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Islamism and secularism in Tunisia

In Tunisia at least, radical Salafism is not just a challenge to secularists: it’s also a challenge to moderate Islamists like Ennahda.

Some Tunisians see a worrying confrontation developing in their country a year after the fall of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, the first dictator toppled by last year’s Arab uprisings. Salafists have been demonstrating at Manouba University against a ban on female students wearing the niqab, the full-face covering. A crowd chanted anti-Semitic slogans as they gathered at Tunis airport to greet the arrival of Ismail Haniyeh, a leader of the Palestinian Hamas movement, earlier this month. Salafists have already led demonstrations against the screening of two films they deemed unacceptable, one an investigation into Tunisian secularism and another the Oscar-nominated animation Persepolis, which tells the story of a young girl growing up in Iran during the Islamic revolution.

Many among the middle class and on the left complain that Ennahda, the Islamist party that won the first elections in October, speaks a double language, sounding moderate in public while secretly drawing up a radical programme that threatens Tunisia’s progressive achievements. “Tunisia is not a country made for Islamism,” said Noura Borsali, a member of the transitional commission created after the revolution. “We have a relationship with Islam that’s very moderate. You have people who are believers, they believe in God, but the Tunisians are open, they are bons vivants. We don’t have intolerant people or terrorists or violence.”

This seems to echo a similar polarisation in Egypt, where liberal parties have been overshadowed by the comprehensive success of Islamists and more radical Salafists at the ballot box. Is the post-revolutionary landscape in the Arab world to be a battleground between Islamism and secularism?

There are valid concerns about the divide inside these movements between the base and the more moderate-sounding leaders, about ambiguous rhetoric and about the rise of the Salafists. But in Tunisia at least, this is not the whole story.

Firstly, Tunisia is not quite as secular as the guidebooks suggest. Ben Ali used secularism above all as an instrument of coercion. After a brief flirtation with pluralist politics in the late 1980s he began a wave of repression against this Islamists on ‘security’ grounds, but it soon spread to targetting parties across the political spectrum and the press too. Above all he wanted control, of the state and of the official interpretation of Islam. To make the point he built a vast mosque in his name near his palace in Carthage, the scene of Tunisia’s great archaeological heritage. The secularist parties that tried to emulate Ben Ali’s anti-Islamist agenda won remarkably few seats in last October’s elections.

Secondly, Ennahda developed an unusually moderate Islamist philosophy and made an explicit commitment to democracy from the outset. “We tried to make a co-existence between democracy and Islam,” Rachid Ghannouchi, the movement’s leader, told me. “So our view of Islam has become very open.” Often overlooked is the fact that in 2005, Ennahda sat down with several opposition parties, including leftists and communists, and agreed a joint platform on issues such as women’s rights, gender equality, freedom of opinion and relations between the state, religion and identity. Two of the leftist parties involved in those meetings are today part of the coalition government alongside Ennahda. One of the first decisions of the new government was to announce that the Personal Status Code, a progressive piece of legislation protecting women’s rights, would be enshrined as a fundamental law to give it extra protections. In other words, radical Salafism is not just a challenge to secularists: it’s also a challenge to moderate Islamists like Ennahda.

In fact there is some debate among academics about whether Ennahda should even be considered a straightforward Islamist movement, since it does not seek to establish an Islamic state but rather works within the electoral system and since it does not espouse an exclusivist Islamist vision. This is a case the party is keen to make for itself. “For us to be an Islamist party à la Tunisienne is to be realist and pragmatic and to accept that the Muslim religion is not a programme but a background,” said Samir Dilou, a senior party figure who is now the Minister of Human Rights and Transitional Justice.

After all, the primary challenge for the new Tunisian government today is not polarisation between Islamists and secularists, but instead the social and economic crisis that fuelled last year’s revolution. In its election manifesto Ennahda promised to create 590,000 jobs within five years, increase investment, cut inflation and push annual economic growth up to seven percent from 0.2 percent estimated growth for 2011. Those seem extraordinarily ambitious goals. At the same time it must write a new constitution, maintain the cohesion of the new coalition and then contest elections all over again in a year’s time.

Ghannouchi told me people voted for his party out of “recognition of its oppression” at the hands of the former regime and because it offered “morality” in politics and economics. Recognition of oppression may not endure as a source of legitimacy for too much longer and morality in politics is likely to be elusive. Retaining power will be less about the debate over Tunisia’s identity and more about whether the country’s first Islamist government can deliver its promise of economic prosperity and national dignity.


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