Kasper Ly Netterstrøm. Journal of Democracy. Volume 26, Issue 4. October 2015.
Between October and December 2014, Tunisia completed both a parliamentary balloting and a two-round presidential election in orderly fashion and under free and fair conditions. Several weeks of negotiations later, a broad array of political parties came together to form a new government. With this achievement, Tunisia became the only country in the Middle East and North Africa to have turned its “Arab Spring” experience of 2011 into a real transition to democracy. Behind this success story lay a constitutional process that took thirty months following the fall of long-ruling dictator Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali in early 2011.
The process was rocky. There were crises and interruptions. At several points, the task of bridging the different opinions in the constituent assembly seemed impossible. In the end, however, a spirit of compromise prevailed and the assembly passed a new constitution on 26 January 2014. Remarkably, the large Islamist party known as Ennahda (Renaissance), backed the new basic law even though it enshrined many principles that Ennahda had previously opposed.
The constitution declares near its outset, for instance, that Tunisia is a “civil state” (dawla al-madaniya)-language that creates a presumption against religious interference in the state. The constitution guarantees a panoply of universal human rights-including freedom of expression and strong protection for women’s rights. Crucially, there is no reference to Islamic law (shari’a), but only a reference to the “teachings of Islam” (ta’alim al-Islam). In mentioning “teachings” but not “law,” the constitution effectively excludes any legal role for the Islamic religious corpus.
Most importantly, the constitution grants the right to “freedom of conscience and belief” (hurriet al-damir). In the Muslim world, this principle is truly revolutionary. Unlike a collective right of groups to practice their respective faiths (also known as “freedom of worship”), freedom of conscience acknowledges that each and every individual has the right freely to choose his or her faith. It means the right to change one’s religious affiliation, or to abandon religious belief and practice altogether. Not only Islamist ideologues but also most traditional Islamic authorities strictly condemn the idea of any Muslim leaving Islam, whether for another religion or for atheism.
On this key point as on others, the new constitution is in stark contradiction with Ennahda’s original Islamist ideology. As Yadh Ben Achour, the chairman of the constitution-drafting commission, has noted, this is “the great paradox. These modernist achievements have been won even though the Islamists were in the majority in the assembly.”
For a long time, the social sciences have tried to understand Islamist parties and movements, and how they evolve. Ennahda’s acceptance of the constitution is one of the most remarkable examples of a transformation by an Islamist party, and therefore is of great importance. Founded in 1981, Ennahda can look back on a decades-long struggle for survival. During that time, it developed different wings distinguished by their dominant experiences-exile, imprisonment, or underground activism. When the Tunisian Revolution came, these elements drew suddenly together and found themselves facing tough ideological questions with immediate practical significance. The Tunisian constitutional process is the story of how the Islamist party handled this historic challenge.
The Paradigm of Islamist Moderation
The term “Islamism” was coined in the late 1970s by French political scientists who were trying to understand the Iranian Revolution and other instances of Islamic activism that were then on the rise. At that time, movements such as Ennahda did not refer to themselves as “Islamist” but called themselves “Muslim.” Eventually, however, the academic term “Islamist,” popularized by Western media, was taken up by some of the actors themselves. Ennahda, for example, currently refers to itself as an Islamist party.
Islamism invokes the ideological tradition founded by Jamal-Eddin Al-Afghani (1838-97), Hassan al-Banna (1906-49), Abu’l-A’la Mawdudi (1903-79), and others in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. It also identifies with the political movements that have carried on this tradition, foremost among them the Muslim Brotherhood and its various sections and sister parties throughout the Arab and Muslim worlds. Islamism is the idea that Islam is not just a religion, but also a political ideology. It is the belief that all aspects of society can and should be organized according to the fundamental texts of Islam. As one can speak of a “socialist economy” or a “liberal economy,” Islamists believe that there is also an “Islamic economy,” not to mention an Islamic educational policy, social policy, environmental policy, and the like. As a famous Muslim Brotherhood slogan puts it, no matter what the issue, “Islam is the solution.” This solution is-in theory-always based on an interpretation of the Koran and the practice of the first four caliphs (also known as the “rightly guided caliphs”), the last of whom died in 661 C.E.
Islamism is not a conservative ideology that takes the existing society as a model. Islamism rejects the actual tradition of governments within the Muslim world such as the Ottoman and Safavid empires, dismissing both as “un-Islamic.” Islamism is an a priori ideology that wants to transform society according to a set of predefined ideas. In this regard, Islamism has many similarities with socialism and communism.
Scholars split over how to perceive these movements and parties. Orientalists and neoconservatives see Islamist parties as essentially undemocratic and unable to reform. Bernard Lewis, for example, writes that:
For Islamists, democracy … is a one-way road on which there is no return, no rejection of the sovereignty of God, as exercised through His chosen representatives. Their electoral policy has been classically summarized as “One man (men only), one vote, once.”
Those inclined to view Islamism as a form of identity politics, such as Dale Eickelman and James Piscatori, portray it as more nuanced and positive. In the French debate, these opposing positions are represented by Gilles Kepel’s view of Islamism as a radical movement versus François Burgat’s claim that Islamism must be understood in light of the struggle against colonialism and the authoritarian regimes in the region.
It is also worth noting that this debate extends beyond the academic sphere. In the West and the Muslim world alike, the question of Islamists’ “true motives” is a recurrent topic of political discussion and dispute. Many of the protests against the Ennahda-led coalition in Tunisia were, for example, fueled by the opposition’s fear that Ennahda wanted to establish an Iranian-style theocracy.
As a consequence of the electoral success of Turkey’s Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the U.S. government’s post9/11 democratization agenda, the academic debate in recent years has moved on. Rather than trying to discern Islamism’s “true nature,” the focus is now on how Islamist parties and movements can become more moderate. This has sparked fresh efforts to identify the factors that might change Islamists’ behavior. Vali Nasr and Fareed Zakaria stress economic development, while Stathis Kalyvas and others emphasize organizational structure. The most prominent theory of all, however, is the “inclusion-moderation hypothesis” made popular by Jillian Schwedler. It holds that inclusion in the political process will make Islamist parties more moderate. The literature on this idea is large and varied, but there are enough common concepts and explanations to let us speak of an “inclusion-moderation paradigm.”
An important feature shared by many studies that fit this paradigm is the distinction between tactical and ideological moderation (sometimes also referred to as “behavioral” versus “substantial” moderation). While the former is concerned only with gaining power, the latter is a process in which an Islamist party genuinely changes its ideology. Islamists might adopt new policies and leave the ideology intact, or they might revisit their ideology and as a consequence formulate new policies.
Most studies within the moderation paradigm claim that Islamist movements experience political learning and are thus led to revise their ideological stances. Exactly how this happens is a matter of dispute. Schwedler highlights debates and decision making within Islamist parties, while Berna Turam stresses everyday interactions with other parties and organizations. In either account, moderation appears as something of a deliberative process. Although Jürgen Habermas is not named, there is an almost Habermasian conception of how values change. The Islamists make up their mind in a neutral sphere and then make a political move. The ideological evolution happens outside the political realm.
The inclusion-moderation paradigm deserves credit for going beyond the old debate and raising such topics as the inner workings of Islamist parties and the causes of ideological reform. Authors working within the paradigm have also contributed valuable policy advice. Yet this literature also suffers from some recurrent problems. Its close relationship with democracy promotion in the Middle East has imparted to it a strong normative bias and produced some problematic conceptualizations.
First, the very concept of moderation is normative. To be “moderate” does not make sense in itself. One can only be moderate in relation to something else, and the moderation literature rarely makes that “something else” explicit. Most studies of Islamist moderation discuss in detail the different factors leading to moderation, but devote little space to defining what it means to be “moderate.” Many studies present only an operational definition of moderation and ignore the concept’s normative content. Others do state how they define moderation theoretically, but fail to discuss critically the employment of the term itself. This is obvious if one looks at the different definitions of moderation that are put forth. Schwedler, a leader in the field, defines moderation as “a move away from exclusionary practices.” In their study of Morocco’s Party of Justice and Development (PJD), Eva Wegner and Miquel Pellicer define it as “increasing flexibility towards core ideological beliefs.”
Both definitions replace moderation with another relational concept. “Flexibility” or “moving away from exclusionary practices” do not bring us much further than moderation. These definitions have the same implicit normativity as moderation. If Islamist movements were to show “flexibility” by becoming more violent than their initial ideological position would seem to predict, would that then count as “moderation”? Or if Islamist movements were to move away from “exclusionary practices” by no longer excluding armed jihadists, would we consider that an act of “moderation”?
In her study of Jordanian Islamist movements, Janine Clark avoids this pitfall by defining moderation ideologically as “greater acceptance and understanding of democracy, political liberties, and the rights of women and minorities.” Similarly, in their comparison of Islamist and communist parties, Suveyda Karakaya and A. Kadir Yildirim define moderation simply as “change in positions on democracy, the economic system, and the political role of Islam.”
Studies such as these, with their content-based definitions of moderation, are more honest about that concept’s normative nature. Yet if “moderate” is simply another way of saying “more democratic” or “more secular,” why speak of “moderation” at all? If it effectively means “more democratic,” why not just say that? “Moderation” rests on a value judgment; it has no analytical function, and can only serve to blur a study’s normative character. There is nothing wrong with asking how Islamist movements can become more democratic or secular, but then this should be clearly stated and not hidden behind the vague concept of “moderation.”
The second problem with the inclusion-moderation paradigm is its distinction between tactical and ideological moderation. Despite its intuitive appeal, this distinction risks distorting our understanding of Islamist movements. Positing a sharp distinction between tactics and ideology implies that ideological moderation is the only true form of moderation. If Islamists fail to hold internal philosophical debates prior to revising their political agenda, we cannot count them as having “moderated.” If they make concessions out of pragmatism and political necessity, these concessions are necessarily viewed as tactical and therefore superficial and temporary. In the eyes of moderation theory, Islamists who have made tactical concessions will reverse them at the first chance they get. Here the moderation paradigm falls back into the previous discussion about whether Islamists have a hidden agenda or not.
The problem is that political compromises and concessions often come before changes on the ideological side. Islamist movements may make concessions against their will, purely for tactical and pragmatic reasons, but once these compromises have been made, they may affect the ideological position of the Islamists. Too sharp a focus on distinguishing tactical from ideological moderation, in other words, threatens to obscure the possible ideological effects that political compromises may have on Islamist movements. Sidestepping this danger, Carrie Wickham’s study of the Egyptian Wasat Party traces the manner in which tactical concessions can influence a party’s initial ideological position, thereby breaking down the sharp distinction between tactical and ideological moderation.
The third problem with the moderation paradigm is that it treats power always as a means and never as an end. Of course there is truth to the idea that Islamists want power in order to enact their political program. Yet the motives that drive political actors-Islamists included-are far more diverse than simply implementing an ideological program. For the study of Islamism, focusing solely on power as a means makes it hard to explain why Islamists sometimes fail to act according to their ideology. If ideology is the Islamists’ sole motive, scholars have no choice but to see all Islamist concessions and compromises as “temporary” or “tactical”-otherwise there would be no way to explain them.
Predisposed to Compromise?
With these thoughts about the moderation paradigm and its weaknesses in mind, we can now turn to the Tunisian case. According to the paradigm, a process of ideological learning should have preceded the Islamists acceptance of secular constitutional principles. Was this the case? If one asks the Islamists, they will say that it was. They will note that they put their commitment to democracy, freedom, and human rights in writing as far back as the 1980s. Likewise, they will emphasize their pragmatism and their experience at working with other parties.
This is not completely wrong. Since the 1981 founding of Ennahda’s predecessor, the Mouvement de la Tendance Islamique, legal recognition and not an Iranian-style revolution has been the main goal. The party has also been able to shift course. For example, in 1985 it strongly opposed President Habib Bourguiba’s Personal Status Code, which gave women new rights, demanding a referendum on the subject. Five years later, anticipating free elections during what turned out to be a shortlived political opening instituted by Ben Ali (who had ousted Bourguiba in a 1987 coup), Ennahda accepted the Personal Status Code. In 2005, Ennahda joined the Mouvement de 18 Octobre, a common platform that Tunisian opposition parties adopted to protest the Ben Ali regime. This was not the only time that Ennahda worked with other parties; it has a history of compromise and pragmatism.
This proves that Ennahda can adapt to varying political realities. It does not prove that it was ideologically committed to freedom of conscience, the abandonment of shari’a, or other controversial issue positions in advance of the constitutional process. On the contrary, in the very book that many Ennahda members refer to in order to justify the party’s commitment to democracy, the movement’s leader Rachid Ghannouchi takes a clear stand against freedom of conscience. In this 1993 work, he writes that a Muslim’s leaving Islam (“apostasy”) is a crime akin to sedition and rebellion:
Apostasy is a crime … related to the preservation of Muslims and the structures of the Islamic state against enemy attacks … It is a political crime comparable in other regimes to a crime of leaving by force the state’s rule and attempting to destabilize it. It should be addressed using appropriate measures, proportionate to the importance and the danger that it represents.
Likewise, shari’a is essential to Ghannouchi’s idea of “Islamic democracy.” He envisions a system of competitive elections, but they are to take place within a political order whose foundation is shari’a. The role of the elected government is to deliver ijtihad (interpretation) of Islamic law and to devise (shari’a-compliant) legislation for areas that shari’a does not cover. Ghannouchi does not advocate full-fledged democracy, but only a limited democracy covering what is not already laid out in preexisting Islamic law. Interviews with local Ennahda representatives confirm this picture. Most members wanted desperately to get a reference to shari’a into the constitution, and freedom of conscience was something that the party-cadres as well as members-deeply opposed. Ennahda’s concessions in the constitutional process cannot be explained in terms of ideology.
Ennahda officials might today frame the compromises that they made as in accord with Islamist ideology and their previous statements. Like any other political party, Ennahda tries to portray itself as coherent and logical. And yet, just as it did regarding the Personal Status Code in the early 1990s, Ennahda has reversed its position on shari’a and freedom of conscience. We must therefore go beyond the Islamists’ own justifications.
Party Leaders and Their Interests
In order to grasp what drove Ennahda to accept key secular principles in the constitution, we must look at the party’s organization. Ennahda began as a religious movement; only in the early 1980s did it also become a political party. For that reason, and due to the Islamist belief that religion should dictate politics, Rachid Ghannouchi is both a religious authority and a political leader. Over the years (including a long spell in exile), Ghannouchi has managed to further refine this role. His extensive writings on Islam and Islamism are widely read in Islamist circles. Ennahda members consider him an important religious authority whose words carry great weight. Other members of Ennahda’s leadership are also seen as authorities on religious questions. Abdel Fettah Mourou and Abdelmajid Najar, for instance, enjoy standing as Islamic scholars though Ghannouchi’s status far outranks theirs.
Another particularity to note about Ennahda is its strong internal discipline. There can be divisions and fierce discussions inside the party, but once a decision is reached, the members tend to follow and defend the party’s position as if it were their own. The party’s schooling of its members and the formative experience of fighting the dictatorship has created a true sense of esprit de corps.
The combination of an authority that is religious as well as political with an ethos of strong party discipline makes for a rather elitist organization. There are formally democratic structures for party governance including an elected president and a governing council (majlis al-shura), but Ghannouchi’s unique personal status enables him to get his way no matter what the governing council thinks. A majority of the council might disagree with him, but has no real means to sanction him or block his decision, if he really insists. There is therefore a lot of power in the hands of Ghannouchi and his close aides. This is the leadership of Ennahda.
The members are important, for they represent and spread the party’s message in neighborhoods and towns all over the country. The leaders need to take the members into account when decisions are made in order to minimize internal dissension and maintain party cohesion. Nonetheless, important initiatives and decisions originate with the leadership. To understand why Ennahda conceded during the constitutional process, one must look at the leaders’ interests as well as their perception of how things stood after the fall of Ben Ali and the October 2011 constituent assembly election.
Ennahda won 37 percent of the vote and took seats in each of Tunisia’s diverse regions, emerging as indisputably the country’s strongest and indeed only mass party. No other party came close to matching Ennahda’s organization and professionalism. Yet its actual political position was weaker than the election results indicated. The leadership knew that although Ben Ali and his family were gone, much of the old regime remained. The high offices of state, the secret services, and the police were still controlled by allies of the former dictator. Any disruption of the constitutional process or a widespread impression of political instability could bring the former regime back onto the political stage. As Abou Yareed Marzouki, an advisor to Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali in the first Ennahda-led government, described the situation, “The security services, the ministries, the media-all these people from the former regime were still there. Nominally we had the power, but in reality they were in control.”
It is important to recall that after Bourguiba fell to Ben Ali’s bloodless 1987 palace coup, Tunisia experienced tentative steps toward democracy before Ben Ali was able to consolidate power and begin persecuting Islamists. Having once been whipsawed, therefore, Ennahda’s cadres were painfully aware of how quickly the situation could turn against them despite their strong showing at the ballot box. TheJuly 2013 coup of the military in Egypt against that country’s elected Muslim Brotherhood government further fed this fear of a sudden counterrevolution.
Moreover, Ennahda’s leaders knew that the more secular-leaning parts of Tunisian society-and especially the powerful Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT)-would do everything possible to prevent Islamist influence on the constitution. Having played a crucial role in the struggle for independence and in the toppling of Ben Ali, the UGTT enjoys enormous respect in Tunisia. With chapters and local members all over the country, the union was by far the best organized political entity in the country after the revolution. Ennahda cadres knew that if the UGTT called for strikes and put its weight behind opposition to an Ennahda-led government, the constitution-making process might crash.
Alongside fear of the old regime and the secular opposition, finally, was the Ennahda leadership’s self-interest in making the constitutional process work. The leadership felt highly confident that it would be the big winner of democratic elections. This confidence was rooted not only in the 2011 results, but also in the long-range historical analysis that Ghannouchi and other leaders embraced. In their view, the modernization and secularization process that Bourguiba had launched upon independence in 1956, and that continued to a certain extent under Ben Ali, was foreign to Muslim Tunisia. Only dictatorship and brute force sustained modernization, they believed. If these were removed and people were allowed to choose freely, Tunisia’s Islamic identity would naturally reassert itself, with Ennahda as the leading party.
For these reasons, a new constitution was crucial for the party. The Ennahda leaders wanted to leave as large and deep an Islamist imprint on this fresh basic law as they possibly could, of course, but they were always ready to compromise. Local Ennahda members, however, saw things very differently.
A Two-Front Battle
As mentioned above, many Ennahda members-including leading cadres-wanted a clear reference to shari’a in the constitution’s preamble or first article. If the party’s Islamist ideology were to have any meaning, they felt, God’s law had to receive mention in the country’s founding document. Ennahda supporters and other Islamists held several demonstrations in Tunis calling for the constitution to include shari’a. On the question of freedom of conscience, the pressure from rank-and file Ennahda members was even stronger. After their party’s electoral victory, they simply could not understand how the constitution could include a right to leave Islam, something that the vast majority of Islamic jurists regard as strictly forbidden.
Ennahda’s leaders, meanwhile, understood that while they might join forces with some smaller Islamist-leaning parties to cobble together a slim majority for the shari’a reference and the deletion of a freedom-of-conscience clause, they would fall short of the two-thirds majority required to pass the entire constitution (note that Tunisia’s constitutional process included no popular ratification by referendum and left everything to the constituent assembly). Moreover, taking a tough stand on these flashpoint issues would not only threaten to wreck the entire constitution-making process, but would upset foreign investors and Tunisia’s Western allies. A country as tourism-dependent as Tunisia could not afford to look like a hotbed of extremism. Finally, there was the risk that the secular-oriented parts of Tunisian civil society might respond with a backlash and possibly even a counterrevolution, as described above. Given these considerations, Ennahda’s decision makers concluded that backing down was the best course.
The Ennahda leadership thus saw itself as fighting on two fronts. On the one hand, it wanted to secure the biggest possible Islamist imprint on the constitution that it could without endangering the constitutional process altogether. On the other hand, it had to convince rank-and-file Ennahda members to accept principles opposed to the party’s original ideology. In order to accomplish this second task, leaders toured the party’s regional and local offices to talk to local members. The arguments delivered were generally mixed. Sometimes leaders downplayed the concessions, and sometimes they emphasized the role of civil society and asserted confidently that Tunisians would reject any modernist tendencies despite their place in the letter of the constitution. Most prominent, however, were new and more liberalinter pretations of Islamism and Islam itself. In the midst of the constitutional process, Ghannouchi himself said:
It is not suitable that Islamists and Muslims in general fear that freedom would harm Islam. The greatest danger to Islam would be the absence of freedoms and the unavailability of sufficient guarantees for the freedom of conscience, the freedom of expression, the freedom of belief, the freedom of movement, and all social freedoms.
His religious authority, as well as that of other Islamic thinkers within the party, was used to convince members that the compromises were perfectly Islamic. Shari’a was turned into a matter of values rather than legal norms, thereby justifying the reference to the “teachings” rather than the “laws” of Islam in the constitution’s preamble. Freedom of conscience was related to the general importance of freedom in Islam. The party also held meetings to air issues and settle on a common understanding before making the actual concessions with the other parties. This helped to calm members, but local leaders still found the work of explaining the concessions to be a hard job. As one local leader told me:
It created a lot of problems in the party. A lot of members were angry … To leave Islam is forbidden. Ghannouchi suggested a new interpretation of Islam on this subject, one which is very different from Islamic law … Our role as party activists was to be in contact with the local members and explain to them the new interpretation. We managed to convince many members.
One can question the arguments that were used, but the result is impressive. Coming back from exile and clandestine activity, Ennahda managed to change essential elements of its ideology in a short time and created genuine support for the new constitution among its members.
Having examined Ennahda’s concessions, it is possible to sketch some general lessons from the Tunisian experience. It is a mistake of many studies on Islamist moderation to assume that Islamist parties and movements see power simply as a means to implement an ideological program. Islamists have other motives that can at times outweigh ideology. In the Tunisian case, what mattered regarding there formulation of Ennahda’s ideology was not internal debates, interactions with other parties, or any other kind of predecision learning. What mattered was political calculation geared toward gaining and keeping power. For the sake of the party’s overarching goals, some elements of Islamist ideology had to be left behind. Freedom of conscience had to be affirmed, and shari’a abandoned. Ennahda made these compromises out of political necessity, and only later developed an ideological rationale for them.
The recruitment of the party’s rank-and-file membership to the side of this new understanding was not a neutral learning process, but an exercise in power and persuasion by the leadership. Leaders used every means of influence they could muster. Had this been a matter of members debating the issues freely without the leadership adding its weight to one side of the scales, the constitution would never have been accepted. In Tunisia, Islamists did not learn a new point of view; rather, their leaders decided to adopt a new view, and pressured members to do the same.
This focus on power and political calculation should not be confused with a moderation that is merely tactical. Ennahda made concessions out of necessity, but that does not make them more temporary or superficial. First, the leadership has now convinced party members that freedom of conscience and a constitution that makes no mention of shari’a are perfectly compatible with Islam. To that extent, the party’s ideology has changed. Second, the pressure to abandon shari’a and accept freedom of conscience will persist. If Ennahda wants to compete in future elections, it will need to appeal to centrist voters. Reintroducing a demand for shari’a or attacking freedom of conscience would drive such voters away. In sum, there is no “hidden agenda,” only an adaptation to political realities. Seeing Islamist parties as driven by political calculation and not exclusively by ideology means that Islamist parties can genuinely reform themselves.
Here, it is important to stress that focusing on political calculation is not the same as portraying the Islamists as only interested in power for power’s sake. Rejecting the moderation paradigm’s focus on ideology must not lead to simplistic Machiavellianism. To understand how Islamist parties evolve, we must look at the diversity of motives and personal trajectories that inform Islamists’ actions. For Ennahda, the experience of life under dictatorship has been crucial. Exile and imprisonment have left the party’s leaders with a lasting fear and distrust of the state. For many of them, gaining power has been less a question of being able to govern than of being able to survive. Having a share in power has been for Ennahda the only way to close off the dire possibility of renewed persecution.
Furthermore, power has also been a path to recognition by the Tunisian establishment. Ever since the party’s founding, Ennahda’s followers have been excluded from the official history of Tunisia and treated as backward and inferior. To achieve power would reverse this image and make them a legitimate part of Tunisian society. In addition, the personal ambitions of some Ennahda leaders have certainly been significant. When studying Islamist parties, one must keep all these varying motives in mind and not look solely at ideological statements. Only then does a full understanding of how and why Islamist parties transform themselves become possible.
An Unwilling Force for Secularization
In the wake of the new constitution’s adoption, what does the process tell us about the relationship between religion and politics in Ennahda? How might the role of Islam in the party’s program evolve as a consequence of the constitutional process? As mentioned above, religious and political authority overlap within Ennahda. Yet contrary to the founders’ intent, it is not religion but politics that determines the party’s public stances. Indeed, political calculation not only trumps religious doctrine, but determines the very interpretation of religion itself. When Ennahda’s leaders had to make unpalatable but necessary compromises in the constituent assembly and then “sell” those concessions to the members, the leadership’s religious authority was bent to the task of coaxing the members into line. Islam became a political instrument for the leadership.
Because Ennahda’s leaders needed their members to accept freedom of conscience, the abandonment of shari’a, and other secular principles, the leadership put forth an interpretation of Islam that supported such concessions. The strategic calculations of the Ennahda leadership thus generated an ideological change among the members of the party. The process changed how many members perceive Islamism and Islam.
Further research and surveys are needed to measure the dimensions of this value change, of course. Yet the sheer facts that the party is still united and still backing the constitution bear witness to the transformation that has occurred. It is important to remember that this value change does not apply to Islamists outside Ennahda. They have never accepted the constitution’s secular principles. As for how they will make their dissatisfaction heard, time will tell. But when it comes to the Ennahda party, its Islamist ideology has unquestionably been adapted to the institutions of modern democracy. In that sense, at least, the constitutional process has brought about a secularization of the Tunisian political sphere. For the reasons explained above, it is highly unlikely that the party will re-examine its support for the constitution, even when the 74-year-old Ghannouchi is no longer in power. As Meherzia Labidi, a leading member of Ennahda and former vice-president of the constituent assembly, explained:
You know what we did with the constitution? We closed the debate on the political model. The acceptance of the constitution, especially Article 6 on freedom of conscience and Article 2 on the civil nature of the Tunisian state, put an end to the discussion of the role of Islam in state affairs.
Ennahda’s acceptance of the constitution has buried the idea of building a fundamentally different society. The process has also shifted the party’s focus away from Islamism in its original, utopian form and toward a tendency to emphasize existing Islamic mores and values within Tunisian society as key reference points. Ghannouchi’s response to the Muhammad cartoons published by Charlie Hebdo is in that sense revealing. He supported censoring them in Tunisia, but observed that Muslims living in France should tolerate them, because there such cartoons are a part of the society. “What is accepted in one society, can be refused by another,” as he put it. This is a far cry from Islamism’s original universalism. The acceptance of the constitution might thus be a part of Ennahda’s gradual transformation from an Islamist movement into a more conventional conservative party. This would be an evolution similar to the shift that occurred in Turkey in the 1990s not within but between parties, when the AKP under Recep Tayyip Erdocgan replaced the more Islamist-oriented Welfare Party.
Such a drift from classic Islamism toward a more generic conservatism will still give Islam a prominent place in Ennahda’s rhetoric and concerns, but it will likely be expressed in terms of an “identity politics” not so different from the appeals of the Christian right in the United States. The party will single out policies that highlight Muslim identity, but will issue no challenge to the fundamental basis of the political order. Ennahda might push for a more Islamic-oriented educational system, higher taxes on alcohol, or a foreign policy centered on relations with Muslim countries. But these policy stances will be formulated within democratic institutions, just as Christian conservatives in the United States contest free abortion, but never question the U.S. constitution. Ennahda may engage in future “culture wars” over what it means to be Tunisian, but the core principles of liberal democracy will be left in peace.