Rashid al-Ghannushi, spiritual leader of Ennahda, rejects any attempt to legislate Islamic observance.

Photographer: FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images

Tunisia's Secular Approach to a Spiritual Goal

Noah Feldman is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of constitutional and international law at Harvard University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter. His books include “Cool War: The Future of Global Competition” and “Divided by God: America’s Church-State Problem -- and What We Should Do About It.”
Read More.
a | A

In a major development for the history of democracy in the Muslim world, Tunisia’s successful Islamic democratic party separated its political wing from its social-religious movement last week. This isn’t a move to secularism, exactly. But it is a move in the direction of dividing the world into two spheres, one of politics, the other of faith.

The separation was partly good politics: By rebranding itself as a party of Muslim Democrats on the model of Europe’s Christian Democrats, the party potentially expanded its base and differentiated itself from Islamist extremists. But the deeper significance of the move lies in the differentiation of political activity from the goal of Islamizing society and social life.

To understand why the separation of party from movement is so important, you have to start with the history of the Islamic democratic movement. Until last Tuesday, the official name of the organization that participated centrally in the constitutional process was the Party and Movement of Ennahda, or Enlightenment.

The awkward name reflected a somewhat complicated past. The entity began in 1984 under the name the Movement of the Islamic Tendency, and in 1989 renamed itself the Movement of Ennahda. What these names had in common was the idea that what was being captured wasn’t just a political party, but something bigger and with broader aspirations.

Like the Muslim Brotherhood that inspired it, Ennahda was conceived for the transformation of society into something more just, more free -- and more Islamic. The Muslim Brotherhood, founded in Egypt in 1928, was at the same time religious, social and educational, promoting both personal development and religious-political action.

Ennahda’s early vision, like that of the Brotherhood, imagined no significant differentiation between these realms. Its members wanted to make the world a better place -- and themselves better people -- through Islam.

When the Tunisian movement added the word “party” to its name in the aftermath of the Arab Spring revolution, it was signaling its readiness to engage in electoral politics. But it also was saying that its mission as a movement now called for it to enter the political realm.

Ennahda’s members understood, however, that “party” and “movement” were not exactly the same thing. In conversations with party members on multiple visits to Tunisia in 2013-14, I frequently heard them describe themselves as either “party” types or “movement” types.

The “party” types enjoyed formal electoral politics and aspired to make the party a permanent element in Tunisia’s emerging democracy. The “movement” types believed their true goal was to make over Tunisian society, not the Tunisian state, convincing people freely to adopt their form of Islam, which could be described as simultaneously forward-looking and religiously observant.

For the rank-and-file members, the now-formal separation between the “party” and the “movement” is a logical outgrowth of their own thinking, not a radical step. The party members aren’t for the most part secular people, and aren’t embracing a secularized version of politics. They see themselves as making the wise political choice to disentangle their party from a particular religious worldview -- even though, for the most part, they happen to share that worldview.

As for the movement members, they remain committed to spreading their moderate, rather attractive faith through social work and preaching. They have an overwhelming sense of duty to steer young people away from dangerous forms of salafism. Islamic State has recruited thousands of young Tunisians; Ennahda’s movement knows that the solution lies in providing a better product. For the movement, entanglement with electoral politics is actually rather distracting from what they see as a much more important mission. And given the scope of the challenge, it’s hard not to think that the movement is right about the order of priorities.

Yet despite the internal logic of the decision to differentiate, seen in historical perspective, it’s strikingly original and significant. The Muslim Brotherhood, the international mothership, has never embraced such a distinction. Its members mostly remain committed to it as a movement and as a party.

That’s a problem whether the Brotherhood is a lawful participant in politics, as it is in Jordan and Morocco, or whether it is banned, as it once was and now is again in Egypt. The goal of social-religious transformation scares away liberals and secularists who might otherwise be willing to affiliate with the movement.

And for good reason: If a movement that seeks social transformation comes to political power, it will be sorely tempted to use the means of the state to make that transformation happen. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood looked like it might be going that way after it won elections after the Arab Spring. That possibility helped justify a military coup against the democratically elected Brotherhood government.

By differentiating electoral politics from the social movement, Ennahda is saying very clearly that it doesn’t intend to use the mechanism of the state to bring about the Islamization of society.

Rashid al-Ghannushi, the spiritual leader of party and movement alike, has long taught that there is no religious coercion in Islam. He told me, as he had written over a period of decades, that he would reject any attempt to legislate Islamic observance. He remains committed to convincing people voluntarily to adopt his Islamic vision.

Critics of Ghannushi and Ennahda have repeatedly claimed that this liberal vision is a cover – and they won’t stop saying so now. But the latest move is a further piece of evidence that the Muslim democrats of Ennahda are the real thing. Other Islamic democrats in the region should take note – as the Muslim Brotherhood should have in Egypt before it fell from power.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Noah Feldman at nfeldman7@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net