What A Moderate Islamist State Will Look Like


It’s been over two months since a 26-year-old fruit seller, Mohammad Bouaizizi, set himself on fire in the small town of Sidi Bouzid in Tunisia and sparked a wave of uprisings that would rock the Middle East and North Africa. Bouaizizi was angry because his fruit cart had been confiscated by a local police officer. When he tried to pay the fine he was publically humiliated by corrupt officials. His actions triggered events that have already led to the downfall of Tunisia’s president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and to the resignation of Hosni Mubarak. 

Islamist groups have been notably absent from this wave of protests. The protesters who hit the streets of Tunisia, Egypt and other Arab countries were rallying for jobs, democracy and an end to corruption — and not for the introduction of an Islamic state. Both Tunisia and Egypt have long had secular governments: Islamic political parties were banned and Islamist groups were persecuted and given little scope to operate. It’s no surprise then, that these groups were absent from the recent protests. This is all set to change.

In Tunisia, the interim government is preparing to hold free and open elections. To this end, they have revoked the ban on the country’s main Islamist party al-Nahda. This is a moderate party which advocates a democratic Islamic state. It was established in 1981 but has never gained official recognition. In 1988, in a brief period of liberalisation, it put up independent candidates in municipal elections. The official count gave them almost 15 per cent of the national vote, placing al-Nahda second to the ruling party, but allegations of fraud against the ruling party marred the result. According to some observers (pdf) al-Nahda’s vote was as much as double the official figure.

Al-Nahda’s strong result was largely due to its magnetic leader, Rachid Ghannouchi. A fierce and strident intellectual, Ghannouchi’s theories on the compatibility of Islam and democracy provide the backbone to the party’s ideology and give an indication of what a moderate Islamist state might look like.

After al-Nahda’s success in the 1989 election, Ghannouchi and his party become a threat to Ben Ali’s regime and there was increased confrontation between the party and authorities. Tensions rose and finally culminated with claims by authorities, in 1992, that al-Nahda was plotting to overthrow the government and replace it with an Islamic, theocratic regime. More than 100 members and sympathisers of al-Nahda were arrested and charged. Ghannouchi, who had fled to London in 1989, was tried in absentia and sentenced to life imprisonment.

Now Ghannouchi is back.

Following the amnesty issued by the interim government after Ben Ali’s ousting, last month he returned to Tunisia and was given a hero’s welcome. Thousands of supporters gathered at the airport, many of whom were too young to remember him when he was in the country. The scene was reminiscent of Ayatollah Khomeini’s return to Tehran in 1979. But Ghannouchi was quick to reject such comparisons. He has unequivocally stated that he will not personally be running for public office. He wants to leave the spot open for a younger generation of al-Nahda leaders. Even so, he will continue as the party’s figurehead and his ideas will remain central to the party.

So what does this mean for the role of Islamist parties in a new democratic Tunisia?

Ghannouchi has articulated his ideas on the compatibility of Islam and democracy in great detail in books, articles and lectures. He is popular with western academics who advocate the compatibility of Islam and democracy. At the same time, he is not without his detractors. Some have accused him of adopting democratic rhetoric purely as a way of obtaining power for his party. Now Ghannouchi and his party have the opportunity to dispel these accusations by practicing what they have been preaching.

What is novel about Ghannouchi’s thought is the way he grounds democratic liberal ideas in Shari’a law. Shari’a gets a bad rap in the west. Its opponents argue it is an affront to liberal ideals because it has been used to justify sexual inequality, capital punishment and discrimination against non-Muslims. But like any religious text, the teachings that make up Shari’a law can be interpreted in a variety of ways.

By adopting a liberal interpretation of Shari’a law, Ghannouchi reconciles Islam with liberal democratic ideals. He finds theocratic grounding for the concepts of an institutionalised electoral system, equality of citizens, freedom of thought and expression, and for an independent judiciary. Most importantly, he bestows ultimate sovereignty — both in the establishment and operation of the government — on the public.

Women have traditionally been relegated to a position of inferior status in a number of areas of Islamic law. This discrimination is one of the major reservations that sections of the Tunisian public have with Islamic parties.

Ghannouchi has repeatedly asserted his belief in the equality of men and women. Although he does not make reference to any specific discriminatory Shari’a laws and how to get around them, he has gone to great lengths to reassure the Tunisian public that he does not wish to de-emancipate women. He advocates equality in the areas of education, work, choice of home and marriage, ownership of property and political participation. He has also made it clear that he does not believe in forcing the hijab on women.

However, Ghannouchi doesn’t always live up to democratic liberal ideals. For example, although he asserts the equality of Muslims and non-Muslims, he bars non-Muslims from a number of important state positions.

The crime of apostasy is another serious sticking point. He has tried to liberalise traditional interpretations of the crime. He reformulates apostasy as being political, rather than religious and rejects the death penalty as its punishment. But, the fact that a Muslim renouncing their faith is a crime at all is an affront to the liberal ideal of freedom of thought and belief. While his attempt at reconciling Islam and democracy is imperfect, his willingness to moderate Islamic views is a step toward engagement with the concepts of liberalism.

The Islamic world is on the verge of a new era. The Inclusion of moderate Islam in the political process has the potential to reduce Islamic fundamentalism and resolve the religion v secular divide. Ghannouchi and his party are leading the way in this new paradigm. If al-Nahda succeeds in integrating into the democratic process, it will provide a model for other Islamist parties to follow.


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