At the party congress of Ennahda, the main Islamist political party in Tunisia, its pre-eminent leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, declared an essential change in how the party would pursue its work. There is to be a fundamental separation between its religious mission and its political activities. This is monumental not only for Ennahda, but also for Islamism generally. Or is it?
The basis of the Ennahda movement is a rather broad tent of Islamism, and it is dominated, although not exclusively led, by Mr Ghannouchi. Ennahda has managed to attract a wide range of religious conservatives in Tunisia, an almost exclusively Muslim society. Ennahda supporters do not, it must be said, account for all Muslims, pious or otherwise – purist Salafis are attracted to other modes and many religiously observant Muslim Tunisians are uninterested in or oppose Ennahda. Nevertheless, while Mr Ghannouchi’s modernist reformism, somewhat distinct from Tunisia’s more traditional orthodoxy, has predominated within Ennahda, the movement has been able to attract interest beyond that via religious-identity politics.
When Mr Ghannouchi announced recently that the movement would separate the religious message, which is primarily rooted in the modernist reformism inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood, from its political activities, it took many by surprise. But should it have? This sort of shift has been in the works for a few years and the reasons for that are very positive for Tunisia – and could be for the whole region.
Identity politics, whether religiously or ethnically inspired, typically gain currency and establish deep roots of support when individuals feel their identities are under threat. Hence one of Ennahda’s key marketing points – that it would stand for “Islamic identity”, at least in the way it defined that identity. That was naturally going to be disputed and contested – and not all Muslims in Tunisia agreed – but certainly, particularly under former dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the attraction to identity politics had genuine underpinnings.
The process of change began with the 2011 uprising that overthrew Mr Ben Ali, and it came to a particular milestone in 2014. During the transition between the departure of Mr Ben Ali and the adoption of a new constitution in 2014, Ennahda’s identity politics met a new challenge – a situation where the Islamic identity of its core supporters was no longer under threat.
There were fears of that happening throughout the transition, and particularly in 2013, when anti-Islamist parties tried to encourage the suspension of the democratic experiment along extrajudicial lines. But those fears came to naught – in large degree due to the deftness of Mr Ghannouchi, but also because of the wider political realities. Society had declared that Tunisia was big enough for Ennahda, and the identity that Ennahda supporters feared for was protected. When that constitution was adopted in early 2014, it happened through consensus, and Ennahda was deeply involved. Ennahda was not a pariah any longer – and Tunisia’s constitution was the proof.
That, in itself, is a testament to Tunisia more generally and Ennahda in particular. Identity politics still continue to invigorate, rather negatively, the state of play through the region, with anti-Islamism versus Islamism being only one such competition under way. In Tunisia, however, the Islamists of Ennahda feel comfortable enough about their identity that they can shift to focusing on pragmatic political programmes rather than hollow slogans such as “Islam is the solution” (often used by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood). That is one reason why this move is important – but it is also another reason why it is specific to Tunisia, since in other parts of the Arab world, identity politics for Islamists still means a great deal.
If supporters of Ennahda wish to be involved in specifically religious activity, then they may do so, but outside the party’s structure. That may mean going into religious institutions or creating new NGOs, but there will be a clear distinction between that and the Ennahda movement, to the point where members may leave the group’s political structures to focus on preaching, for example.
However, it is not clear yet what effect this is likely to have on the ideological underpinnings of Ennahda. This structural move means a great deal of confidence within the group – and unlike most parts of the Arab world, Tunisia enjoys a lot of open political space to have discussions. Now that Ennahda has taken this step, it is likely that different elements will explore other avenues.
Will Ennahda simply continue to be a big-tent movement? Or will the group give rise to a new development of contemporary modernism, moving beyond its intellectual inheritors; or will it attach itself to different trends altogether within the fabric of Tunisia’s religious universe? All of this is unclear now.
That all makes for uncertainty – but it is an uncertainty born out of something exceedingly positive. Tunisians have accomplished something monumental in the past five years – a political space where very different political groups can feel safe under the rule of law, and under the shade of a constitution that was established by consensus. The entire Arab world needs a lot more of that.
Dr HA Hellyer is an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London and a non-resident senior fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East in Washington, DC
On Twitter: @hahellyer