Islamic Law is at the centre of debates about what constitutes moderate Islam and what it would take to reform Islam. Essentially, two schools of thought dominate the discussion. Islam’s traditional approach simply picks and chooses which elements of Sharia it opts to ignore. That is the approach adopted by autocratic rulers like Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and United Arab Emirates. President Mohamed bin Zayed.
Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama, the world’s largest and most moderate civil society movement, challenges the traditional approach. It insists that removal of outdated, obsolete, and supremacist concepts in Sharia is the only way to fortify Islam against religious and political extremism and promote political, social, and religious pluralism, religious tolerance, and democracy. Andrew March, a University of Massachusetts Amherst professor, Islam scholar and author of several books, spoke about the transition taking place in the Arab world.
Andrew’s last book on Muslim democracy is a translation of essays by Rached Ghannouchi, a Tunisian politician, public intellectual, religious thinker, and founder of a political party that evolved from Islamism to Muslim democracy in many ways comparable to Christian democratic parties. The book is also a philosophical discussion between the two.
Ghannouchi was named one of Time’s 100 most influential people in the world in 2012 and Foreign Policy’s top 100 global thinkers. Eighty-two years old, Ghannouchi is the latest high- profile figure to have been arrested on charges of incitement against state authorities by the autocratic regime of President Kais Saied. Ghannouchi went on hunger strike this week.
Ghannouchi is a middle ground figure in the debate about what constitutes moderate Islam and how to reform the faith. Reform of Sharia may be one step too far for him. Yet, his evolution from Islamism or political Islam to Muslim democracy positions him as a democratic reformer.
It raises the question of whether Ghannouchi and his Ennahda Party are models for groups like the Muslim Brotherhood or the exception that confirms the rule that political Islam is inflexible, rigid, and opposed to moderate interpretations of Islam and a threat to secularism. Andrew March joins me to discuss all of this.
JD: Ghannouchi and his Ennahada Party played a key role in what long seemed to be the Arab world’s only post-2011 popular revolts, successful transition from autocracy to democracy. Can you describe what his and the party’s contribution was and maybe some of the debates that took place?
AM: Of course, Tunisia had first a long transitional period, a long constitutive period of drafting the post authoritarian constitution between 2011 and 2014, and so we need to divide the period of Tunisian democracy up into a number of periods. The first 2011, perhaps to what we call the crisis year of 2013 and 14, and then the period of 2014 to 2019 during the presidency of Beji Caid Essebsi, and then the period 2019 to 2021, which resulted in the coup by Kais Saied. At at the beginning, in the first election to the National Constituent Assembly in 2011. The Ennahada Party won 41 per cent of the vote, and so had the dominant role in the National Constituent Assembly, but not enough of a role to dictate the terms of the transition or to dictate the terms of the new constitution. So, the first thing to note, before we discuss anything related to their ideology or their own political priorities, is that their structural situation was very different from that of the Muslim brotherhood in Egypt where the combined Islamist forces of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafi parties had closer to 70 per cent of the seats in the constituent assembly.
So, from the beginning, Ennahada preferred to and had to adopt a kind of conciliatory position by entering into coalitions with other parties during the first period during the National Constituent Assembly. This was with certain more pro-democratic revolutionary forces like Moncef Marzouki’s Congress of the Republic. Marzouki, of course, was the first democratic president of Tunisia between 2011 and 2014, and so the long period of drafting a constitution was remarkable because it was a constitution that was drafted in radically democratic conditions, more democratic even than I would say Egypt, which of course had a open democratic process, but was kind of overseen and supervised by the institutions of the old regime, the Supreme Court, the judiciary, and, of course, the army. In the case of Tunisia, the situation was much more democratic and there was a strong argument that the constitution that came out in 2014 represented a constitution that reflected the actual demographic and ideological reality of the country.
JD: You’ve talked a bit about the comparison with Egypt in structural terms. To what degree, if at all, did personality play a role in the way that Egypt developed on the one hand and Tunisia on the other?
AM: It’s hard to know too much about that. It’s hard to know unless you’re really an insider, what the actual room for manoeuvring is, how much personality or personal ties played a role? Many people do believe that because the Tunisian opposition had developed ties over decades in exile between London and Paris, that there were personal relationships and a kind of groundwork for what a post-authoritarian system might look like, and I take that very seriously. I do also believe that Ghannouchi has a kind of risk averse personality and political strategy, was very, very concerned above all to prevent essentially what did happen in 2011, which was a coup and a criminalization of Ennahda and widespread imprisonment of its activists. So, I think his strategy was manifold during this period to advance Tunisian democracy to try to create a stable constitutional democratic system, including on the base of consensus with ideological rivals, but also to avoid situations in which Ennahda overreached and allowed for a pretext of justifying authoritarian backlash. So it’s very, very hard to know how you isolate the role of personality apart from what other kinds of structural and institutional pressures that political actors have. So. I don’t really have anything particularly insightful to say about a comparison, let’s say between Ghannouchi and Mohamed Morsi or other figures in the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.
JD: Right. You talked sort of structurally about the need for Ennahda and for Ghannouchi, to, if you wish, compromise work with forces it may not necessarily be ideologically aligned with. Perhaps you can walk us through some of the sort of concessions or moves that Ghannouchi and Ennahda had made, which resulted ultimately in them redefining themselves no longer as an Islamist party, but as a Muslim Democracy party. Walk us through some of those compromises and steps that they took.
AM: Well, at the ideological level, the best-known areas in which Ennahda had to compromise in the drafting of the Constitution was first in agreeing to no inclusion of any reference to the Islamic Sharia in the Constitution. So, as you and your listeners will surely know, many constitutions of Muslim majority states have some clause in their constitution that makes reference to something about the role of the Islamic Sharia in the legal system that could be defined positively, like traditionally in Egypt, that all legislation must be based on the Islamic Sharia or its principles or its objectives, or that no legislation may be repugnant to the Islamic Sharia. So that exists in constitutions like Pakistan, Iraq, Egypt, so on and so forth. And that historically never existed in Tunisia. Of course, under the secularist rule of Habib Bourguiba, and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and some activists and participants in the constituent assembly were hoping that there may be some kind of reference to this in the Tunisian constitution, and that was something that they had to compromise on. (IPA Service)
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