Questions for Al-Ghannoushi
The Islamist Al-Nahda Party has emerged as a major player in post-revolutionary Tunisia. But what does it stand for, asks Muqtedar Khan*
I was in Tunis last week participating in a conference that brought together the main political viewpoints now competing for ascendancy in Tunisia. Several American scholars who study transitions to democracy or Islam and politics were also there. The conference was organised by the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy, a Washington-based think tank that has been promoting democracy in the Muslim world for over a decade.
Sheikh Rashid Al-Ghannoushi was at the conference, and he spoke about his vision for Tunisia and the importance of recognising the long and enduring non-secular heritage of Muslim societies. Al-Ghannoushi, who was in exile in London, has returned to Tunisia after the Jasmine Revolution and has already made a mark as the most important voice in Tunisian politics.
His movement, Al-Nahda (Renaissance), is expected to be one of the major, if not the major, players in the Constituent Assembly that will write the new constitution of the Free Tunisia. The elections for the Constituent Assembly are scheduled for October 23 2011.
Many secular intellectuals and politicians in Tunisia fear that Al-Ghannoushi and his movement may use the democratic process to transform Tunisia into an Islamic state and undermine the civil and political liberties of those who do not share his Islamist vision. Tunisia has made considerable strides in terms of granting women equal rights, and there is a genuine fear among young women that Al-Nahda may seek to convert Tunisia into another Iran.
Needless to say, Al-Nahda and its leadership deny these allegations, describing them as fear-mongering and insisting that they are just another political party, albeit one that places a greater emphasis on the fact that Tunisia is a Muslim country and one that believes that Islamic values can contribute much to political governance.
The success of Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey has given hopes to secularists that Islamist parties elsewhere can thrive in a democratic context without undermining or endangering democracy. It has also given Islamist parties a roadmap to legitimacy. Will Al-Nahda become another AKP, or will Al-Ghannoushi subvert democracy, once he has benefited from it? Everyone wants an answer to this question.
The situation with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is similar, even though the Egyptian context is more complicated than the Tunisian. Al-Ghannoushi is also different from other Islamists. He has benefited from the political asylum provided by Britain and has lived in a liberal democracy for years and understands how it works. It is to be hoped that by now he has also recognised and understood its virtues.
Al-Ghannoushi has also departed from other Islamists and has in the past argued in favour of pragmatism over ideology, rejected the idea of killing religious apostates, accepted the necessity of coalitions and expressed willingness to share power with non-Islamists. Among all the Islamists aside from Turkey's AKP, which insists that it is not an Islamist party, Al-Ghannoushi's Al-Nahda comes across as the most democracy-compatible of the Islamist parties.
However, many of his critics, especially in Tunisia, are not convinced, and allegations of "double-discourse" are frequently made. The argument is that Al-Ghannoushi says one thing when the secularists and the West are listening and another to his followers. Critics also insist that while he, given his unique experience and education, may genuinely be democratic and even liberal, the rank and file of Al-Nahda are not, as is evidenced from the frequent undemocratic sentiments expressed by many of its youth leaders.
Al-Ghannoushi has conceded that his party could do better on discipline.
During the question and answer period at the conference, I asked him whether he realised that if he won a significant share of the Constituent Assembly seats, one of his primary goals, while framing the country's new constitution, should be to protect the rights of those who did not vote for him from those who did.
Will you be able to do this, I asked him. Why don't you put all the fears and suspicions about your intentions to bed by releasing a draft constitution before the elections, and thereby let everyone know what Al-Nahda is striving for?
I was disappointed with his answer. I was hoping for something in the nature of -- "what a great idea: we'll release a draft constitution before the elections," or, "we have already thought of that and are in the process of doing it." But instead all he said was that Al-Nahda was not going to the polls without a programme, and that 150 university professors were currently working on drafting it.
There was no comment on sharing what he or his party would like to see in Tunisia's constitution. Nor did he express a commitment to defending the rights of those who did not vote for Al-Nahda.
I hope that the Tunisian people will demand that all the country's political parties, Islamists and non-Islamists, release a draft of the kind of constitution that they envisage for Tunisia. At the moment, the political environment is full of mistrust, suspicion, and even fear. Self-disclosure that effectively commits the political parties to certain fundamental principles before the elections would reduce the tension and enhance cooperation.
As the Arab Spring spreads across the region, similar disclosures could help reduce the suspicions of those Islamists who claim that they believe in and will work towards establishing democracies. Such disclosures would also force them to commit to democratic principles before they get involved in writing constitutions.
* The writer is an associate professor at the University of Delaware and a fellow of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding.