Islam and Democracy Not at Odds in Tunisia

By Radwan Masmoudi

The October 23 elections in Tunisia were as important and as historic as the revolution itself. I saw with my own eyes masses of people crying from joy and pride as they cast their votes in the decision on who would represent them in the National Constituent Assembly (NCA), feeling the dignity of participating in an election for the first time in their lives as truly free citizens. A free nation was being born anew.

Today, Tunisians are working on negotiating a relationship between religion and politics, an issue which has only become more pressing as extremists on both sides, secularists and Islamists, have been using their new-found democratic freedoms to push for more radical views. However, compromise and prioritising the nation’s interests are essential ingredients for a successful transition to democracy, and must take precedent over partisan bickering.

Not surprisingly, Al Nahda, an Islamic party with a focus on democracy and human rights, won a plurality with 41 percent of the vote and 89 seats in the NCA. Four secular parties, that do not advocate a role for religion in government, fared well: the Congress for the Republic, Al-Aridha As-Shaabiya, Attakatol and the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP).

Three other secular parties, the Modernist Democratic Pole (PDM), Afek-Tounes and the Communist Workers Party (POCT), fared poorly, mainly because they appeared anti-Islamic and anti-religious. By defending a movie entitled No God and No Master that many believe promoted atheism, and one that depicted God in a cartoon, Persepolis, on the grounds of defending freedom of expression, these parties and their leaders appeared out of step with the religious sentiments of the majority of Tunisians. Even the PDP adopted this position and saw its popularity drop from around 20 percent in February to barely six percent in October.

Al Nahda, in the end, emerged as the main political party in Tunisia. After 30 years of being systematically put down, it was finally recognised as a political party in February 2011. More importantly, it succeeded in portraying itself as rooted in Islamic values, but simultaneously and deeply attached to democracy, human rights and dignity for all.

Tunisians do not see a contradiction between Islam and democracy, or Islam and modernity, and do not want to choose between them. They want to be both Muslim and modern, and Al Nahda provided them with a ticket promising just that. In an interview with Reuters, published on 4 November 2011, Rached Ghannouchi, president and co-founder of Al Nahda, said: “We are against trying to impose a particular way of life. […]All the parties have agreed to keep the first article of the current constitution which says Tunisia’s language is Arabic and its religion is Islam. This is just a description of reality; it doesn’t have any legal implications. There will be no other references to religion in the constitution. We want to provide freedom for the whole country.”

This is exactly what the majority of Tunisians wanted to hear. Tunisians did not overthrow a secular dictatorship to replace it with a religious or theocratic dictatorship. They do not want the state to interfere with or enforce religious practices. Religion should be a personal matter and choice, and the state should respect and protect the individual freedoms and liberties of all citizens. So can Al Nahda succeed in leading Tunisia to real, genuine and lasting democracy? If the party can emulate the Turkish model in Tunisia, as it has promised to do, I believe that they will be successful and their popularity will increase.

Although the new constitution will not stipulate that Tunisia is a secular state, as the topic of secularity is deeply divisive in Tunisia and across the Arab world, it is equally clear that Tunisians want a civil and democratic state.

The question of the relationship between religion and politics will continue to be debated for many years, and perhaps centuries. It is still debated today even in Europe and the United States. But the main challenge for all Tunisians today is to remain focused on what unites them rather than what divides them.

What the new constitution of Tunisia should do is enshrine the principles of human rights and religious freedom, justice and equality before the law, as well as women’s and minorities’ rights. Just like Turkey has been able to merge Islamic and democratic values and build a successful modern state in the Muslim world, so too can Tunisia lead the Arab world towards reconciling Islamic values and principles with modernity, freedom and democracy.

Radwan A. Masmoudi is President of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy.

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