Tunisia's Muslim democracy is exceptional - but doesn't have to be an exception


Picture of Meherzia Labidi Maïza
Meherzia Labidi Maïza

Member of the Tunisian Parliament and vice-president of Tunisia’s national constituent assembly (2011-2014)

For the European Union, the value of promoting democracy and stability abroad has been proven without doubt. From Greece, Spain and Portugal to the first democratic openings in Eastern Europe the EU has an impressive track record of engaging with young democracies, strengthening their civil societies and bringing them more fully into the liberal international community.

Lately this focus has broadened to Europe’s southern neighbourhood, and the promotion of democracy has been embraced as part-value, part-interest by a more outward-looking Union. In the Middle East and North Africa the EU will need to forge partnerships with local democratic actors and learn the stories, traditions and idiosyncrasies of people of different cultures and beliefs who nevertheless desire freedom, inclusion and peaceful prosperity.

Establishing this dialogue is critical. In Arab societies around the Mediterranean and beyond the ideal partners are political parties that stand for democratic governance and give a voice to local people. But this dialogue has been impaired by a widespread misconception of an inherent incompatibility between Islam and democracy. Such an assertion is categorically incorrect and the product of stereotypes, divisive propaganda and the condemnable actions of the small and violent minority that preaches a perversion and perpetrates terrorism.

The best way to understand the compatible nature of Islam and democracy in the modern era is to examine where the two have already come together. One of the most notable success stories is that of Tunisia, a country that, as the birthplace of the Arab Spring, remains the best hope for democracy in a fragile region. Tunisia could successfully navigate the transition to an open and democratic society largely thanks to Muslim democrats, in the form of the Ennahdha Party.

Muslim democracy has an important role to play in providing stability and fighting extremism

Ennahdha was founded in the 1980s on the principles of guaranteed individual freedoms, liberal rule and an Arab Muslim identity, in direct opposition to a repressive regime. A decades-long track record of activism at home and in exile, in favour of individual freedoms and against dictatorship, propelled Ennahdha to first place in the first Tunisian democratic elections in generations in 2011. As such, the party was instrumental in embedding freedoms of religion and expression in the new constitution.

Under the new constitution Tunisians enjoy full freedom of worship and the right to express their convictions and beliefs without fear. With these rights guaranteed, Ennahdha no longer needs nor accepts the label of ‘Islamism’ – a concept disfigured in recent years by radical extremists for their own purposes. The new compromise enshrined in the Tunisian constitution requires religion to be free from the control of the state, but equally for politics to be free of control by religion.

Religion still has a role to play in public and political life, but at the level of values. Key to this – and to understanding Muslim democrats – is the recognition that Ennahdha does not call for a separation between religion and politics but between the religious and political fields. This subtle difference indicates that the separation is not a cognitive but a functional one; – the political field is autonomous from religion, but can be influenced by its principles. This is an approach that was ratified overwhelmingly by Ennahdha’s members in summer 2016. Ennahdha’s evolution should serve as an example to the region: Islam and democracy are indeed compatible, and Islamic movements can play a central and constructive role in successful democratic transitions.

As well as a focus on social justice, economic well-being and national development – key principles for Ennahdha – Muslim democracy has an important role to play in providing stability and fighting extremism, which promotes violence against all moderate faiths and against democratic societies. The only way to truly defeat extremism is to offer a hopeful alternative to millions of young Muslims around the world. Their frustration with social, political or economic exclusion has been exploited by extremist groups that have sought to tap into and deepen anger and resentment; tactics repeated by political demagogues and religious radicals from all backgrounds.

There is enormous potential if partners in the Arab world, in Europe and around the world engaged in an open and honest discussion

The EU has been in the vanguard of countering extremism through economic development and by strengthening democracy in cooperation with partners in the neighbourhood. It has correctly concluded that local democratic governments provide the best institutions to represent and respect the disenfranchised and marginalised in society. Muslim democratic parties, which hold both democratic governance and respect for local identities as core values, are natural partners and critical in ensuring long-term peace.

Ennahdha has set a strong example, not only in the domestic political landscape but in other Arab and Muslim countries. It is a party of consensus, referring to Islam and respecting Muslim heritage while championing freedom and refusing to implement sharia law. Despite having been excluded from political life for decades and vilified by the oppressive regime of Tunisia’s autocratic former president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, it has endeavoured to build an inclusive democracy, becoming a constructive and instrumental partner on the democratic stage since the revolution. Understanding Ennahdha’s ability to bridge the gaps between Islam, democracy, tradition and modernity is essential in understanding democratic Islam. It also suggests the enormous potential if partners in the Arab world, in Europe and around the world engaged in an open and honest discussion about Muslim democracy.

Tunisia’s transition has been exceptional, but its success does not have to be an exception. The values, commitments and compromises that have allowed democracy to take root and flourish can be taken and adapted to other countries in the region to help bring democracy, peace and stability to millions. Ennahdha’s values and work as Muslim democrats have helped Tunisia to become open, stable and free. When you begin with openness and understanding, you open the door to more peaceful and more prosperous world.

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