The largest party in Tunisia’s parliament, Ennahda, took a remarkable step this week. Born as an Islamist party decades ago in a religious struggle against secular dictatorship, it decided to separate its political and religious work. It now sees itself as a civil party, secure enough in the country’s new democracy to declare that the practice of Islam should be a private matter.
“We must keep religion far from political struggles,” said Rachid Ghannouchi, the party’s founder and president.
Ennahda, which means the awakening, has long proclaimed an Islamic identity for Tunisia. But it has also walked a fine line between two extremes in a country that launched the Arab Spring five years ago.
The one extreme have been those Muslims who justify violence for religious ends. The other is what the party calls “secular extremism,” or the state using its power to suppress religious expression – which was the case during most of Tunisia’s postcolonial period.
The party now sees the Constitution, which was approved in 2014, as enshrining freedom of religion but also making clear that Islam and democracy are compatible. In fact, the country’s secular president, Beji Caid Essebsi of the Nidaa Tounes party, was the honored guest at Ennahda’s party gathering.
Tunisia remains a model for the Arab world in its steady embrace of democratic values, even if the Arab Spring has faltered elsewhere. Now it is also a model for how political parties, rooted in conservative aspects of Islam, can coexist with other parties, including secular ones.
Ennahda’s move shows Muslims need not fear a loss of identity in also adopting a civic identity.