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Soumaya Ghannoushi: Ennahda's new approach is about rationalisation of politics, not secularism

Middle East Monitor spoke to Soumaya Ghannoushi, columnist and daughter of Rached Ghannouchi, Tunisia's Ennahda party leader, about the group's recent decision to separate politics from religion.

MEMO: Ennahda's announcement at its tenth party congress that it would be separating the political from the religious spheres has generated much debate. What were the motives behind this move?

SG: Well, I should point out that this separation between the party's political and other activities: religious, cultural and social, is not the first of its kind, but has precedents in the Arab region. Morocco's Justice and Development Party is a notable example. But unlike the JDP, Ennahda didn't simply draw a line of separation between the political party and its parent movement. It has gone further by declaring itself a political party dedicated to the administration of political affairs in its broadest meaning, including matters of governance. As for social and religious activities, they would be left to civil society, performed within associations and organisations independent of political parties and the state.

MEMO: What is Ennahda trying to achieve through this decision?

SG: This move is informed by a vision of society grounded in a belief in the distinctness of three different spheres: the state, political parties and civil society, and the different roles each plays. Respecting the boundaries between these realms ensures a high level of specialisation in the management of the various tasks involved. For Ennahda, it means greater specialisation, greater political efficiency and greater practicality in the party's work.

MEMO: How much of this decision is dictated by internal considerations within Ennahda?

SG: The past five years have undoubtedly exposed a clash of priorities within Ennahda, between politicians who have been inclined to greater pragmatism and engagement with the logic of the state and governance on the one hand, and preachers on the other, who have been more keen to get into disputes over religious identity and morality. These differences were particularly apparent during the drafting of the constitution. But Ennahda is a democratic party, with very strong democratic mechanisms and structures, which enable differences to be settled through extensive – often heated -discussions and voting. The will of the majority is always respected. Majority opinion within Ennahda is in favour of the decision, something that was clearly reflected in the party congress where over 80 per cent of delegates endorsed the motion for the separation.

MEMO: Does this mean that Ennahda is forsaking non-political activities?

SG: The truth is that Ennahda, with the immense pressures of governance and the complex dynamics of the political field, has been effectively devoting all its energy to practical political work, and forced to give priority to political over cultural, social and religious activities. Practice has thus preceded theory. So, Ennahdha is now merely articulating changes that have already been underway.

The decision would free up the currently marginalised non-political activities which would receive the attention and energy they deserve within efficient specialised associations and organisations working freely in civil society.

Also, the rise of terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda, Daesh and Ansar Al-Shariah, which commit their violence in the name of Islam has also prompted Ennahda to make a clear and definite distinction between itself and these groups.

Ennahda decided to do this by moving towards professional political work and clearing the way for professional cultural and religious associations to spread moderate, rational Islamic culture within Sunni Islam, according to Tunisia's Maliki school of jurisprudence. Ultimately, this would enable the party to confront the ideology of violence and terrorism being promoted by these groups more effectively.

MEMO: Why was this decision not taken before?

SG: This new direction reflects the evolution of Tunisian political life since the revolution. For many years, Tunisia lived under the yoke of a tyrannical state and a ruling totalitarian party that dominated every facet of life. Nothing was outside its control, culture, religion, art, sport… In the absence of any free spaces for non-political activity, opposition to the state, including Ennahda, the main opposition to Ben Ali's regime, sought to perform all these different roles within the same entity: the party or movement.

Thankfully, we are in a different political reality now. The political transformation which Tunisia underwent, since the revolution, has shattered the dominant position of the ruling party and reduced the hold of the state over political parties and civil society. This has prompted Ennahdha to review its political options and evolve into a professional national party which still regards Islamic reformism as its reference frame.

MEMO: Some say that Ennahda is drifting towards secularism. Do you agree?

SG: No, I don't think this signals a move towards secularisation. What it reflects is a gradual adaptation to the spirit of the democratic system, which is based on the separation of powers, their distribution, and the dismantling of centres of dominance and authority.

This imposes fundamental changes on power structures and on political parties, ruling and opposition alike.

The functional separation between religious and political activity does not mean that political actors do not have convictions or moral and religious inclinations. And it does not mean the absence of religious influence in public life and within the fabric of society.

Besides, at the end of the day, religion will continue to inform the political culture and structure of society. This is a matter that neither Ennahda nor any other player determines. This is determined by society's own dynamics. The functional separation between religion and politics does not imply a substantive separation between politics and religious and moral values.

MEMO: But wouldn't you say that this does point to a form of secularisation?

SG: No, I think we should distinguish between rationality and secularism. In one of its basic dimensions, secularism entails emptying the world of religious meaning and value. Rationality, however, means the search for harmony and efficiency. This can be achieved within a moral and religious framework. This is exactly what Ennahda is trying to do.
What is happening in Tunisia may give an indication of the future tendency of the Arab world towards the rationalisation of the political and religious spheres, away from the model of religious fundamentalism and the rigid French secular model which tries to purge politics and the public sphere of any religious dimension.
I think this process may arguably be closer to the American model where the state is not implicated in religious and confessional disputes, while at the same time accommodating religion in public life.
What is taking place inside Ennahda is best seen as a form of rationalisation of politics, under the effect of the new democratic context. In the end, this shows that those working within Ennahda are dynamic and rational politicians who interact and engage with new developments and evolve accordingly, and not religious zealots or dervishes unconcerned with historical changes around them.
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