Democratic Islam According to Ennahda: First Appraisal
Following the outbreak of the 2011 revolution, and after nearly two decades of political exclusion by the regime of President Habib Bourguiba and his successor Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia’s Ennahda Movement was able to gather its strength and recover its supporters.
The victory of the Islamist movement in elections described as democratic in Tunisia raised many issues. A central question arising from Ennahda’s assumption of power was whether it could reconcile between its expected adherence to democratic practices and principles associated with modern political Islam that are at odds with democracy. Another dilemma was the deteriorating economic and social situation, which was one of the main factors that had sparked the revolutions.
While all these factors contributed to the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Tunisia’s Ennahda Movement displayed great flexibility that enabled it to continue governing. Thus, the movement became a phenomenon in the Arab-Islamic world. Remarkably, it not only maintained its presence in government democratically but also adopted a first-rate modernist political discourse that some researchers and analysts described as more modernist than the discourse of modernists themselves. This discourse developed into an emerging ideology: in 2016, during Ennahda’s tenth congress, the movement announced “democratic Islam”. It thereby presented itself as a civil nationalist party guided by Islamic values and refused to be grouped with movements espousing classic political Islam.
Given the importance of this announcement and the modernist stances that Ennahda subsequently adopted regarding human rights and freedoms in particular, The Legal Agenda decided to examine this proclaimed concept of democratic Islam, which could be a starting point for a renewal of Islamist thought and hence the role of Islamist movements in democratic political systems that could lead to the entrenchment of these systems in Tunisia and other Arab countries. The analysis, however, will not delve into intentions or grounds behind Ennahda’s proclaimed adoption of democratic Islam.
Shifts During the Constituent Period: From Openness to Intransigence to Bargaining
Ennahda’s 2011 electoral platform differed drastically from the demands it made when the National Constituent Assembly debated the Constitution. While its 2011 electoral platform committed the movement to republicanism, non-violence, and equality, most of its stances during the Constitution debate were reminiscent of the classic tenets of political Islam of the Muslim Brotherhood variety, which are hostile to this system and these values.
For example, the 2011 program reads, “The Ennahda Movement adopts the model of a civil state that observes public interest, protects social peace, works for economic advancement, strives to consolidate public and private freedoms, and respects the principles of democracy and equality among citizens in rights and duties”.
By contrast, during the debate over the Constitution, the movement maintained that it should stipulate “complementarity”, not “equality”, between the sexes. The movement also long attempted to impose language that would allow it to criminalize blasphemy and demanded that the Constitution cite Sharia law as a foundation text. Ennahda’s commitment to these demands prompted a broad ideological debate between the movement’s Islamists, on one hand, and liberals rejecting the demands, on the other. Additionally, the individual behavior of some Ennahda leaders fueled doubts, especially as Ennahda made no official statements denouncing such behavior as unrepresentative of its progressive ideology.
The political landscape flared up and peaked in 2013, transforming from debate among politicians to fierce debate within the populace. That year, domestic and foreign events interplayed to eventually push Ennahda to step down from government for fear of a repeat of the years of exile and imprisonment. For example, jihadist Salafist groups appeared in Tunisia and were accused of assassinating secular opposition figures Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi. The opposition demanded that the perpetrators of these crimes be tried. Some fingers were pointed at Ennahda on the basis that it shares interests with these groups, which heralded that the movement might once again be imprisoned. To this we can add the tense regional climate dominated by extremist Islamist movements, most prominently the Islamic State organization, especially as Tunisia headed the list of countries exporting jihadists to this organization.
The secret meeting between Ennahda’s leader Rached Ghannouchi and Beji Caid Essebsi, the leader of rival party Nidaa Tounes, held in Paris on August 15, 2013, suggested that Ennahda’s decision to surrender power would not leave it empty-handed.
This was confirmed by the adoption of the new Tunisian Constitution as a compromise text described by university professor Kais Saied described as pure pragmatism. The concessions that both Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes made came as part of bargains that allowed Ennahda to remain in government. Since then, “consensus” politics has prevailed between the two parties.
What Comes After Ennahda Cements Itself in Government?
After Tunisia’s new Constitution was adopted, Ennahda began behaving more in line with the “modernist” promises it had made at the beginning of the revolution. Observers and analysts began – reluctantly – to distinguish between Ennahda and other Islamist groups. The movement worked to exclude the hardline “revivalist” elements from its political scene. In its tenth congress in 2016, it elaborated this “progress” via its assortment of economic, social, political, and regulatory programs, which are tantamount to its project for the coming years. The content of these programs resembles Ennahda’s 2011 electoral platform.
The difference is that the program express the topics raised in 2011 with more detail and clarity. Ennahda’s tenth congress can be considered a reformulation of its electoral program in a manner that would deliver the shock needed to convince local and international forces of how much Ennahda differs from other Islamist movements. For even though the accusations that Ennahda has a duplicitous discourse had abated, it was still believed that groups espousing political Islam constitute a single whole even if they act individually.
In this regard, we must recall the statement made by Khairat el-Shater, Deputy Supreme Guide of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, in a documentary about the group: “There is a vision of the movement in many countries. But there is no network linking the groups that belong to this vision. Rather, there is a universal ideological base that enables each group to practice the vision in its own framework and within the specific context of its country”.
Yet nobody can deny the evolution of Ennahda’s discourse in the programs of the tenth congress with regard to openness to democracy and rights issues. The movement later presented evidence of this orientation by adopting the law criminalizing violence against women (issued on August 11, 2017). It also expressed the orientation via the “revolutionary” statements about rights and individual freedoms that some of its leaders made.
Hence, Ennahda announced “democratic Islam” in its tenth congress, thereby expressing its departure from political Islam. The concluding statement reads, “This historic congress ... confirms, via its clear strategic choices, that the Ennahda Movement Party has, in practice, transcended all the justifications upon which some consider it a part of the so-called ‘political Islam’”. If we accept that democratic Islam is Ennahda’s emerging ideology, then we can also consider it the conclusion of the movement’s path of political pragmatism and of the intellectual changes it has experienced since its inception. In other words, the launch of “democratic Islam” can be considered tantamount to the transition of political Islam from the stage of intellectual theorizing to the stage of actual political work. By adopting an ideology that breaks with the classic tenets of traditional political Islam, Ennahda frees itself of the commitments imposed by the literature of this thought, be they jurisprudential [i.e. Figommitments or commitments to particular political practices. The movement thereby acquires the flexibility necessary to make its own political choices.
The programs of the tenth congress repeated, to some extent, many attempts to substitute and Islamize modernist terminology without intellectual authentication [ta’sil, i.e. establishing their theoretical bases in Islam]. However, from these programs we can deduce several points to Ennahda’s credit:
First, the movement, in its definition of itself, gave the democratic nationalist dimension priority over the Islamic dimension. In this regard, the program titled “Ways of Administering the Project” states that Ennahda is “a democratic political party that has an Islamic frame of reference, is national in its affiliation, is open to all Tunisian men and women, gives social justice and development issues the utmost priority, positions itself within the wide community and carries the aspirations of its broad segments, and adopts modern means in political work, effective administration, and good governance”. Second, Ghannouchi described Ennahda members as “democratic Muslims” in the congress’ closing speech. The use of the term “Muslims” instead of “Islamists” bears great significance that Ennahda politician Naoufel Jammali expressed by saying that, “The Ennahda Movement has devised a new approach to Islam’s relationship with politics, one not based on the doctrinal dimension but on the dimension of values. That is to say, the movement’s goal goes beyond focusing on worship and individuals’ behavior to focus on the Islamic value system itself, which is an integral part of the global value system”. Likewise, Meherzia Labidi stated, “As a Muslim, my commitment to Islam and my spiritual duty drive me to ensure justice and realize rights and freedoms for all without excluding any sex, race, or religion”. From this perspective, Ennahda seems, in contrast to what classic political Islam has strived to achieve since its inception, to be restricting religion to its own sphere by separating it from public affairs and public life. This constitutes the difference between an “Islamist” and a “Muslim”. An Islamist strives to transpose his religiosity from his individual, private life to the public sphere and strongly believes in the religion as a stand-alone ideology that must become the ideology of the community and the state.
Additionally, the statements made by some Ennahda leaders to The Legal Agenda affirmed that the movement’s frame of reference today is the global agreements the Tunisian state has signed and the Tunisian Constitution. They made no mention of Islamic law. Rather, they emphasized that for Ennahda, Islam’s political role is restricted to its value system, which is in complete conformity with global values.
The separation between religious preaching [al-da’awi] and politics that Ennahda expressed in its tenth congress is aimed at strengthening this aspect. The movement had expressed this separation in its 2011 electoral platform, wherein it emphasized the importance of the impartiality and independence of civil society. It reformulated it in a manner attracting regional and international attention and sparing it sharp accusations and suspicions that it uses religion to serve private political interests.
Although the aforementioned orientation is important, Ennahda still uses religion in politics as it still declares itself a party that adopts Islam as a basis in its political activity, thereby capitalizing on religious sentiment. In its programs, Ennahda relies on the Tunisian individual’s commitment to Islamic cultural heritage and Islamic identity. It adopts the Bourguiba approach by striking a balance between authentication and heritage, on one hand, and modernity, on the other. The intellectual vision program states that Ennahda “strives to be a modern movement that harmonizes positive modernization, on one hand, with cultural authentication, on the other”. This will help the movement broaden its appeal to encompass not just people who believe in Islam in a traditional doctrinal manner but also those socially “conservative” segments of society whose only tie to Islam is cultural heritage. It will also facilitate Ennahda’s reliance on “the people’s choice” in pivotal political and rights-related social issues that present it with a jurisprudential problem. The best example may be the issue of [gender] equality in inheritance. So far, the movement has not adopted an official stance on the issue even though it is virtually settled from an Islamic standpoint. A number of Ennahda leaders have also expressed their rejection of any change in the inheritance issue to The Legal Agenda. Yet today, Ennahda is supporting a popular dialogue on this issue between various groups, while depending on Tunisians’ commitment to their Islamic identity that rejects radical change in matters established in the Quran, such as inheritance.
Since coming to power in 2011, Ennahda has continuously strived to preserve the “right to remain” in power. Consequently, it worked to cement itself in government by extending its roots in the state’s institutions and administration, as exemplified by the adoption of the General Amnesty Law in 2011, which allowed many political prisoners to return to their positions in the state’s bodies. Similarly, in the tenth congress program titled “Ways of Administering the Project”, the movement addressed what it lacks in order to strengthen its political power: “At that point, the Islamists discovered a paradox between the strength of their presence among the people and the weakness of their influence on the mechanisms that shape public opinion and ability to govern effectively”.
This awareness of the need to strengthen the movement’s influence within the state bodies manifested itself in Ennahda’s “Basic Statute” program, which strives to construct a party based on institutions. The most important include the Shura Council, which contains 150 of the movement’s most prominent leaders and theorists, as well as the Executive Bureau and the decentralized local and regional bodies.
This process of cementation presents Ennahda with two options that, while involving similar paths, conflict in the long term:
On one hand, Ennahda’s democratic survival in government and its work to match its rights discourse with its legislative activity present it with a golden opportunity to pass a rights-based agenda laying the groundwork for a deep internal change and, subsequently, a great legislative/jurisprudential renewal [tajdid], at least in terms of rights and freedoms. This could occur in a context of free dialogue and debate among experts and thinkers that prepares Tunisian and Islamic public opinion to accept the Islamic renewal in all its dimensions.
On the other hand, many observers fear that via this cementation process, the movement may be preparing to resurrect the classic tenets of political Islam once it feels that it has attained enough strength and immunity to do so.
We cannot be certain which direction the movement will take.
Understanding Democracy: Equality or Majority Rule?
Given the above, it can be said that Ennahda’s political identity is not yet settled. The movement is still striving more to polish its local and regional image than to clarify its jurisprudential/intellectual and political stances.
Pragmatism probably still dominates Ennahda’s rights discourse. In reality, the movement’s faith in democracy may stem primarily from its conviction that democracy is the only existing system whereby it can practice government without fear of arrest and exile. Jammali expressed this by saying that, “The Muslim citizen cannot be made to choose between chaos, extremism, and dictatorship. There is a third way: to live in peace within a democratic framework, just like all the peoples of the world”.
Hence, the movement’s output thus far does not allow us to ascertain the meaning of “democratic Islam”. The importance of this question is increased by the fact that none of the Islamist movements that have declared their dissociation from political Islam, including the Moroccan Justice and Development Party (which labels itself a democratic party with an Islamic frame of reference) and the Turkish Justice and Development Party (which has declared its commitment to “conservative democracy”), have worked to pin down their concepts – especially the loose ones such as conservatism, modernization, freedom, minorities, and Islamic values – either via innovation [tajdid] of definitions or authentication.
So what does the concept of democratic Islam mean?
Does it indicate that Islam is not imposed but implemented as the outcome of popular choice? If so, the concept [of democratic Islam] becomes synonymous with Ennahda’s commitment to refrain from imposing any of Islam’s values not supported by the majority. On this basis, it expresses a political commitment to employ certain procedures of governance without implying any transformation in the movement’s convictions linked to values or any attempt to renew its discourse on these values. With this meaning, “democratic Islam” also overlaps, to some extent, the understanding that the movements espousing political Islam have of democracy, which can be labeled “Islamic democracy”. These movements have strived to give democracy an Islamic color in an attempt to reconcile it with their classic intellectual tenets. The adoption of this concept has manifested itself in the reduction of democracy to a series of mechanisms that enable these groups to arrive in power.
Or does the concept of “democratic Islam” go further to encompass renewing Islamic discourse to conform with the value system of total equality and rights inherent to every person? If so, its most important implication is recognition of individual rights, including the individual’s right to be the master of their private affairs without interference, such that the (Muslim) majority is encouraged, pursuant to the principles of equality, to respect these rights whether or not they concord with its moral or religious values. Of course, it is too early to concede to this understanding: renewing Islamic discourse in this manner cannot occur in one moment or with one announcement; rather, it requires an enormous intellectual effort that surpasses or at least parallels what has come to be known historically as the classic tenets of political Islam’s intellectual and religious theory.
Similarly, Ennahda’s willingness to put the global human rights system before its “Islamicity” without theoretical ideological justifications raises the questions: what part of the Ennahda movement will remain “Islamic”? Will the movement transform into a civil party after severing its connection to its religious frame of reference?
Of course, the present policy of open choices could be a sign of tensions between different currents within Ennahda, none of which has decisive power, or perhaps of cautiousness dictating that reform be carried out gradually and not in great leaps that could have an effect adverse to the movement’s desires. Radical change of this kind usually requires long periods – not just a few years – to crystalize.
Hence, pending more clarity, Ennahda must today be treated as a nationalist political party that avoids intellectual theorizing about the religion-state dichotomy in order to instead pragmatically formulate a program that appeals to voters and could enable it to expand its place in government and its ability to effect change, especially internal change if it so desires. This will enable us to pursue the movement’s understanding of democracy and, with that, its real aspirations.
 Examples include the leaked video of Ennahda’s leader Rached Ghannouchi with a group of Salafists and Hamadi Jebali’s description of the period of the Troika’s rule as “the sixth caliphate”.
 Interview with Kais Saied.
 Michael Prazan, The Brotherhood: Investigating the Muslim Brotherhood.
 Interview with Naoufel Jammali, a member of Ennahda’s block and the president of the Rights, Freedoms, and Foreign Relations Committee in Tunisia’s parliament.
 Interview with Meherzia Labidi, a member of Ennahda’s block in parliament and of Ennahda’s Shura Council.