How one Tunisian party is separating Islam from politics

The Ennahda movement has renounced political Islam and fully embraced Tunisia’s secular order, seeking to work within it.

Zoubeir Souissi/Reuters
The Islamist Ennahda movement, which had swept to a power just after Tunisia's long-time dictator was toppled in the Arab Spring, came in second to its secular rivals in October 2014 elections. Here Tunisians show their support for the party at a rally in Tunis days before the 2014 election.

Walid al Bannani is part of a wonder of the Middle Eastern political world.

A Tunisian member of parliament, his party affiliation reads Ennahda – one of the iconic Islamist groups that gained in popularity across the Arab world in the 1980s as a backlash to secular dictatorships. But his words could easily have come from a Bernie Sanders rally.

“We have unemployment and a lack of development across the country,” he says fervently.

Then he adds: “We do not have time to be caught up in labels or scare campaigns.”

For decades, labels and scare campaigns have been a fundamental part of Middle Eastern politics. Even for Ennahda, which long charted its own path, one label has been an essential part of its identity: Islamist.

Not anymore.

Mr. Bannani and the Ennahda party are part of a unique Middle Eastern political experiment: They have renounced their Islamist origins in favor of becoming a party that fully embraces Tunisia’s secular order and seeks to work within it.

In other words, they have made the transformation that many Western observers think is necessary to bring stable and vibrant democracies to the Middle East.

Ennahda has critics, both among supporters who feel betrayed and political experts who say the party cannot undo the damage it did to Tunisian democracy in the past.

But Ennahda’s journey from a band of Islamist revolutionaries to a party dedicated to the strengthening of Tunisian democracy offers a rare glimpse at political possibility in the Middle East, others say. While the lessons from Tunisia are unique and not easily replicated in other parts of the region, Ennahda aims to establish a new tradition of “Muslim Democrats” – voters and politicians guided by their faith but committed to the political system of a pluralistic society.

“We are now a national party for all Tunisians,” says Bannani.

The decision to abandon “political Islam” came in May, when the organization formally separated its religious and political activities. For the Islamist groups that sprang up across the Middle East in the 1980s – from the Muslim Brotherhood to Hezbollah – those two functions were seen as inextricably intertwined. The politics was the outgrowth of the religious expression.

For Ennahda, the path to its May decision is a story of radical practicality.

Since Tunisia’s Arab Spring in 2011, the party has been faced with decisions to empower itself or the political system it purported to want to build. And consistently, it has chosen to strengthen Tunisian democracy, seeing in its own short-term losses the seeds of long-term gains for itself and the nation.

At a time when the United States has led Western nations in attempts at “nation-building” in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, it is a reminder of the need for democratic impulses from within.

“We learned that power is not only gained through the ballot box, but through trust – and we had to earn that trust first,” says Ali Laarayadh, who served as the first post-Arab Spring interior minister, and later prime minister.

“Even if we had the votes, we could not govern alone.”

It is a statement deeply colored by Tunisia’s history.

For more than a half century after independence in 1956, governing alone is precisely what was done by the Constitutional Democratic Rally party (known by its French acronym RCD). Under Habib Bourguiba and then his successor, Zine el Abedine Ben Ali, the secular RCD brooked no opposition.

That was how Ennahda began – as a group of like-minded young professionals under the name of the Islamic Tendency. Islam, they argued, should be a guiding force in governance and economic equality.

When Mr. Ben Ali allowed for parliamentary elections in 1989, candidates from Islamic Tendency, now renamed Ennahda, or “renaissance,” nabbed over 10 percent of seats. Ben Ali responded by putting 25,000 members in jail and driving hundreds into exile abroad.

That, say members, is when Ennahda’s unique journey really began.

Exiled in the West

Rather than going to Saudi Arabia or conservative Gulf countries, many Ennahda leaders went into exile in the West. Cofounder Rached Ghannouchi went to Britain, where he would reside for more than two decades, while others went to France.

While the Muslim Brotherhood merged its thinking with the ultraconservative Wahhabi doctrine of Gulf states, Ennahda leaders’ experience was radically different.

They began to blend their Islamist vision with the core tenets of nationalism, pluralism, and European-style parliamentary democracy. They saw firsthand the central role of cooperation and coalition building by center-right and leftist movements.

“In our platform, we did not import a foreign model, but learned from the lessons of our neighbors in the region and particularly those in Europe,” says Abdulhamid Jalassi, Ennahda's vice president for strategic planning.

In a series of writings published in Beirut, Lebanon – and reissued in Tunisia after the 2011 revolution – Mr. Ghannouchi carefully outlined the basis for a modern, democratic Islamic movement. He cited Quranic verses and hadiths, or sayings attributed to the prophet, to support traditionally Western-associated concepts, such as human rights in Islam, civil society in Islam, and the concept of equality in Islamic law and United Nations conventions.

Within Tunisia, Ennahda’s leaders worked covertly within trade unions and university campuses. The experience not only kept Ennahda close to the pulse of Tunisia, but it also led to interaction with the country’s other political movements, such as leftists, seculars, and nationalists.

These ties shaped Ennahda upon its return to the public sphere after Ben Ali’s ouster in 2011. In that year’s elections, Ennahda won 37 percent of the vote. The next closest party won less than 9 percent.

But instead of dominating Tunisia’s post-revolution politics, Ennahda reached out to its rivals to cooperate – and to compromise.

Comprising with rivals

After public backlash, Ennahda dropped an article declaring sharia, or Islamic law, as the primary source of Tunisia’s law. It also dropped a second article that would have placed Islam as the main source of law.

These were core promises of Ennahda’s campaign manifesto, but it instead settled on an article declaring Islam as the state religion, while separate articles were included to guarantee Tunisians the freedom to worship and freedom of conscience – rights previously denied by both the Bourguiba and Ben Ali regimes.

“To us, ‘Islam’ was not just a slogan – we were not setting out to establish an Islamic state,” says Mr. Jalassi. “After living for decades under an extremist secular dictatorship, our biggest concern was securing for all Tunisians to worship as they choose.”

But Ennahda’s defining moment came in August 2013. A string of assassinations of leftist and secular members of parliament, a stagnating economy, and increased concerns of deteriorating security drove tens of thousands of Tunisians to the streets demanding the Ennahda government’s ouster.

So then-Prime Minister Laarayadh did something no Islamist leader has done before or since. He stepped down.

“For years, we were willing to die and be imprisoned for freedom and democracy, stepping down from power in comparison is the least sacrifice,” says Laarayedh. “It was not difficult to take.”

In the elections the following year, Ennahda came second with 28 percent of the vote. Its response: to join its secular rivals, Nidaa Tunis, in a coalition government.

In many ways, though, its decision in May to leave political Islam behind was Ennahda's most dramatic transformation of all.

Ennahda explains its separation of preaching from politics as a natural evolution. With the freedom of religion restored and Tunisians’ Islamic identity no longer under threat, the movement says it can now shift its focus to economic and political causes.

But it is more than that.

Following the model of Christian Democrats in Europe, Ennahda has transformed from an Islamist party to a center-right political party that aims to appeal to all Tunisians. Party insiders say the move should protect it from rivals accusing it of attempting to Islamicize society, attempting to build a caliphate, or regulating citizens’ private lives – accusations which have hurt its standing in the past.

Could Ennahda be a model for other Islamist groups?

Perhaps. But not until other Middle Eastern countries match Tunisia’s open society, Ennahda leaders suggest.

“In Tunisia, we were fortunate not to have an army that interferes in politics, deep security state to over-rule the people’s democratic choice, or foreign interference,” says Laarayedh, the former prime minister. “Where can you find these qualities elsewhere in the Arab world?”

Experts point to another important factor in Ennahda’s transformation: a vocal, but nonviolent, opposition. Hypervigilant leftists and seculars encouraged Ennahda to make more compromises and move to the center without clashing, leading to cooperation. In other Arab states of one-party autocracies and monarchies, there simply is not the political atmosphere to allow such interaction.

“There was a movement strong enough to oblige Ennahda to step back and dial down its rhetoric, but not destroy it,” says Youssef Cherif, a Tunis-based political analyst.

But Ennadha itself faces challenges, too.

“Many people voted for Ennahda because they were Islamists, not because they were Muslim democrats,” Mr. Cherif says. “When they find that this Islamist movement is no longer so Islamic, they may look to an alternative movement.”

Some supporters say they have lost faith in Ennahda.

“They have promised us jobs, opportunities, and Islamic principles, but in the end all they cared about was power – like other political parties,” says Mohammed Youssef, a longtime Ennahda supporter and unemployed engineering graduate from Kasserine.

“What is the difference between them and the others?”

Mouna Bayeh, a university student from Tunis, says she is willing to give Ennahda a second chance.

“Ennahda preserved Tunisia's Islamic identity,” she says. “Now it is its duty to preserve its democratic identity.”

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