Tunisia’s Ennahda Movement Redefines Muslim Democracy

Ennahda's founder Rached Ghannouchi calls for an end to 'political Islam,' a groundbreaking shift for a key Tunisian leader and intellectual long identified as Islamist.

Marking the fifth anniversary of the revolution in Tunis
Marking the fifth anniversary of the revolution in Tunis
Frederic Bobin

TUNIS â€" In the days after the fall of the regime of Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011, the long-exiled founder of the Ennahda movement Rached Ghannouchi made a triumphant return. The Ennahda political party, which hold its General Conference later this month, has long been described as "Islamist."

Now 74, Ghannouchi outlined to Le Monde a major ideological shift that his party is currently undergoing. The Ennahda movement, which has a majority in the Tunisian Constituent Assembly, is now seeking to define itself as a civil movement. Ghannouchi says that since the 2011 revolution and the adoption of the new Constitution in 2014, there is no point in referring to the term “political Islam” anymore.

Le Monde: During the May 20-22 Ennahda General Conference, the party is expected to reformulate its core doctrine in what appears to be a turning point in its political history. What will it consist in?

Rached Ghannouchi: One of the major points that will be discussed during the Congress’s agenda is the link between both religious and political dimensions within the party. We aim to show that we are a civil and democratic party, based on both Islamic and modern civilization values. These values are the same as those found in the 2014 Constitution. They reflect the dual understanding we have of the terms modernity and identity. We are going to shift towards a party that devotes itself to political action only.

Is Ennahda breaking its historical bind with Islam?

This is exactly what we are trying to do by distinguishing political activities with religious preaching. Political activism has no place in a mosque. It is a place where Muslims can come together, and should not be used by any political party as a means to preach its own ideas. We want religion to be a way for Tunisians to come together, and not to be divided.

This is why we don’t want imams to become political leaders, or even party members in the long run. We want our party to tackle daily issues that are important to families. We don’t want a party that focuses on Day of Reckoning Day, Reaching Paradise, and so on.

Political and religious activities must be independent from one another. And such clear-cut distinction is positive for both sides: politicians will no longer be accused of manipulating Islam to achieve political ends, and religion will never be taken as hostage by politics or monitored by it.

What are the reasons for such a turning point?

We are taking a step, among many others, toward a more mature society. We believe that political Islam â€" though we don’t like the term itself, which was coined by the West â€" was a direct reaction to two factors. It was a way to fight against both dictatorship and secular extremism. The Jasmine Revolution in 2011 (that overturned the regime) put an end to both. Tunisia is now a democracy. The 2014 Constitution limited secular and religious extremisms. We no longer need political Islam in Tunisia. Besides, groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIS corrupted the concept in itself. This is why we need to distance ourselves from such jihadist organizations that advocate an extremist view on Islam.

Can we conclude that Ennahda is leaving behind political Islam?

Exactly. We depart from political Islam to enter a Muslim democracy. We are democratic Muslims that no longer refer to political Islam.

Ghannouchi in 2011 â€" Photo: Ennahda

There is currently a debate in Tunisia regarding gender inequality concerning inheritance. What’s your stance on the subject?

This is not a popular debate but an elitist one. Tunisian people believe there are bigger priorities. Many Tunisians, including some of the elite, consider it not to be an issue but a diversion.

Since Habib Bourguiba’s presidency (1957-1987) all political leaders remained faithful to that statement written in the Koran and which is part of our identity and culture. Caricaturing the rule stating that the woman inherits only half the portion of the man’s is wrong. It is a much more complex issue.

Decriminalizing homosexuality is another burning issue in some Tunisian areas. Do you support it?

We abide by Tunisia’s laws, which distinguish between private and public space. Neither law nor religion has a right to meddle with private life. The law belongs to the public sphere, while the private sphere has to do with individual liberty.

Since the beginning of 2015, you’re part of a government coalition ruled by the party of Nidaa Tounès, your former political opponent. Is it just a matter of government cohabitation or rather a strategic alliance?

This cohabitation is for the country’s best interest, as it allows us to learn how to deal with diverging viewpoints, especially in a country like Tunisia where political decisions used not to stem from debate but monopolistic power. We still need to learn how to coexist and live with people who have different perspectives.

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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