The Tunisian Miracle: A Marriage of Moderate Islam and Secular Democracy

 /  Jan. 20, 2015, 8:06 p.m.


On December 21, Tunisia completed its first ever democratic presidential election. Under the new post-revolution constitution, candidates Moncef Marzouki and Beji Caid Essebsi competed in a runoff, with Essebsi ultimately winning the presidency. The success of this truly democratic election stands in stark contrast to the typical aftermath of elections in other nations affected by the Arab Spring. Defying the odds, Tunisia conducted a free and fair election and facilitated the rise of a leader who does not seem to pose an authoritarian threat to the country. This presidential election follows parliamentary elections in October, which, in a stunning development, resulted in the first instance of an Islamic party voluntarily relinquishing power to a secular one, Nidaa Tounes.

Nidaa Tounes’s victory is complemented by a liberal new constitution, approved by the parliament in January 2014. Hailed as a landmark in Arab politics, the new constitution intertwines the country’s Islamic heritage with secular liberal freedoms. The constitution promises equal rights for men and women, freedom of all religious and personal expression, and an independent judiciary—all the while invoking religious language and affirming that Islam is the religion of the state. The document also includes elements of democratic socialism, assuring that resources will be distributed to every region of the country according to their need through positive discrimination, and that every citizen has a right to healthcare and fair wages.

Such democratic success is unique—a multitude of nations have failed to take advantage of the Arab Spring revolutions to successfully transform themselves into democracies. The Arab Spring has resulted in brutal civil wars in Syria and Libya but also spawned a host of liberal political and social reforms in several North African countries, including Tunisia. These successfully transitioning countries are unique and can serve as incredible case studies for the international community. The former French protectorate has been hailed as one of the only success stories to come out of the wave of revolutions, but most importantly, the Tunisian Revolution has produced a healthy binary system in which secular and moderate Islamic viewpoints vie for recognition within an inclusive democracy .

Tunisia’s demographic and ethnic makeup contributes to the democratic success of the nation. Tunisia’s religious and ethnic homogeneity, as well as its deeply rooted historical commitment to moderate Islam , have allowed it to break from many of its Arab neighbors who have failed to democratize following popular upheavals. These deeply historical and geographic conditions allowed uniquely democratic candidates to emerge in elections, and helped facilitate successful transitions of power.

Tunisia, like many Arab countries struggling to establish democratic systems, is a product of colonization. Following Tunisia’s independence from France in 1956, Habib Bourguiba, the founding president of modern Tunisia, came to power, ruling the country with an iron fist until being judged unfit to govern due to physical ailment in 1987. Bourguiba was unabashedly secular, and passed reforms that many believed were directly in opposition to Islam, such as granting women inheritance rights, outlawing polygamy, and generally encouraging social separation from Islam. Following Bourguiba’s removal from power, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali took over, loosening religious and press restrictions slightly by elevating religious departments into a single ministry, and by personally performing religious rituals that Bourguiba had refused to observe. In this way, he was able to appease some religious critics of Bourguiba’s presidency, though he failed to satisfy others. Ben Ali took a harder stance on what he perceived to be religious extremism, and as a result garnered political opposition from the newly formed populist En-Nahda Movement, the leading voice among moderate Islamists in Tunisia. In order to preserve his personal power, the president banned En-Nahda and other political parties, spreading resentment to his rule.

Founded in 1981, the En-Nahda Party—meaning ‘renaissance’ in Arabic—has renounced any kind of violence, and does not include the introduction of sharia as part of its platform. Sharia, a form of Islamic law, is controversial in Tunisia as well as in the West, and En-Nahda’s decision to distance itself from it puts the party firmly in the more moderate sphere of Arab political Islam. The party won a majority in Tunisia’s parliament in 2012 shortly after the ousting of Ben Ali, and in an historic moment, became the first Islamic party in the Arab world to voluntarily cede power following their loss in the parliamentary elections this October to Nidaa Tounes, the primary secular party in Tunisia. Post-revolutionary democracy already seems to be working as envisioned in Tunisia. The concession of En-Nahda has led to a transition of power without violent upheaval—a heroic political feat in a such a volatile region. Instead of continuing the cycle of violence, En-Nahda’s concession gives power to popular state institutions as representatives of the people of Tunisia, and a pattern of respect for democratic processes has emerged.

The post-independence history of Tunisia follows a pattern similar to that of many other countries throughout the Middle East and Arab world: secular autocratic regimes breed religious fundamentalism among the traditional rural population. Bourguiba and Ben Ali, like many other Arab dictators, hunted down Islamic fundamentalists and waged a public campaign against ‘terrorists’ and ‘extremists’ that drove many militants out of the country. Those that remained were forced deep underground. However instead of slowly radicalizing the population, these fundamentalists faded into irrelevance, even as the country became more religiously conscious throughout the 1980s and 90s. This counterintuitive turn of events can be attributed to a defining characteristic of most of the Arab Maghreb (the geographic area where Tunisia is located)—its dedication to the Maliki school of fiqh, meaning ‘Islamic jurisprudence’ in Arabic.

Fiqh is a field of Muslim theology that deals with the interpretation of religious law and the Quran for legal and social purposes, aiming to teach Muslims across the world how to live their lives in accordance with their faith. The Maliki school of fiqh is known for its moderate interpretation of Islamic law and practice, teaching that the lifestyle and traditions observed by the first three Islamic generations of Medina are sunnah, or the basis for a proper way of life under Islam. Malikis thus put greater weight on practical interpretations of the Quran and the hadiths— speeches made by Muhammad during his life—than on strict religious dogma, setting the school apart from other more conservative schools of legal theology. While the majority of North and West African Muslims outside of Egypt adhere to the Maliki school, Tunisia has a special place in this theological tradition because the founding mosque of the school—the Mosque of Uqba—is located in Kairouan, Tunisia. This mosque, the first mosque in North Africa at its founding in 670 AD, has preached a tradition of tolerance and practical religious observance in Tunisia since its founding, an aspect of the local culture that Tunisians view as an integral part of their collective heritage.

Islam in other Maliki-practicing countries like Morocco and Algeria has remained similarly moderate throughout history. Perhaps the lone outlier among the Maliki nations is Libya, where a civil war is raging between Muslim fundamentalists, the military, and the officially recognized parliament. However, Libya differs from Tunisia and other North African countries in its history and demographic makeup. Many of Libya’s extremists have been trained overseas in places like Afghanistan, and have used the turmoil in Libya after the Revolution of 2011 to gain political leverage. In addition, Libya is composed of a host of rival Arab tribes, Berbers, and desert-dwelling Tuaregs and Tebous, while Tunisia is almost completely ethnically homogenous. While Berbers are the indigenous people of Tunisia, the country has throughout its history always been dominated by Arabs linguistically, politically, and culturally, and thus the common thread of Berber ancestry throughout the Maghreb is weakest in Tunisia. In addition, although significant Christian and Jewish communities exist in Tunisia, the vast majority of the country remains Sunni Muslim. The homogeneity that exists throughout most levels of Tunisian society diminishes the likelihood that ethnic or religious minorities will use religious extremism as a means of achieving political liberation, as has been the case in Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon.

Homogenous nation states have historically been easier to govern than countries with mixed populations, simply because certain values, social norms, and a common language and religion are shared by almost the entire population. Tunisia’s enduring moderate approach to religion, fostered through the deeply rooted Maliki school of jurisprudence in the country, creates a shared cultural identity in which Islam does not endanger progressive secular ideals, while continuing to play a very important role in people's’ lives.

The candidates in the 2014 elections represented these demographics and moderate Islamic culture. The candidates—Marzouki from the Congress for the Republic, and Essebsi from Nidaa Tounes—embody a political landscape that is completely unrecognizable from that of ousted president-dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s time in office, and a reflection of a more temperate people.

With a religious and ethnic climate so advantageous to stable democracy in relation to the rest of the region, Tunisia stands proudly as an example of what a secular Islamic republic can look like in the modern world. While the complete legacy of the Arab Spring has yet to be revealed amid continuing wars in the Fertile Crescent and Libya, political battles in Egypt, and a nation on the verge of collapse in Yemen, the country that started it all has emerged victorious in its fight against dictatorship.

Michal Kranz


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