The Impact of Ennahda’s Shift Away from Political Islamism

The international media greeted a monumental announcement by the leader of Tunisian’s main Islamist movement, Rachid Ghannouchi in mid-May with a variety of reactions. Ghannouchi’s declaration that Ennahdha would separate the movement’s religious mission (al-da’wah) from its political imperatives (al-siyasah) was taken to mean a step towards secularism; a departure from its historical Islamist orientation; even perhaps the eventual demise of the movement. But what was it really – and what are the repercussions for Ennahdha, Tunisia, Islamism, and the Arab world?

Christiane Amanpour interviewed Ghannouchi on CNN shortly after the announcement – and while Amanpour identified the importance of the declaration, Ghannouchi went to great lengths to insist that religion remains at the heart of the Ennahdha political project. In the interview, he said he remained committed to religion in the public arena, and it was precisely his confidence in its permanent nature that gave him the impetus to decide that a separation of responsibilities and duties within the wider movement ought to be given institutional effect.

Within Sunni Islam, religious authority exists, albeit not in a hierarchical ecclesiastical fashion. Systems of religious authenticity have been established over more than a thousand years – and historically, that meant that political leaders and religious authorities were distinct and separate from each other. In that regard, there were always ‘sultans’ (political authorities) and ‘’ulama’ (learned religious scholars) – and seldom might they be one and the same, even though they would both recognize the role of Islam in the public consciousness. Ghannouchi’s move shows that after the passing of the Tunisian constitution, he also sees a recognition of Islam and what he considers to be Muslim identity to be protected in the public arenas, as per several sentences within the constitution. As such, the need for Ennahdha to simultaneously be a political party and a religious movement has ended.

Can we call that secularism? Perhaps– but it will be a particular type of secularism, one mediated by a Tunisian Islamist experience, and wider Tunisian realities – and that is entirely legitimate. The idea that any kind of Tunisian secularism would insist on the invisibility or exclusion of religion in the public sphere, and be sustainable, is debatable indeed. It’s not a separation between politics and religion – it’s a distinction between those working in politics and those working in religion. That’s quite different. Religion will not, as a result of this move, be excluded from the public arena a la some kind of hardline secularism.

Is the movement now going to split up and disintegrate, with popular support for the political party diminishing, as a result of this move? That seems rather dubious to claim. This move was being discussed for several years within Ennahdha, and the decision was only taken after the various elements within the party were groomed and convinced In other words, once it happened, it was pretty much a consensus decision. The grassroots are not going to be demanding the split of the party into different parties over this – that’s the wrong fight to be looking for.

There will, nevertheless be tensions – one immediate, and one going forward. The first tension will be over what the separation means institutionally and practically. What bureaus and desks within the movement will be apportioned to ‘da’wah’ and which will be designated as ‘siyasah’? That’s not a minor tension – that involves authority, positions, finances – and already, there are arguments being had. The consensus didn’t account for that. Ennahdha’s Consultative (Shura) Council according to different sources will be adjudicating that separation – and it isn’t likely to be pretty.

The second tension will be about what this means for both politics and religion in Tunisia. As part of the move, entrance into the political party will be opened up – fewer religious qualifications demanded, for example, with morals or akhlaq removed from the list of membership requirements. In other words, a good deal of new blood is possible, and additionally, the new and old members of the party will be less beholden to the religious conservatism of the ‘da’wah’ element within the movement. What do both of those things mean for practical policy making within the party going forward? None of that is yet clear.

Secondly, on the religious front – Ennahdha has always been an alliance between a particularly centrist form of modernist Salafism (quite distinct from other forms of Salafism), led by Rachid Ghannouchi, on the political front, and a conservative albeit more mainstream Sunnism on the religious front. Ghannouchi, for example, upholds the more modernist approach, with Islamic theology rooted in a modernist’s take on Ahmad bin Taymiyya, and his jurisprudence in a more eclectic method, while his activism owes a great deal to the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hassan al-Banna. The more normative religious side to Ennahdha, which will predominate in the ‘da’wah’ wing of the movement, is more attached to the historical Sunnism of Tunisia and the Arab world – affected, perhaps, by the modernist Salafism of Banna and others, but rooted in the mainstream doctrinal formulations of Tunisia’s Zaytuna university, which is similar to that of Al-Azhar university in Egypt. Indeed, their religious approaches have caused them to be somewhat exasperated with Ghannouchi’s more religious stances, which the more scholastic and traditional religious coterie in Ennahdha view as less based in expertise than their more normative scholastic approaches.

What will become of that, going forward, in terms of Tunisian religion? Will Ennahdha’s religious wing become less distinguished from the rest of the Tunisian religious establishment, over time, as their doctrinal similarities converge further? Will the ‘da’wah’ wing of Ennahdha mean that the religious establishment more generally becomes less quietist, and more interested in ‘speaking truth to power’?

The religious conservatives of Ennahdha are not, generally speaking, purist Salafis inspired by Saudi Arabia at all. Unlike the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, for example, they are inspired far more by the tradition of the Zaytuna, and influenced far more by Sufism than most Islamist movements. The mainstream, non-Islamist portions of the religious establishment might be suspicious of Ennahdha for politicking in religious garbs – but now that the Ennahdha ‘dawah’ crowd will depart that, how different really will they be? Only time will tell.

It will also be rather intriguing to see how Ennahdha’s decision affects its relationships with other Islamists in the region. Some within Ennahdha already expect Islamists from within other centrist Islamist movements to be opposed to the move – and it remains to be seen how that is going to affect the development of Islamism more generally in the region.

Fundamentally, on many levels, Ghannouchi’s move is good for Tunisia and the Arab world. It will hopefully reduce the politicization of religion for partisan purposes, which only cheapens religion as well as politics. It also marks the confidence of Ennahdha supporters in the stability of the Tunisian constitutional order – and a wider acceptance of a pluralistic order among Tunisians more generally. In a region that is torn by identity politics in a magnificently damaging fashion, that can only be good news – and the region needs a lot more good news.
Dr. H.A. Hellyer is a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council. He is also Associate Fellow in International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London.

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Image: Photo: Chatham House