Political Islam in Tunisia: The history of Ennahda

Political Islam in Tunisia: The history of Ennahda
7 min read
16 Aug, 2017
Book review: Ennahdha has until recently been impossible to investigate. Wolf's book sheds important light on one of Tunisia’s most influential political actors, writes Usman Butt.
Fear of arrest led many activists to remain silent on the nature of Ennahdha's workings[Anadolu]
The role Islam plays in politics has always been a hotly contested issue in the Arab World. Debate has only intensified since the Arab Spring, and Anne Wolf's new book 'Political Islam in Tunisia: The History of Ennahda' emerges at a critical time.

The 2012 Egyptian presidential elections initially seemed to confirm the motto of the Muslim Brotherhood, "Islam is the Solution," people freed of dictatorial rule openly chose political Islam. A century of thought and activism culminated in President Morsi, and a new default setting for politics had arrived.

But as spectacular as the Brotherhood's rise to power was, its fall with President Morsi was even more so: Islam was tried, it failed, and now the military were back.

Elsewhere the so-called Islamic State group took large swathes of territory, openly brutalised opponents, enslaved and pillaged millions. The result of these separate but connected phenomena, was a crisis of Islamism. And while the Muslim Brotherhood has nothing to do with IS, the apparent failure of one and the brutal ascendency of the other - forced many to look with much horror at the prospect of Islamist politics.

In light of this crisis, Tunisia seems to have gone in its own direction. The country is credited with being the birthplace of the Arab Spring and has earned the reputation as the only place where the Arab Spring brought successful regime change.

It is because of this that debates over the role Islam plays in Tunisian politics acquire special interest - though detached observers often lack knowledge about the politics and history of Tunisia. A handful of books have tried to plug this gap, and 'The Making of the Tunisian Revolution: Context, Architects, Prospects’ is worthy of mention, as it broadly brings together art, music, economics, politics and history, and the role they played in the Tunisian revolution and beyond.

However, demystifying Tunisian politics also means examining specific movements, and in light of the crisis of Islamism, the Ennahdha movement takes on greater urgency. Wolf attempts to understand Ennahdha's political behaviour through the lens of the party's history and evolution.

Ennahdha's past has been shrouded in secrecy

This is no mean feat as the authoritarian nature of the post-colonial state in Tunisia means that Ennahdha's past has been shrouded in secrecy. Opponents of Ennahdha from the ruling regimes in Tunisia have to some extend been able to define the movement with a creative blending of fact and fiction.

Fear of arrest led many Ennahdha activists to be wary of non-members, and to remain silent on the nature of internal Ennahdha politics. It is only recently that party members have been willing to talk openly about the party's evolution and their role within it.

Wolf spent four years researching Ennahdha, conducting over 400 interviews. The first free election held in Tunisia in October 2011 saw a landslide victory for Ennahdha and this was a shock for many, as for the past 60 years, successive Tunisian regimes had championed the idea that Tunisia was a secular country, perhaps the most secular country in the Arab World.

It was assumed that Ennahdha and political Islam were a dead force within the country. The book deals not only with Ennahdha, but also the historical formation of the Tunisian state, contextualising political Islam within this, and exploring what it means for the old myth of secularism. 

While many were alarmed by Ennahda's ascendency the party has successfully turned itself into a powerful fixture in Tunisian politics.  In 2014 Ennahdha's main secular opponent Nidaa Tounes won the election but could not form a government without forming an alliance with Ennahdha. This invited controversy, as Wolf explores, and was seemingly part of a trend by Ennahdha towards moderation and outreach. 

An early example of this moderation happened in 2012 when Ennahdha's first prime minister, Hamadi Jebali, declared that women choosing to wear a bikini at one of the country's beaches while drinking alcohol constituted "sacred liberties" that his party seeks to protect.

Sections of the Ennahda party, we learn from Wolf, saw Ennahdha's moderation policy as selling out on their core principles and liberal attitudes towards women's rights. Forming alliances with Nidaa Tounes only reinforced their suspicions. 

Tunisia has been home to reformist politics since the nineteenth century

However, argues Wolf, the moderating stance of the party's leadership and the divisions within the lower ranks mirrors the diversity of Tunisia's Islamist landscape. The party needs to be understood as a collection of sub-groups who advocate very different things - and not a homogenous entity as they are often characterised.

The book also demonstrates that geography plays an important role within these internal divisions. Wolf visited Ennahdha's headquarters in Tunis, where party officials insist they are not an Islamist party, but "a liberal party with a religious affiliation" much like Christian democratic parties in the West. When she visited Kairouan, however, the party section insisted on a more conservative reading of Islamism.

Read more: Tunisia's Jasmine revolution: A story of short-lived success?

The plurality of Ennahdha is partially a reflection of the different leaders who came of age during the 1970s, when many were members of student union movements and were exposed to a variety of ideas that informed their approach.

Another important component informing Ennahdha's approach, argues Wolf, is Tunisia's history of producing reformist movements. Tunisia has been home to reformist politics since the nineteenth century, and Tunisians regard this legacy as a unique trait of theirs. The secular elite draw upon it and supporters of Bourguiba and Ben Ali regard the two presidents to be part of the tradition.

Part of the secular mythology is that they spearheaded the movement against regressive religious polity and transformed the country into a modern state. Ennahdha are treated as backward imposters who are trespassing onto Tunisia's progressive trajectory, they may say liberal things, but they don't mean it, and this informs some of the opposition to Ennahdha, according to the book.

As Wolf demonstrates this narrative of reformism being a purely secular historical force is untrue

However, as Wolf demonstrates this narrative of reformism being a purely secular historical force is untrue. While many western learning secularists are part of Tunisia's reformist tradition, Sufism and Islam were at the heart of the founding of the reformist movement.

Wolf cites Shaykh Mohammed al-Tahir Ibn Ashur (1879-1973), who says that "Ijtihad (independent reasoning) is a collective obligation... on the Muslim community according to the needs and circumstances of its different peoples and countries. The whole Muslim community is therefore sinful by failing to fulfil this obligation."

Religious scholars and institutions were some of the epicentres of reformist thought, seeing religious and political reform intermix in Tunisia. Ennahdha are drawing on this history of reform in their approach towards politics, argues Wolf.

While it is too early to make predictions about the future of Ennahdha, it has for the time being made itself into an acceptable political force within the country.

Wolf has shed important light on the historical evolution of the party, its place within Tunisian history, and its approaches to governance. Ennahdha are pragmatic and are careful to align themselves with foreign Islamist movements. Consciously distancing themselves from the Muslim Brotherhood when Morsi was overthrown, they were openly in favour of the Turkish Islamist model of the AKP, but also distanced themselves from the Turkish example after the 2013 Gezi Park protests.

The movement seems to have averted the general crisis of Islamism and the book leaves the reader feeling that Ennahdha's pragmatism is a reflection of the country itself, and that this is a political force that is not going anywhere anytime soon.  

Usman Butt is multimedia television researcher, filmmaker and writer based in London. Usman read International Relations and Arabic Language at the University of Westminster and completed a Master of Arts in Palestine Studies at the University of Exeter.

Follow him on Twitter: @TheUsmanButt

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.