoken of the end of political Islam in Tunisia, the more pragmatic ones believe that it is instead a rhetorical move aimed at facilitating Western concerns, while Ennahda pursues its long-term objective of creating an Islamic state. A more careful analysis of statements made by Ghannouchi reveals a more complex picture. Even if a distinction between religious and political activities is a significant move, writing an obituary for Tunisian political Islam seems rather premature.

In an interview given on the eve of the party conference to the French daily newspaper Le Monde, Ghannouchi said that Ennahda "is abandoning political Islam to enter Muslim democracy. Ennahda is a civil democratic party whose reference points are the values of modern Muslim civilisation.” Speaking to the delegates gathered in Hammamet, Ghannouchi described Ennahda as "a national democratic party devoted to reforms that, on the basis of national points of reference, are inspired by the values of Islam." Hidden behind this change of terminology there is in primis a brand name issue. As mentioned by Ghannouchi in his interview with Le Monde, violent and terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda and the self-proclaimed “Islamic State” have often invoked political Islam to justify violent action. Describing the members of his party as democratic Muslims, Ghannouchi wishes, therefore, to distinguish them from these other extremist identities that for some time have posed the threat of derailing the democratic path embarked on by post-Ben Ali Tunisia. Since the 2011 revolution, almost six thousand Tunisians have left their country to join jihadist groups in Iraq, Libya and Syria. During its 2011-2013 period in government, Ennahda was criticised by many, accusing the party of being lax in dealing with domestic extremism. The current rebranding is therefore aimed at persuading primarily national voters that Ennahda has adopted a firm stand against extremism.

Beyond the Tunisian borders, Ghannouchi instead wants to also send a clear message to his Western partners. Between Ennahda and those responsible for the terrorist attacks in Brussels or Paris there is not only no link whatsoever, but, furthermore, relations are not good.

The decision to distance the party from the words “political Islam” also reflects a concept that goes back to Ennahda’s birth and raison d’etre. According to Ghannouchi’s reconstruction, political Islam emerged as a reaction to two regional trends that for years fuelled one another; dictatorship and secularism. After the Tunisian revolution had eliminated the first and released Ennahda from its clandestine status, political Islam would have no reason to exist in the country. What is needed now is a democratic party devoted to reform, something similar to a civil rights organisation. Islamic Law, sharia, should also be interpreted within this framework and its objective, according to Ghannouchi, is not the creation of an “Islamic state” but the achievement of social justice.

This process requires above all the reform of the party that, following the 2014 electoral defeat, has spent the past two years reflecting on its future. The party conference held in May, came after years of animated internal debates that were mainly concentrated on words such as politics and proselytism.  In the end, although delegates attending the party conference opposed fasl (separation), they approved the word takhassus (specialisation), according to which, within the movement, those specialised in politics should deal with such matters and not with religion, and vice versa. In reality, Ennahda’s leaders will no longer be able to preach in mosques or hold leadership positions within religious associations. As Ghannouchi  explained “the political arena is not inside mosques.”

Subjects addressed at the centre of the political agenda will not be religious ones, but only issues that are those citizens care most about, such as corruption, unemployment, the economy, etc. With the 2017 local elections approaching and a general election in 2019, Ghannouchi is well aware that he must broaden his base and that to do so he must provide answers to the everyday problems faced by the people.

Although it is still early to attempt to understand how in reality Ennahda will react to the new policy outlined by Ghannouchi, what is certain is that there is now a debate that will have wide ranging repercussions. Even if many analysts tend to see analogies between Ennahda and the Turkish AKP at the start of the century, the real model Ghannouchi seems inspired by is the Moroccan one, where an Islamist party legislates in parliament, but leaves strictly religious activities to its sister organisation, which is active in civil society. Only time with tell what path Tunisia will follow, but one can already bet that the debate within Ennahda will also address other hot topics, and primarily the relationship between religion and public life. Until now Ghannouchi has criticised all those who have tried to exclude religion from public life, but the ongoing debate will affect not only Tunisia’s democratic future, but also that of other movements based on political Islam and spread all over the region.

Translated by Francesca Simmons


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