During the Tunisian elections, one of the places I often visited for interviews was the party headquarters of Al-Nahda, the dominant party in the country’s new constituent assembly. Al-Nahda was often described as being “Islamist” (as opposed to “secular” parties on the political left.) I couldn’t really figure out a better term, but that alone never seemed to describe Al-Nahda, I thought. “Islamist”—and its contrast with “secular”—never seemed to capture the whole picture of what I saw at the party offices: An incredibly slick political machine interested first in winning political office.
Now a few months later, Tunisia’s Islamists have been back in the news. As home to the Arab Spring—and the broadest political transition in the region so far—Tunisia has often been looked to as a bellwether where a post-revolutionary Middle East is headed. And the question of how Islamist and secular strands of thinking will be braided together into the state is front and center. Will religion dominate politics and law? Will democracy prevail above all? What about a somewhat mixed model like that of Turkey or Indonesia?
Much seems to hinge on that dichotomy: who will win and who will lose the intellectual Arab Spring. But the choice between all-religion or all-state neglects the very real third option that I saw emerging in those party offices in Tunisia: a cadre of Islamist Technocrats.
Speaking earlier this month, one of Tunisia’s most prominent men and the head of the Al-Nahda party, Rached Ghannouchi, offered a vision that reads to me pretty much like that. An analogy he offered sums it up:
One day the Prophet passed by a group in Medina cross-pollinating palm trees and said: 'I do not see the benefit of doing so.' The Medinan people thought that that was divine revelation and stopped treating their trees which made their harvest of that year of a lesser quality. They asked him why he ordered them to do so, and he replied: you are best placed to know what is beneficial for you in your worldly affaires. Therefore, it is not the duty of religion to teach us agricultural, industrial or even governing techniques, because reason is qualified to reach these truths through the accumulation of experiences. The role of religion, however, is to answer the big question for us, those relating to our existence, origins, destiny, and the purpose for which we were created, and to provide us with a system of values and principles that would guide our thinking, behavior, and the regulations of the state to which we aspire.
It’s a different kind of Islamism that that word usually conjures, to be sure—one that is opposed both to state-imposed religion and state-mandated non-observance in the public sphere. It’s not afraid to hold elections, hire external consultants, or ask tough economic questions. In a word, it does all the things a functional government would do. Yet it happens to be inspired to this political construction by Islam.
Yet make no mistake, this configuration of religion and state is indeed different from that which exists in the West. To assure us of the difference, Ghannouchi critiques the Western system as “a preserve of a few financial brokers owning the biggest share of capital and by extension the media, through which they ultimately control politicians.” He also has no love for countries that, like Iran or Saudi Arabia, police religious observation. “There is no value to any religious observance that is motivated through coercion. It is of no use to turn those who are disobedient to God into hypocrites through the state's coercive tools.”
The whole speech is worth a read here.
Of course, it remains to be seen what these ideas will look like in practice. One of the main criticisms of the Al-Nahda party more broadly is that its leadership says one thing and its ground-level representatives believe and do another. Policymaking is a task that no Islamic-leaning party in Tunisia has ever had the chance to do. They’ll have to convince themselves and their members as much as anyone else what they have found the right balance of values.
There are also very powerful voices clamoring for more radical interpretations of the Islamist-secular divide. Salafist Muslims, for example, have been gathering every Friday in protest against the newly formed government. Secular protests often pop up in opposition.
Getting both those groups to agree that there is a middle ground will be a big challenge. But success could rest on the very technocratic skills that Al-Nahda’s Ghannouchi seems interested in honing. Kickstarting the economy going, for example, would probably go far to win hearts and minds; the unemployment rate still rages at almost 20 percent. That kind of economic struggle was one of the many factors cited as having provoked revolution one year ago. Fixing it could finally turn a new page.
Update: Case and point -- Al-Nahda is literally cleaning up the garbage, reports The National:
"One frigid night last month I went for a walk in my neighbourhood near Tunis and came upon half a dozen men pitching sacks of rubbish into the back of a pick-up van. ...The men were volunteers, it turned out, and Islamists. "From Ennahda," one of them told me when I asked. ...The impromptu rubbish collection team was a minor vignette on a small street. But it helped explain why the moderate Islamist Ennahda party - known for a common touch and seen by supporters to stand for a spirit of charity - swept elections in October."