News / Middle East

    Islam in Tunisia - Will Ennahda Win Usher in Religious Reform?

    Tunisians question the Ennahda Party Constituent Assembly win in a country that has been secular for decades. Others say that’s precisely why the Islamists did win. And everyone is getting an education in democracy.

    The leader and founder of the moderate Islamic party Ennahda, Rachid Ghannouchi, addresses the media during a press conference held in Tunis, October 28, 2011.
    The leader and founder of the moderate Islamic party Ennahda, Rachid Ghannouchi, addresses the media during a press conference held in Tunis, October 28, 2011.
    Cecily Hilleary

    It has been nearly two weeks since Tunisia’s Ennahda Party won 90 out of 217 seats on the new National Constituent Assembly, yet many Tunisians continue to express confusion over what impact this will have on the country.

    Secular Tunisians worry that party leader Rachid Ghannouchi intends to impose sharia.  Some conservative Muslims have renounced Ghannouchi as a traitor to Islam for his liberal stand on alcohol and the hijab.  Meanwhile, many progressive Muslims are wondering whether Ghannouchi may be the reformist they have long hoped for.  The Arab Spring has brought in much-needed political reforms; will it also usher in a “new” Islam?

    Anna Mahjar-Barducci
    Anna Mahjar-Barducci

    Organized campaign

    Secularists are still scratching their heads: How, exactly, did Islamists perform so well in the election.  Anna Mahjar-Barducci is a Moroccan-Italian journalist, author and avowed secularist.  She says she doesn’t regard the results as a “victory” by Ennahda, but a “failure” by secular political parties - 80 of them - who, she says “wasted valuable time” bickering about who should lead what.

    “Tunisians have too many political parties,” she said.  “When you have too many parties competing, you disperse the vote.  It was a naïve way to approach a political election.”

    She says Ennahda was the only party which had a strong base because it has been around under one name or another for 30 years. 

    “Ennahda,” said Mahjar-Barducci, “knew what they wanted, they knew whothey wanted to reach and they knew how to promote their party.”

    Islamists as a breath of fresh air

    Erik Churchill, an independent consultant and journalist who lives in Tunisia and has tracked the elections on his blog, A 21st Century Social Contract, believes that besides being well-organized, Ennahda offered a political message that resonated with most Tunisians.

    “After 50 years of imposed secularism,” Churchill said, “many Tunisians responded positively to Ennahda's message that Islam can play a more active role in people's lives. Likewise, their campaign differed from their secular opponents’ campaigns. Ennahda emphasized grassroots approaches, which went over very well in rural areas.”

    Ghannouchi also holds moral appeal, appearing as a breath of fresh air in the wake of the corruption and moral excesses of the former regime.

    Robert Dreyfuss, author of The Devil’s Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam, believes Tunisians are not as disconnected from Islam as reports would suggest.  Just because Ghannouchi was exiled for so many years, Ennahda was there all along, operating covertly.

    “Even though it’s a very French-influenced, somewhat cosmopolitan country,” he said, “at least in its upper middle classes, in all these countries where you have poverty,  it’s the poor and under class and underprivileged who have been especially susceptible to the appeal of political Islam.”

    Secularist Worries

    After decades of corruption and repression, Tunisians most fear a return to political oppression of any kind - secular or religious.  Some worry that the Ennahda win could eventually open the door to strict Islamic jurisprudence, restrictions on dress and socialization.  Secular Tunisian women are nervous about the possible return of the hijab, polygamy or inequality in the workplace, all prevalent in more conservative Islamic societies.

    Their concerns were heightened during recent protests by Tunisia’s Salafists,  fundamentalists who surfaced during the Arab Spring.  Salafists stormed a university in Sousse for denying admission to a veiled female student. They staged violent protests against the television station and its staff for airing a controversial film about the Islamic revolution in Iran - which they saw as a deliberate effort to confuse voters.

    Reassurances

    Ghanouchi and Ennahda’s secretary general, Hamadi Jbeli, have sought to soothe secularists’ nerves, insisting the party had no role in the Salafist protests. “There is no question of women's return to domestic caring roles,” Jbeli told reporters, “as the Movement's enemies try to spread.”

    Jbeli also promised Ennahda would not do anything to upset Tunisia’s tourism or business sectors, both of which suffered during the Arab Spring.

    Majhar-Barducci says she is inclined to believe these promises.  “Ghannouchi is smart.  Pragmatism is his strongest trait, so he wouldn’t do anything too radical.  The population that voted for him can go against him at any time.”

    Fundamentalist or Progressive?

    So what does Ennahda really stand for?  University of Michigan professor Juan R.I. Cole calls it a “fundamentalist” party because, he says, its platform starts from the premise that there are certain unalterable precepts.

    “Ghannouchi says things like, ‘Islam forbids drinking alcohol-that can’t be changed,’” Cole said.  “I think that’s the hallmark of fundamentalism, when somebody is not willing to examine their premises.  I think Ghannouchi is not as liberal as he represents himself.”

    He cites the fact that Ennahda has likened itself to the AKP Party in Turkey, which has successfully merged Islam and modernity.  Cole does not buy it.  “Unlike the Turkish model,” said Cole, “Ennahda is committed to gradually moving the country closer to what they conceive of as mainstream or orthodox Islamic law.”

    Measuring radicalism

    Dr. Tawfik Hamid is a Senior Fellow and Chair for the Study of Islamic Radicalism at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies.

    Dr. Tawfik Hamid
    Dr. Tawfik Hamid

    “When you put radicalism on a scale of zero to ten, ten is Taliban and Al Qaeda, and I put Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt at a level five, for example.  But the Ennahda Party may be only one or two,” said Hamid.

    Consider, he continues, Souad Abdel Rahim:  One of 36 women among 90 Ennahda members of the new 217-member assembly charged with writing the country’s new constitution and appointing a new government, Abdel Rahim does not wear a veil or headscarf.  Hamid says her mere presence on the Ennahda team speaks volumes for her party, because the hijab is a so fundamental to conservative Islam.

    “Compare this to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.  They will never do this, not even for political reasons, not even to get more votes.  If the Ennahda Party of Tunisia is showing any form of respect to women who do not wear the hijab, I salute them,” said Hamid.

    Hamid believes Ghannouchi is a man of his word. “This is not a shallow man who is making statements for fabrications or for the media.  I think this man strongly believes in what he is saying.”

    Hamid points out that just as youth drove the Arab Spring, there is evidence that youth are also driving changes in religious thinking.

    “I don’t think the young generation would be interested in following a belief that justifies violence against women or forces women to wear the hijab,” he said.  “I see what is happening in Tunisia as part of a trend - a change and mutation in the understanding of Islam that has been happening over the last ten years, I can tell you it probably didn’t happen for a thousand years before it!”

    Annahda’s win in Tunisia as a big step, says Hamid. “Not the ultimate step toward modernity in every aspect, but it symbolizes one thing, that Islam and the Muslim world is beginning to move slowly toward more reforms.”

    If Ennahda manages to make good on its promises, Hamid believes that Tunisia, not Turkey, will serve as a successful a model of modern Islam for the rest of the Muslim world.  It will be, he says, an “antidote” to radicalism.

    Follow our Middle East reports on Twitter
    and discuss them on our Facebook page.

    You May Like

    Former US Envoys Urge Obama to Delay Troop Cuts in Afghanistan

    Keeping troop levels up during conflict with both Taliban and Islamic State is necessary to support Kabul government, they say

    First Lady to Visit Africa to Promote Girls' Education

    Michele Obama will be joined by daughters and actresses Meryl Streep and Freida Pinto

    Video NYSE Analyst: Brexit Will Continue to Place Pressure on Markets

    Despite orderly pricing and execution strategy at the New York Stock Exchange, analyst explains added pressure on world financial markets is likely

    This forum has been closed.
    Comments
         
    There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Brexit Vote Plunges Global Markets Into Uncharted Territoryi
    X
    June 24, 2016 9:38 PM
    British voters plunged global markets into unknown territory after they voted Thursday to leave the European Union. The results of the Brexit vote, the term coined to describe the referendum, caught many off guard. Analysts say the resulting volatility could last for weeks, perhaps longer. Mil Arcega reports.
    Video

    Video Brexit Vote Plunges Global Markets Into Uncharted Territory

    British voters plunged global markets into unknown territory after they voted Thursday to leave the European Union. The results of the Brexit vote, the term coined to describe the referendum, caught many off guard. Analysts say the resulting volatility could last for weeks, perhaps longer. Mil Arcega reports.
    Video

    Video Orlando Shooting Changes Debate on Gun Control

    It’s been nearly two weeks since the largest mass shooting ever in the United States. Despite public calls for tighter gun control laws, Congress is at an impasse. Democratic lawmakers resorted to a 1960s civil rights tactic to portray their frustration. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti explains how the Orlando, Florida shooting is changing the debate.
    Video

    Video Tunisian Fishing Town Searches for Jobs, Local Development Solutions

    As the European Union tries to come to grips with its migrant crisis, some newcomers are leaving voluntarily. But those returning to their home countries face an uncertain future.  Five years after Tunisia's revolution, the tiny North African country is struggling with unrest, soaring unemployment and plummeting growth. From the southern Tunisian fishing town of Zarzis, Lisa Bryant takes a look for VOA at a search for local solutions.
    Video

    Video 'American Troops' in Russia Despite Tensions

    Historic battle re-enactment is a niche hobby with a fair number of adherents in Russia where past military victories are played-up by the Kremlin as a show of national strength. But, one group of World War II re-enactors in Moscow has the rare distinction of choosing to play western ally troops. VOA's Daniel Schearf explains.
    Video

    Video Experts: Very Few Killed in US Gun Violence Are Victims of Mass Shootings

    The deadly shooting at a Florida nightclub has reignited the debate in the U.S. over gun control. Although Congress doesn't provide government health agencies funds to study gun violence, public health experts say private research has helped them learn some things about the issue. VOA's Carol Pearson reports.
    Video

    Video Trump Unleashes Broadside Against Clinton to Try to Ease GOP Doubts

    Recent public opinion polls show Republican Donald Trump slipping behind Democrat Hillary Clinton in the presidential election matchup for November. Trump trails her both in fundraising and campaign organization, but he's intensifying his attacks on the former secretary of state. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone reports.
    Video

    Video Muslim American Mayor Calls for Tolerance

    Syrian-born Mohamed Khairullah describes himself as "an American mayor who happens to be Muslim." As the three-term mayor of Prospect Park, New Jersey, he believes his town of 6,000 is an example of how ethnicity and religious beliefs should not determine a community's leadership. Ramon Taylor has this report from Prospect Park.
    Video

    Video Internal Rifts Over Syria Policy Could Be Headache for Next US President

    With the Obama administration showing little outward enthusiasm for adopting a more robust Syria policy, there is a strong likelihood that the internal discontent expressed by State Department employees will roll over to the next administration. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins reports.
    Video

    Video Senegal to Park Colorful ‘Cars Rapide’ Permanently

    Brightly painted cars rapide are a hallmark of Dakar, offering residents a cheap way to get around the capital city since 1976. But the privately owned minibuses are scheduled to be parked for good in late 2018, as Ricci Shryock reports for VOA.
    Video

    Video Florida Gets $1 Million in Emergency Government Funding for Orlando

    The U.S. government has granted $1 million in emergency funding to the state of Florida to cover the costs linked to the June 12 massacre in Orlando. U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced the grant Tuesday in Orlando, where she met with survivors of the shooting attack that killed 49 people. Zlatica Hoke reports.
    Video

    Video How to Print Impossible Shapes with Metal

    3-D printing with metals is rapidly becoming more advanced. As printers become more affordable, the industry is partnering with universities to refine processes for manufacturing previously impossible things. A new 3-D printing lab aims to bring the new technology closer to everyday use. VOA's George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Big Somali Community in Minnesota Observes Muslim Religious Feast

    Ramadan is widely observed in the north central US state of Minnesota, which a large Muslim community calls home. VOA Somali service reporter Mohmud Masadde files this report from Minneapolis, the state's biggest city.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora