Islamic social democracy in the Maghreb? – Tunisia after the elections

Tunisians vote in the election

The An-Nahda party have emerged as the winners of Tunisia’s first full democratic election since the overthrow of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, taking 40% of the vote. The Guardian has profiled the An-Nahda party leader Rachid Ghannouchi:

An unremarkable-looking man of 70 with silvery hair, wearing an ordinary grey suit, an open-necked white shirt and with a shy, toothy smile, he is an astute politician with a formidable party machine. Months after he returned from 22 years of exile in the UK, the victory of Ghannouchi’s An-Nahda party in Tunisia’s first free elections is a political earthquake in the midst of the Arab spring.

Ten months ago Tunisians took to the streets in a revolution that had no leader, was non-political, non-ideological and non-religious, ousting the dictator Ben Ali and inspiring similar uprisings across the region. Now Ghannouchi’s brand of moderate Islamism has taken around 40% of the vote in what he calls “the first free and fair elections in the Arab world”.

It is the first Islamist election success in the region since Hamas won a Palestinian vote in 2006. Nahda (Renaissance) has defined itself as “a new model for the world”: Islamist and pro-democracy, modern, open and consensual, an antidote to the western notion of a clash of civilisations.

The party accepts it must now tread a fine line to navigate Tunisian society. The small Maghreb country has a long secular tradition, a strong civil society, a relaxed attitude to religion and the most advanced women’s rights in the Arab world. If 40% of voters chose Islamists, 60% voted for parties which were secular or preferred to keep religion in the private sphere.

Brutally oppressed, exiled, imprisoned and tortured under Ben Ali, Nahda owes part of its election success to its standing as a party which struggled for decades against the old regime. “It is an extraordinary moment. In less than a year, An-Nahda has gone from an underground movement in exile that didn’t exist on the ground in Tunisia, to a legal party and now, we can suppose, to the centre of a government team that will have to respond to socioeconomic demands,” said Malika Zeghal, a Tunisian professor of Islamic thought at Harvard University.

Ghannouchi is the subject of a detailed chapter in Deina Ali Abdelkader’s fascinating and timely study of Islamic politics, Islamic Activists: the Anti-Enlightenment Democrats. She argues:

His changing views are a barometer of the political evolution of modern Middle Eastern societies.

Ghannouchi praises the Enlightenment as the agent provocateur for change in the Muslim world. However, he criticizes one of the Enlightenment’s basic tenets, which is the separation of reason from Revelation/faith.

Ghannouchi’s well-rounded, cross-cultural understanding of the ideological dynamics of social/political change informs his moderate stance on issues that pertain to ijtihad and democracy. He is not as queasy about Western-style democracy as other Islamists, in that he is willing to recognize the ideological underpinnings of democracy as defined by the West.

With chapters on a range of other activists and thinkers, Abdelkader’s book is vital reading for students, scholars and anyone seriously interested in Islamic political theory and action.

Debate still surrounds the nature of the An-Nahda party and how it will govern. Ghannouchi argues in the Guardian that the party will respect liberal aspects of Tunisia’s legal code and aim for greater social justice:

Nahda has promised 590,000 new jobs over five years and to cut unemployment to 8.5%. Ghannouchi said: “Economically we want a model like Sweden, a social model [and] welfare state, while encouraging entrepreneurs.”

On family values, Nahda has promised not to touch the Tunisian legal code which made it the only country in the Arab world to outlaw polygamy, mandated women’s approval to get married and set limits on a man’s power to divorce. But Ghannouchi wants to promote the importance of marriage and lower the divorce rate.

“There was a process of dismantling and fragmenting society under despotism, the family was crushed,” he said. “We have the third highest divorce rate in the Arab world. There’s a societal problem, which we want to address and not brush over.”

Visit the Guardian to read the article in full.

Islamic Activists

The Anti-Enlightenment Democrats

Deina Ali Abdelkader

A thorough explanation of Islamic scholarship on democracy, which shows that enlightenment values are not essential to democratic societies.

£17.99 only £16.00 on the Pluto site

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