Tunisia’s Renaissance Party may have signaled the start of a Muslim reformation
BY Nicholas Noe
Over the past 15 years, a steady stream of observers in North America and Europe, in particular, have argued with increasing urgency that the Muslim faith needs to undergo some kind of a reformation, akin to the processes that convulsed Christianity several centuries ago.
A highly-regarded Muslim figure, in that sense, is desperately needed to defeat the rising tide of violent extremists who have positioned themselves as spokespersons of all Muslims.
And Tunisia’s Renaissance Party (Ennahdha) might just be positioning itself to fit the bill anyway.
On May 20, at the start of its tenth party conference, Ennahdha’s Chairman Rached Al Ghannouchi declared in his keynote address that the party is “keen to keep religion far from political struggles and conflicts,” and called “for the complete neutrality of mosques away from political disputes and partisan utilization, so that they play a role of unification rather than division.”
He went on to explain that the formal separation between the political wing of Ennahdha and its religious activities was “not a sudden decision or a capitulation to temporary pressures, but rather the culmination of an historical evolution.”
For some, it was an elegant and sincere eulogy for “political Islam” delivered by one of the leading theoreticians (and practitioners) of the trend since Ennahdha’s founding as a political party loosely affiliated with the Egyptian-based Muslim Brotherhood in 1981.
For others, and quite a few Tunisians, it raised the specter that Ghannouchi and Ennahdha were once again merely practicing a “double discourse,” temporarily adjusting their method because of prevailing pressures that, if withdrawn, would free Ennahdha to foist an Islamic state on the country.
“I think we can see the congress’s decisions as both strategic as well as genuine…an interplay of the two,” says Monica Marks, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
“A clearer division of labor between preaching and politics might actually strengthen both spheres, leading ultimately to greater overall power for Ennahdha, but it is also a move that represents the formalization of long brewing trends in the party”—trends that gravitate towards compromise and co-existence, she adds.
No matter which view is borne out, however, one thing is certain: Ennahdha worked strenuously over the past several years to promote a robust internal debate within both the leadership and the base about what the end of decades of dictatorship in 2011 and the start of democracy meant for the party – and how, precisely, it should deal with these momentous shifts within a national framework.
When the party’s congress closed on May 23, a resounding 80.8 percent of delegates voted in favor of separating political and religious work. Ghannouchi himself was re-elected with a 75 percent majority of the delegates.
“This congress comes as a moment when our party—from the top to the bottom—agrees about what we are doing, about our identity and what our next steps should be after many years of discussion and many difficult challenges that we passed, like agreeing on the new Constitution in 2014,” Sayyida Ounissi, an Ennahdha MP, tells Newsweek Middle East.
“This is particularly important in the context of the challenges in the region,” she adds, citing Daesh, the evolution of the region’s relationship with the European Union and “the desire for Tunisia to come up with a new model in the region,” as examples.
Ennahdha had all of this in mind, Ounissi says, when writing the party’s new membership rules and delineating relations between different party activities.
Among a number of changes promulgated by the congress, Ennahdha officials can no longer hold a position in both the party and a civil society group, including religious organizations.
Party officials are also barred from any preaching, even if informally.
Members no longer need at least two endorsements from current members and, notably, the so-called “moral requirement” was dropped, a rule that attempted to enforce conservative values but which party officials found unnecessary (and impossible) to police.
For other parties in Tunisia and the Middle East as a whole, Ennahdha’s internal democracy—more than its decision to separate political and religious work—comes as both a warning shot and a call for change.
“We see a lot of its competing parties having no representative internal structures, much less a process of internal critique,” notes Marks.
“For the health of Tunisian democracy, no one party should have a monopoly. Matters are reaching a point, though, where other parties need to get their act together instead of just talking about the alleged false moderation of Nahdha. They need to ask themselves, how do we reflect, reboot and recruit in order to aggressively pursue voters?”
If Ennahdha’s move doesn’t jolt competing parties in Tunisia itself—especially secular ones like the formerly preponderant Nidaa Tounes party that recently split—it may just, in the long run, end up having an even more important impact on how Islamists operate generally.
“I think it will reinforce a major rethink in Muslim political thought about what it means to have a political party that wants to build on Islamic values,” says Radwan Masmoudi, director of Washington’s Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy and a figure close to Ennahdha’s leadership.
“But it is also an important practical milestone that, I think, will force many other Islamic movements to rethink their role and their priorities and what they need to focus on.”
With the Muslim Brotherhood, for one, relentlessly pursued in Egypt and elsewhere in the region—including in the Arab Gulf states—and with British and American designations of the movement as a terrorist group possibly forthcoming later this year, a wider strategic rethink may indeed be in the offing.
If that happens, it would mean that for the third time—after having sparked the Arab revolts in late 2010 and winning a Nobel Prize in 2015 for achieving consensus between Islamists and their opponents—Tunisia represents the start of yet another powerful dynamic that goes well beyond national borders.