By Maajid Nawaz
Something great is afoot in Tunisia. Having sparked the consecutive Arab uprisings that began over five years ago across the entire Middle East, the country is now proving itself a pioneer once again in the region.
Last weekend, Tunisia’s once-Islamist Ennahda party officially declared that it will separate its religious activities from its political ones. It now insists on the absolute political neutrality of mosques. In other words Ennahda, Tunisia’s version of the Muslim Brotherhood, just approved an internal reform that acknowledged the primacy of secular democracy over Islamist theocracy.
Amid all the dictatorships and destruction, the turmoil and turbulence, the extremism and extermination, finally some good news from the bitter politics of the Arab world. Such is the dearth of political progress from the wider Middle East today that only a fool would not seek to exploit the opportunity such an pronouncement presents.
Ahead of last weekend’s party congress that formalized this change, Ennahda’s founder and leader, Rached Ghannouchi, who once supported enforcing an interpretation of Islam as law, told the French daily Le Monde that “political Islam” no longer had a place in the Middle East.
“We want religious activity to be completely independent from political activity,” Ghannouchi said. “This is good for politicians because they would no longer be accused of manipulating religion for political means and good for religion because it would not be held hostage to politics… We are leaving political Islam and entering democratic Islam. We are Muslim democrats who are no longer claim to represent political Islam.”
Ghannouchi’s reforms were overwhelmingly adopted by a jubilant conference that saw over 13,000 party activists packing a stadium. An overspill of 2,000 more waited in anticipation outside. Non-religious songs filled the conference hall, young girls without headscarves were given the stage, and Ghannouchi’s secular political rival Nidaa Tunis leader President Beji Caid Essebsi—yes, the man who ousted Ennahda in the last election—was the guest of honor for the evening.
Surprisingly, the party remained highly unified despite the unprecedented reforms: 80.8 percent of delegates voted in favor of separating the political from social work, and 87.7 percent voted in favor of Ghannouchi’s new intellectual vision for the party. Ghannouchi himself easily regained his presidency with a whopping 75 percent of the delegates’ votes.
None of the above should imply that Tunisia’s journey towards secularism will be without its challenges. Many Tunisians— and others who follow events in the region—will remain wary of a resurgent Ennahda. They may believe this to be nothing but a ruse in order to gain power in local elections next year, ahead of the 2019 general election.
But between the Egypt that didn’t even try, and the Turkey that tried and failed, there are reasons peculiar to Tunisia that may just allow this brave experiment to succeed.
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