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Returning to Tunisia in the era of 'Al-Nahda'

January 27, 2014 at 3:34 pm

The last time I visited Tunisia’s capital over a quarter of a century ago, we behaved like the criminals in detective movies. In order to visit Sheikh Rashed al-Ghannouchi, the leader of Tunisia’s Islamic movement which had just been established and was being pursued at the time, we had to take complicated measures to avoid being followed by security. I left the hotel alone and had to walk for a mile or so where a friend, Ali al-Borawi, was waiting for me. We took a taxi that drove us to another part of the capital, and then we had to walk some more to where another car used to transport vegetables was waiting for us. We rode next to the driver, who was driving less than 20 miles an hour on the highway to make sure no one was following us. We finally reached a house in Tunisia’s suburbs, and the owner warmly welcomed us. Sheikh Rashed arrived an hour later for the meeting.

After this meeting, which was held during the reign of Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia’s first president to be overthrown, we published an analysis of Tunisia’s situation and a long interview with Sheikh Rashed as a series in the “Arabia” magazine published in London at the time. As a result of this, we were put on Tunisia’s security black-list and were not allowed to visit during the reign of the second president to be overthrown, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. However, the police aggression against us did not stop there and the authorities tried to prevent us from writing in some Arab newspapers, while some agencies took it as far as to fabricate an accusation of “money laundering” for Hamas (I do not know why they chose Hamas instead of any other movement). However, no one believed them, simply because we had no money – laundered or not.

Despite this, we were a lot luckier than our host, Sheikh Rashed, who was arrested a few months after the meeting and charged with conspiring to overthrow the regime (an accusation no less true than our “money laundering” accusation). However, the Sheikh was so sure at the time that the death sentence (which had been demanded by the prosecution) was going to be carried out, that in his final plea he asked that no one avenge his death and predicted that his blood would plant the seeds of freedom in Tunisia. When concluding his final word, the Sheikh said that this trial will be repeated twice: once on Earth, when history will rule in favour of the movement and its leaders, and once more on Judgement Day where no one could overrule the Almighty.

The events that followed this were stories told by history; a history that gave our return to Tunisia’s streets, where my brother Ali al-Borawi and I had tried to avoid the police over 25 years ago, a special feeling. This visit is symbolic, since it was an invitation to the 32nd anniversary celebration of the Islamic Movement’s establishment; the movement which later became the al-Nahda movement which rules Tunisia today. Everything was different – from our arrival at the airport to the activities of the celebration. An intellectual forum was held in one of the capital’s oldest hotels located in the heart of the city (the same street we had walked down in fear), while the public celebration was held in the Sports City and was attended by thousands of families full of joy and hope.

The celebration was an occasion to remember how a group of young people in the late 60s and early 70s had challenged the Tunisian government’s project to take religion out of daily public life and out of Tunisian culture and society. The account given by Abdel Fattah Mourou, who is the movement’s deputy leader and one of its founders, was one of the most influential stories. He spoke about how the young founders were from poor families, and how he had borrowed his contribution to the movement’s first intellectual project from his mother who was a seamstress. He also talked about how they had met Sheikh Mohammad Saleh al-Nefer, who had left Tunisia in protest at Bourguiba’s religious policies and settled in Algeria, however when he met the young men in a mosque and got to know them, had decided to stay in Tunisia. When one of the men told him they went around the streets and houses to invite citizens to lessons in the mosque, he refused their proposal for him to stay at the mosque to give the lessons and insisted on going around with them himself. He also mentioned the movement’s first published work about Ramadan which they had prepared and printed in 24 hours, and how all the 5,000 copies printed were sold in one day!

Sheikh Ghannouchi also recalled the trial which he believed would be his last, and how he had faced the judge with defiance asserting that he was proud of his role in founding the movement. He stressed that the movement had never resorted to violence as the court claimed, but rather rejects it on principle. As for Maan Bashour, he recalled the events connecting the Islamic and national movements, and the Tunisian government’s violent response against national institutions, movements, and individuals that contributed to the connection. Bashour spoke about the incident in the 90s that involved smuggling al-Ghannouchi from Beirut and through Damascus, after information had been leaked about a scheme planned by the regime to capture or assassinate him in Lebanon. Two young men accompanied Ghannouchi during this incident, both of whom were invited to this occasion where they introduced themselves to an audience so large that most had to stand.

However, the occasion wasn’t only to celebrate and recall memories, as the al-Nahda Movement made sure to hold an intellectual forum, which I was invited to participate in, to evaluate the movement’s progress and contributions. Sami Ibrahim, one of the members of the movement, called for a renewal of the movement’s thought and harmony, warning that its popularity had declined since it came into power. On his part, Dr. Abdulbaqi Al Harmasi talked about the criticisms he had received from his left-wing friends due to his concern for the movement, which they viewed as rigid and incapable of renewal, but he proved to them that the left was incapable of renewal. He also asked the movement for more revisions.

On his part, the writer of this article made a contribution called “Can the Islamic movement be democratic?”, which stated that democracy was not a priority of the Islamic movement, nor the national movements who were busy facing foreign dangers represented by the colonial attack. Moreover, the Islamic trends are an extension of reformatory thought that fought on two fronts; the first against the new secular elites that shunned the Quran, and the second against the religious leaderships and their rigid thought that rejects reform – from reforming the army to educational reform. In this atmosphere, where all forces opposed the reformatory trend, the call for democracy was not the closest way to that reform.

This is where the importance of the Islamic movement in Tunisia comes in, as it was the first Islamic movement to put democracy at the heart of its program and at the top of its list of priorities. This was one of the reasons that brought the small and marginal movement into the spotlight in the Islamic arena. It was established by young hard-working men and was banned immediately after it was announced in the summer of 1981. It is also true that the movement was inspired by the thought and experiences of other movements, particularly the Sudanese Islamic movement, before its most recent decline. The Sudanese movement called for democracy from a number of perspectives; firstly to oppose their ideological opponents on the left, secondly because it was established and developed in a democratic environment, thirdly because the larger movements in Sudan were religious, and finally because the oppressive regimes surrounded and attacked the movement which drove it to call for democracy and the forging of alliances with other forces. Above all this, Sheikh Hassan al-Turabi believed that the interpretation of religion should not only be done by the scholars, but through the consensus of the people. This in turn requires the acceptance of freedom of expression and opinion in order for consensus to be built on a sound foundation.

There was not enough time to talk about the reason for Sudan’s setback in practicing democracy (although this matter was addressed in the written text for the forum), but al-Nahada’s commitment to the principle of democracy raises a number of questions about the doctrinal foundations for this and why we insist on judging Islamic as well as other movements on how dedicated they are to democracy? Has democracy become the new religion that should be followed above and beyond any other doctrine? And finally, is there anything that forcefully dictates non-democratic paths for Islamic movements?

In short, I started to respond to these questions by pointing out the importance of democracy as it presents itself as a system with no loser, because the winner does not impose their will forcefully on the loser without coming to a consensus, all the while preserving the loser’s basic rights. Based on this, the Islamic movements’ problem, in general, lies in its opponents’ fear that it uses its majority to alter the identity of both the state and society. This fear is amplified by the fact that popular support for these movements has greatly increased over the past decades and has even exceeded the movements’ expectations. Moreover, since these movements originally invite people to Islam, it will work towards increasing its supporters and its time in power may enable it to increase its followers in overwhelming numbers. At such a point, it will be hard for it to resist the temptation of “Islamification” at the highest level.

On the other hand, this does not replace democracy for two main reasons. First, the Islamic movements and trends are facing deeply rooted disputes amongst each other. Even in the two countries where it has sole authority, Iran and Sudan, its fiercest opposition is from other Islamic trends. This means that these trends are in dire need of democracy as a means of resolving such disputes. This also means that the Islamists’ opponents have no other choice than democracy, especially since they have tried oppression and “eradication” in Tunisia and other countries, and it did not work. Instead, these movements came from prison and exile to take authority after decades of suppression and conflict.

Therefore, the solution is for the same Islamic movements to cultivate national consensus through self-restraint and convincingly reassuring its competitors that it will not exceed this consensus, and will observe democracy in its fundamental meaning that we mentioned earlier, which is the assurance that there will be no losing citizens. This bring us back to Dr. Bashir Nafi’s point on modern states, and the need to re-formulate it in a radical matter that overcomes its unilateralism and its tendency towards domination and “sovereignty”.

The author is Reader in Politics at the Centre for the Study of Democracy, University of Westminster and co-ordinator of the Centre’s Democracy and Islam Programme. This article is a translation from the Arabic text which was first published in Al Quds Al Arabi Newspaper on 11 June, 2103

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.