By S. Nihal Singh
Jun 21, 2016
Tunisians have not rested on their laurels, pulling off the most spectacular change of all to show the world that modernity and Islam can be made compatible. In May, it changed the basis of its Islamic-oriented party to equate it with ‘Muslim Democrats’.
Tunisia was the pioneer in the Arab Spring which was a moment of hope for the region’s people, leading to the overthrow of Egypt’s long-time ruler Hosni Mubarak, followed by the one-year rule of the Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohamed Morsi. That moment of hope passed quickly, with the Brotherhood dethroned by the military with popular backing and Egypt and the rest of the Arab world reverted to the familiar dictatorial pattern.
That Mr Morsi committed many mistakes was understandable. It was the first time the Brotherhood was miraculously granted an opportunity to rule a major nation such as Egypt and it had no precedent to fall back upon. To compound the problem, Mr Morsi was the reserve candidate thrust into power. The people who brought down the Mubarak regime had sky-high expectations that couldn’t be fulfilled, with the Army impatiently waiting in the wings to return to power.
After the counter-revolutions in Arab space, Tunisia was still the only ray of hope and survived political turmoil and assassinations, thanks to the wisdom of the main Islamic Ennahda party and its leader Rachid Ghannouchi to accommodate other political elements in the power structure. But the impulse for compromise and accommodation was shared by wider segments of civil society.
When tensions in Tunisia mounted, four organisations formed the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet in 2013 to try and bring stability to the country. The Quartet was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for 2015 for its unique role in stabilising the situation. Tunisians have not rested on their laurels recently, pulling off the most spectacular change of all to show the world that modernity and Islam can be made compatible. At a special session in May, it changed the basis of its Islamic-oriented party to equate it, in the words of the party leader and his activist colleague Said Farjani, with “Muslim Democrats”, equating it with Western parties such as Christian Democrats.
Yet this momentous development, apart from an analytical piece in the International New York Times, has gone largely unnoticed. While Mr Ghannouchi adopts a more cautious attitude, Mr Farzani is quoted as saying that while Islamism was a useful tool to fight the dictatorship of Ben Ali, Ennahda was now a free actor under the new democratic Constitution it helped write and Islamism had become a burden in the new circumstances.
The fall of Mr Morsi’s Brotherhood government in Cairo was noted in Tunis as in the rest of the Arab world and made Ennahda more willing to compromise with other parties. At its party congress last month, most delegates approved the spectacular change in its platform by dropping “dawa”, proselytising Islamic values. In other words, it is now a normal political party and has cut its Islamic Brotherhood roots it has been growing out of.
Not all Ennahda members are reconciled to these changes, which have caused some acerbic merriment in Tunisian political circles. But the fact that the party could make such historic changes in an Islamic world troubled by extremism, rather than moderation, is a new benchmark in Islamic theology. What’s more, Mr Ferjani told Arab scholar Hussein Ibish (who works for a Washington think tank) that he believes in the principles of freedom and gender equality and regards sexuality, sexual orientation as private and personal matters, not for the state or legal authorities to prescribe.
The fact that an Arab Sunni leader can articulate such views is remarkable in itself. During my visit to Tunisia many years ago, when Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat held court there, I found sections of society, particularly women, living and enjoying a liberated lifestyle. But that was before the advent of Islamic State and its ability to rule over parts of Iraq and Syria and enforce its puritanical rules on men and women.
For Tunisians, it’s likely to be a long journey to persuade the larger Muslim world to modernise its ideology. Even in countries like Pakistan, India and Indonesia, the once divergent moderate and folk strands of Islam in the Sufi and other encompassing traditions, have been largely extinguished by the Wahhabi version, with Saudi money and men sent to regions with large Muslim populations.
Now that the world is more aware of the dangers represented by the spread of extreme forms of Islam, it’s surprising that the Tunisian lead hasn’t provoked greater discussion and comment. True, the Muslim Brotherhood credo, initiated nearly 90 years ago, formed the basis of Muslim participation and interactions in politics. But the Tunisian initiative deserves notice in exploring a way to live harmoniously in a changing world.
It’s a tragedy for the Arab and larger Muslim world that they have been enmeshed in wars, two led by outside powers in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Shia-Sunni schism has given a new cruel twist to the fighting, particularly in the civil war in Syria, accentuating the bitterness. Iraq is, in fact, divided into three parts and in Syria, the Alawites belonging to a Shia sect are pitted against the majority Sunnis in the opposition, divided in turn into pro-West and pro-Communist factions and of course the extremist Islamic State. Turkey, a major regional actor, is in turn locked in a conflict with its large Kurdish population.
It is ironic that such movements as the Kurds, spread across many countries, are rare practitioners of a form of democracy in the region. But they are divided by national borders, with Iraqi Kurds enjoying the greatest measure of autonomy, thanks to a weak government in Baghdad.
Although Tunisians have made a small beginning, intellectuals of the Muslim world, tormented as it is, need to return to basics in configuring a way out of their dilemmas. Egypt, as the major Arab country and renowned seat of Muslim learning, is too preoccupied with its own political problems to give the lead in modernising Islam.