Leader of Tunisian political party Ennahda, Rachid al-Ghannouchi. (Photo: AFP)
The rebranding of political Islam has just started. In an interview with the French newspaper Le Monde, Ennahda leader and founder, Rached Ghannouchi, announced that Ennahda would no longer be campaigning on a foundation of “political Islam.” “We are leaving political Islam and entering democratic Islam,” he said. Ghannouchi, one of the smartest Islamist leaders in the Muslim world, is right to look for a new image of Islamism, a term presently tarnished by failure and disappointment. The term “democratic Islam” is new, appealing, and has already gained the attention of many sympathizers in the Western world. The question, however, is: Can Ghannouchi’s new benevolent approach work?
Writer Abdulrahman Al-Rashed is already skeptical. Al-Rashed wrote that in his opinion, there are “two Ghannouchis” – the one who addresses the West, and the one who leads Ennahda. Al-Rashed highlighted how Ghannouchi had made contradictory statements. During an Ennahda Party congress in Tunisia, Ghannouchi had said, “We’re surprised by some parties’ insistence to eliminate religion from national life, although the leaders of the national movement have historically adhered to our Muslim religion.” That statement clearly differs from his bold views expressed in Le Monde.
Despite this perceived contradiction, to judge Ghannouchi’s new brand of “democratic Islam” objectively, it is crucial to look at his proposed manifesto, his working plan, and not just his words. Monika Marks, a Visiting Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), says the key change Ghannouchi advocates is separating the political party (Hizb) from its Islamic movement (Harka) that has traditionally been associated with charity, religious education, and preaching, and defines the political party as a national, civil, and democratic organization open to all Tunisians. Ghannouchi clearly wants to go in the same direction Turkey’s AKP went in the early 2000s, when it transitioned from an Islamist movement to a broad, national party that attracted many Turks for secular reasons, such as supporting the AKP’s economic program, as Monika Marks has explained.
Nonetheless, there are many political and religious challenges to this new approach by Ghannouchi and his Ennahda Party.
Politically, Turkey has experienced an evolutionary path that differs fundamentally from Tunisia and the rest of the Arab world. In Turkey, the AKP Party has managed to mix Islam as a religion with the country’s rich Ottoman history to create a new Islamo-nationalist identity that appeals to many in Turkey. In contrast, it will be hard for Ghannouchi to export the belief that Islamist nationalism appeals to loyalists outside Ennahda and attracts non-Islamist Tunisians, who are already skeptical about political Islam.
Moreover, Turkey in 2000 differs radically from Turkey in 2016. Erdogan has tightened his grip on power and silenced all his opponents. Even Erdogan’s friend, ex-Prime Minister Davutoglu, one of the main architects of the Turkish model, was forced to resign recently as part of Erdogan’s road to total autocracy. It will be tough for Ghannouchi to promote the so-called Turkish model, while ignoring its outcome: a tyranny via the ballot box.
Some Islamists have already started to distinguish between Erdogan’s autocratic manners and their new brand of “democratic Islam.” It would be naïve, however, to separate the two. Erdogan is the outcome of Islamism and not an aberration of it. The AKP’s other prominent figures, such as ex- PM Davutoglu and ex- president Abdullah Gul, have opted to drift into the shadows, only because they want to keep the party united. In another words, in Turkey the cultish nature of political Islam has overridden its democratic values and led its leaders to betray democracy and allow autocracy to creep into the party. Does Ghannouchi understand those risks? Unlikely. Ghannouchi, like many Islamists, sees Turkey as a model for power, not democracy.
Furthermore, the separation between Ennahda as a party and its social movement may alienate many of its junior cadres. For some Nahdaouis (Ennahda members) the split is another sign that the party is sacrificing principles “on the political alter of pragmatism.”
In fact, this pragmatism could force some to drift towards stricter Islamists groups. A myth currently circulating among many Western pundits is that moderate Islamists can turn the tide against radicalism in the Muslim world. However, the opposite, in fact, is true. A late pragmatism in a political Islamist party that campaigned for years under slogans such as “Islam is the solution,” will struggle to maintain its appeal without digging for a strong religious argument that convinces its followers. Otherwise, it will only lose its engineered authenticity and may force many of its youth to search for other, stricter, puritanical versions of Islamism.
What Ghannouchi is doing amounts not to a divorce of political Islam, but a temporary freeze of its overt nature. Many Islamists distinguish between what they perceive as areas of weakness and vulnerability (“Istidaaf”) when they sense that their appeal is waning within their societies and areas of strength (“Tamkin”), in which Islamism is powerful and expanding. Therefore, Islamist theologians advocate a “temporary” pragmatism where weakness and vulnerability are endured until circumstances change and empowerment becomes possible. In a way, that is what Erdogan has done in Turkey; he was patient and waited until he gained control and then forced his way to further entrench his power.
Ghannouchi simply enacted the above dualism because he [rightly] sensed how political Islam is currently struggling to gain popularity among Muslims; hence the need for a softer, gradual approach toward ruling Tunisia. He is indeed a fox, as Abdelrahman Al-Rashed described him, with a sharp, canny political awareness. He is following in the footsteps of Erdogan with his initial soft approach that, in Erdogan’s case, changed to a bolder, aggressive consolidation of power. Ghannouchi is in no rush to rule Tunisia and is willing to wait until he can transform Tunisia into his desired Islamist haven.
Unfortunately for Ghannouchi, his record of pragmatism among Arab Islamist groups has not been successful. One of the biggest problems the Muslim Brotherhood faced in Egypt was its inability to divorce the father of non-compromising Islamism, Sayyid Qutb, from its psyche and teaching. Until Ghannouchi solves this conundrum, Qutb will continue to haunt him. On the one hand, it will be problematic for Ghannouchi, who previously praised Sayed Qutb, to convince his junior cadres to forget Qutb, even temporarily, and accept non-Islamists, whom they despise, within the party. On the other hand, without abandoning Qutb openly, many non-Islamists will raise questions about his sincerity towards democracy.
So, in short, it is highly unlikely for Tunisia’s Ghannouchi to successfully divorce his party from political Islam___and he probably knows it. What will happen in reality is just the replacement of an overt version of political Islam with a more insidious one that fits in with the current dynamics in Tunisia and the broader Middle East. Some observers in the West may welcome such a softer approach to power, but its success in Tunisia is questionable. Ghannouchi may end up failing to appease the ultra-conservative elements of his party, and equally fail to convince the skeptics among his rivals. For now, however, he will try to enjoy his new brand as the Arab world’s first Muslim democratic leader.