Rachid Ghannouchi – Via AFP
Last month, after a three-day party conference, Tunisia’s Ennahda party has re-elected its leader Rachid Al-Ghannouchi. The 74-year-old thinker and politician had tears in his eyes as he embraced his rival in the party vote, which he won with 800 of the 1,058 ballots cast. His crowning coincided with his bold new vision of moving away from political Islam and embracing what he described as “democratic Islam.”
As I wrote in my previous post, I am skeptical that Ennahda can and will divorce itself from political Islam. As I explained, it is, in my opinion, just a replacement of an overt version of political Islam with a more insidious version that fits in with the current dynamics in Tunisia and the broader Middle East.
Some are less skeptical. For example, one of the most vocal opponents of Islamism, Maged Nawaz, despite endless accusations, mockery, and insults showered on him by various Islamists and their followers, wrote how he is optimistic about Ghannouchi’s new approach.
Nawaz rightly highlighted “how the party remained highly unified despite the unprecedented reforms: 80.8 percent of delegates voted in favor of separating the political from social work, and 87.7 percent voted in favor of Ghannouchi’s new intellectual vision for the party. Ghannouchi himself easily regained his presidency with a whopping 75 percent of the delegates’ votes.”
Those numbers are encouraging; nonetheless, they do not reflect the future challenges facing Ghannouchi’s Ennahda party. Again, as I explained in my previous post, years ago in Turkey, President Erdogan’s AKP party cheered Erdogan’s embrace of secularism. But only a few years later, the tune of the party has changed dramatically, and the cadres of overt Islamism have started to reassert themselves.
The debate over the intentions of Ennahda, however, will remain theoretical until the party one-day reaches power. It is already looking ahead to Tunisia’s municipal elections, which are scheduled for May 2017. Only then will its rosy words either translate to actions or vanish like a nice dream, to be replaced by a nightmarish reality. As Hussein Ibish wrote: “Even if the rebranding as “Muslim Democrats” is a cynical ploy, the party will have to follow through to gain power in a Tunisian society that won’t accept old-style Islamism.”
Therefore, to test Ghannouchi’s new approach to politics, here are three questions that I hope the leadership of Ennahda reflects upon and answers.
Can Ghannouchi democratize his party and prevent another “eternal leader,” a la Erdogan?
Personally, I would be more impressed with Ghannouchi if he opted to remain as a spiritual leader to Ennahda and not run again for its presidency. Isn’t it about time for the party to have a fresher, younger leader? Ghannouchi has not deviated much from his beloved Erdogan and remains in full control of his party. That is not an encouraging sign. Democracy is more than a ballot box exercise. If Ennahda is really democratic, it should refrain from concentrating power in the hands of one man. Only then can it convince others of its good intentions.
Will Ennahda’s social Islamic movement (Harka) openly embrace secularism in its social program?
Secularism is not just a political slogan that can only be embraced by politicians; it is a thinking process that should be taught to young followers. Unless Ennahda harmonizes both its political and social messages, it risks contradiction and betrayal of its new rebranding as “democratic Muslims.” How its social movement handles its message, teaches its youth, and preaches in mosques will have profound impacts on its grass-roots relationship with political Islam. An illiberal social program would impede Ennahda’s democratic tendencies and will reduce the party to another failed model—again, just like Turkey’s AKP.
Will Ghannouchi denounce publicly the father of radical Islam Sayyed Qutb?
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. Ghannouchi had a long journey with Qutb, who has influenced him, but he was also influenced by other Islamic thinkers like the Algerian Malek Bennabi, who was not a big adherent of Qutb.
Both Qutb and Bennabi had different views and attitude towards the West, but both were definitely not pro-secularism. Bennabi wrote extensively about how weak vulnerable Muslim societies became “easily colonized” by the West. One way of describing Ghannouchi’s recent cosmetic changes is a counter-colonization approach, a kind of new update of Bennabi’s philosophy. He wants to borrow some Western democratic values in an effort to prevent a total “colonization” of secular principles in Tunisia. Therefore, it is up to Ghannouchi to illustrate to outsiders the difference between his new approach to politics and those of both Qutb and Bennabi. A clarification of Ennahda’s religious outlook is essential to understand and assess the sincerity of its brand of “democratic Islam.”
Ennahda has still a lot of explaining to do. Like any divorce, leaving political Islam means total departure from many of the theological and social beliefs and understandings that were embraced for years, and a less tight grip by Ghannouchi on the party’s main pillars. An illiberal party cannot produce liberal democracy. Therefore, for now, I remain skeptical.