Tunisia Started the Arab Revolts, Now It’s Beat Back the Islamist Tide

Faced with voter dissatisfaction and the threat of ISIS next door, Tunisia’s leading Islamist party has chosen to embrace secular democracy over theocracy.

Fethi Belaid/AFP/Getty

LONDON — Something great is afoot in Tunisia. Having sparked the consecutive Arab uprisings that began over five years ago across the entire Middle East, the country is now proving itself a pioneer once again in the region.

Last weekend, Tunisia’s once-Islamist Ennahda party officially declared that it will separate its religious activities from its political ones. It now insists on the absolute political neutrality of mosques. In other words Ennahda, Tunisia’s version of the Muslim Brotherhood, just approved an internal reform that acknowledged the primacy of secular democracy over Islamist theocracy.

Amid all the dictatorships and destruction, the turmoil and turbulence, the extremism and extermination, finally some good news from the bitter politics of the Arab world. Such is the dearth of political progress from the wider Middle East today that only a fool would not seek to exploit the opportunity such an pronouncement presents.

Ahead of last weekend’s party congress that formalized this change, Ennahda’s founder and leader, Rached Ghannouchi, who once supported enforcing an interpretation of Islam as law, told the French daily Le Monde that “political Islam” no longer had a place in the Middle East.

"We want religious activity to be completely independent from political activity,” Ghannouchi said. “This is good for politicians because they would no longer be accused of manipulating religion for political means and good for religion because it would not be held hostage to politics… We are leaving political Islam and entering democratic Islam. We are Muslim democrats who are no longer claim to represent political Islam.”

Ghannouchi’s reforms were overwhelmingly adopted by a jubilant conference that saw over 13,000 party activists packing a stadium. An overspill of 2,000 more waited in anticipation outside. Non-religious songs filled the conference hall, young girls without headscarves were given the stage, and Ghannouchi’s secular political rival Nidaa Tunis leader President Beji Caid Essebsi—yes, the man who ousted Ennahda in the last election—was the guest of honor for the evening.

Surprisingly, the party remained highly unified despite the unprecedented reforms: 80.8 percent of delegates voted in favor of separating the political from social work, and 87.7 percent voted in favor of Ghannouchi’s new intellectual vision for the party. Ghannouchi himself easily regained his presidency with a whopping 75 percent of the delegates’ votes.

None of the above should imply that Tunisia’s journey towards secularism will be without its challenges. Many Tunisians— and others who follow events in the region—will remain wary of a resurgent Ennahda. They may believe this to be nothing but a ruse in order to gain power in local elections next year, ahead of the 2019 general election.

But between the Egypt that didn’t even try, and the Turkey that tried and failed, there are reasons peculiar to Tunisia that may just allow this brave experiment to succeed.

In Egypt, when that great mothership of global Islamist groups, The Muslim Brotherhood, was confronted with a similar opportunity for reform in 2013, it chose to cling arrogantly to power in disbelief that a Muslim people could ever reject “the rule of God” once given a chance to “enjoy” it. It took a military coup to oust them, and Egypt is suffering the consequences of that coup until today.

In Turkey, the world gave Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AKP party a chance to pioneer a post-Islamist era, known enthusiastically as the “Turkish model,” only to be terribly disappointed by Erdogan’s recent delusions of grandeur, and neo-Ottoman pretense to the resurrection of a Sultanate.

Many may wonder what guarantee we have that Ennahda won’t revert back to the stubbornness of its Egyptian mothership, or even develop a chronic case of Erdoganitis many years down the line.

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Of course, these are valid concerns. Only vigilance can guard against them. But unlike in Egypt and Turkey, the advantage Tunisians have is that Ghannouchi has already been in a position to try and cling on to power, but instead he voluntarily ceded it.

The identity of the person making this announcement for reform is as important as what has been said. Ghannouchi founded and led what remains the largest political bloc in Tunisia’s Parliament today. He was sentenced to jail under the pre-revolution regime and lived in exile for 20 years, only returning after the 2011 uprising that ousted former strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

After Ghannouchi returned home, he went on to win the post-revolution election in October 2011 with 37 percent of the vote, forming the first Islamist government of the Arab uprisings.

Two years later, and about a month after Gen. Abdel Fattah al Sisi ousted Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, Ennahda faced large-scale popular protests demanding an end to its rule. This second wave of popular Arab street protests, this time against Islamism, rendered Ennahda's government untenable.

But instead of resisting the will of his own people, Ghannouchi had the foresight to help approve a new secular constitution++, before retreating from power and agreeing to a government of technocrats to avoid political confrontation.

By 2014, the secularist Nidaa Tounis party of President Essebsi had beaten the by-now scandal-ridden Ennahda in a popular vote. To collective sighs of relief everywhere, Ghannouchi’s Islamists had the political wherewithal to step aside and allow a peaceful democratic transition.

That moment set Tunisia apart from the political disasters that have beset the rest of the region since.

Ejected from power, and coming to terms with the ideological shock of having been rejected by the ummah, or Muslim community (ideologically this should not have happened, for God promises victory to the “true” believers) Ennahda began a process of deep introspection.

It was this process that Ghannouchi commented on during last weekend’s annual party congress: “We are a party that never stopped evolving… from an ideological movement engaged in the struggle for identity—when identity was under threat—to a comprehensive protest movement against an authoritarian regime, to a national democratic party devoted to reform.”

Shocked into action by the scourge of ISIS that arose to subjugate entire cities in Syria and Iraq, and is on the rise in Libya, Tunisia’s neighbor, Ennahda initiated a serious process of soul searching.

Ghannouchi told the congress: “We reaffirm Ennahdha's absolute support for the state in its war against ISIS and the extremists who excommunicate others… We are keen to keep religion far from political struggles and conflicts, and we call for the complete neutrality of mosques away from political disputes and partisan exploitation.”

Enter post-Islamism. These are Muslim democrats. They are akin to religiously conservative Republicans in America. Not quite liberal, but certainly not theocrats. They may be religious in their personal lives (so what), driven to public service due to their religious conviction (again, so what), but they do not seek to impose their religious views on others. They represent religious people in politics, instead of politicized religion.

Crucially, they surrender any claim that only their manifesto represents Islam. Instead, they acknowledge that politics is a matter of man-made policy, as Ghannouchi elaborated: “A modern state is not run through ideologies, big slogans and political wrangling. It is guided by social and economic programs and solutions that provide security and prosperity for all.”

Yes, there will remain challenges. Of all countries globally, Tunisia has sent the highest number of foreign fighters to join ISIS. But this is why it is so important to seek a way out of the civilizational disaster that is Islamism.

As I suggested in my dialogue with the atheist thinker Sam Harris, the process of Islamic reform begins by a cessation of monopoly claims to truth, giving rise to democracy, which in turn leads to pluralism, necessitating secularism, which can eventually give rise to liberalism.

No matter previous failures, success for post-Islamism in just one case offers irrefutable proof that Islam can be reconciled with secular liberal democracy by Muslims themselves. Thus proving both Islamist theocrats and anti-Islam doomsayers wrong. For all our sakes, if it can be reconciled, it must be.

The best part of this is that Ennahda’s sincerity, or lack of, is not relevant. Declaring the separation of Islam from politics requires an articulation of the case for it, if merely for survival reasons.

Among Islamist circles, arguing this case will spark a fierce debate. Once started, such debate takes a life of its own. And debate is all one can ever really hope for in achieving a Muslim Renaissance. The alternative is more violence.

Already, Ennahda’s move has had an impact on it’s Egyptian counterpart. A week later Gamal Heshmat, a senior member of the Muslim Brotherhood Leadership Council in Egypt, expressed a desire to separate politics from religion.

History is made by a series of long marches. Only ten years ago I too was an Islamist. In fact, so strident was I in my misguided desire to resurrect a “caliphate” that I even argued with Ghannouchi’s own son Baraa, while overlapping time with him at my undergraduate college in London.

I recall insisting that his Ennahda version of Islam was simply not revolutionary enough. But time changes us all. And as the Arab uprisings have shown us, it is evolution not revolution that is best placed to settle the political disputes of the wider Middle East. It was, after all, my own slow political evolution that brought me to these very views today.

Last week I wrote in disappointment that the “Turkish model” is dead. This week, I write with optimism: long live the Tunisian model.