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On Muslim Democracy: Essays and Dialogue

March 11, 2024 at 9:20 am

On Muslim Democracy: Essays and Dialogue
  • Book Author(s): Andrew F March and Rached Ghannouchi
  • Published Date: November 2023
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press
  • Hardback: 248 pages
  • ISBN-13: 9780197666876

According to Tunisian politician Rached Ghannouchi, “The Islamic system is closer to a parliamentary one and is not an executive authority.” The leader of Tunisia’s Ennahda movement explains to Andrew March, an American political philosopher and translator of Ghannouchi’s works. “So, the government is a tool for implementing that of which parliament legislates… Members of parliament are elected officials who derive their authority from the people rather than their knowledge base… I regard these elected members of parliament as the elite or ‘holders of authority’, as referred to in the Qur’an [4:59] and Islamic tradition.”

Here we see Ghannouchi challenging the authoritarian principles that have governed modern Tunisia, which sees power as largely being exercised legitimately by the president of the country. Formulating a democratic and anti-authoritarian trend in Tunisia, On Muslim Democracy: Essays and Dialogue is a fascinating glimpse into the thinking of one of Tunisia’s most important contemporary political leaders and intellectuals.

The essays and interview were written and conducted over time after the 2011 Arab Spring, which ousted President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, after which Tunisia embarked on a democratic experiment. Many of Ghannouchi’s writings were unavailable to English-speaking audiences and we are indebted to Professor March for his time and intellectual endeavours in translating, analysing and grappling with them. On Muslim Democracy… is the latest edition of these writings. March says that this book strikes a very different tone to another book that was also a translation of Ghannouchi’s writings; Public Freedoms in the Islamic State was based on essays written before the Arab Spring.  Ghannouchi’s ideas as explored in Public Freedoms… represented an idealist and perfectionist stance; in other words, what an Islamic state and society ought to look like and goals it should aspire too. However, this latest volume consists of essays and an interview written between 2011 and 2021

READ: Tunisia extends Ghannouchi’s imprisonment

Ghannouchi makes a critical shift in his political thinking from Islamism to Muslim democracy. He no longer seeks to create the ideal Islamic state. Instead, he is looking at core principles in light of democratic, pragmatic and pluralist Tunisia with all its virtues and flaws. March describes meeting Ghannouchi as being with a great living historical thinker, and insists that he should be considered in wider conversations about Muslims and democracy.

“Ghannouchi’s political theory was noteworthy for the role he imagined for an active, engaged, and deliberative democratic populus,” explains March, who argues that Ghannouchi breaks with dominant Western philosophical approaches to democracy. “Unlike Montesquieuian and Madisonian theories of the separation of powers and institutional pluralism as the ultimate check against tyranny, Ghannouchi had long stressed public virtue and public opinion.”

However, Ghannouchi also breaks with Islamic theorists. “Unlike traditional Islamic theories that placed custodianship of the law in the hands of jurists exclusively, Ghannouchi imagined the realisation of Islamic law as largely a public deliberative process involving not only experts but also ordinary citizens-believers.”

The latter idea has undergone an evolution with Ghannouchi seeing elected parliamentary members as being the check on authoritarianism. In my view, though, the “citizens-believers” bestow authority on the members of parliament, who then carryout this function, and so Ghannouchi’s current line of thinking is not a million miles away from his original line. Ghannouchi insisted on the popular will as part of the process of realising Shariah and being essential for governance, which puts him at odds with a number of Islamist thinkers.

The perceived failure of Islamist projects from Egypt to Iran no doubt also influenced the way Ghannouchi thinks and his shift away from idealism towards pragmatism.

As March notes, though, “The ideal theory of a ‘republic of virtue’ that harmonises the demands of divine and popular sovereignty always coexisted not only with deep personal pragmatism and flexibility on Ghannouchi’s part but also with less perfectionist and more pluralistic aspects of theoretical writings.”

On Muslim Democracy… offers us a critical insight into the shifts in Rached Ghannouchi’s thinking, the ideas post Arab Spring and Tunisian intellectual responses to resurgent authoritarianism. The essays will stimulate debate in the wider world in a way not too dissimilar from the debate that they have sparked in Tunisia.

While the book can be characterised in part as post-Islamism literature, which seeks to understand social, intellectual and political changes and dynamics after Islamist idealism has come and gone, it also offers an alternative vision for democracy, which exists outside Western intellectual norms, while also thinking about what those Western norms mean in the context of a Muslim democratic framework. Political theorists and philosophers will certainly have much to chew over, and more general readers interested in Muslim political thought and democracy will find a useful guide into one possible approach to the subject. It will also dispel myths about Ghannouchi in the English-speaking world and give policymakers and analysts direct access to his works and ideas. It is, I believe, an essential read for all those concerned with Tunisia’s future.

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