Over at MERIP Rikke Hostrup Haugbolle and Francesco Cavatorta have an amusing theory as to why the moderate Islamist al Nahda did so well in the Tunisian October 2011 election - the first free and fair contest in the nation's history. The usual explanations do not hold up since other parties can claim similar variables:
First, it is said that Ennahda was very quick and skilled in reorganizing its structures across the country after Ben Ali fell on January 14, 2011.But all of these can be said about other Tunisian parties in one variant or another. So why did al Nahda do so well? Because the preceding decade has witnessed a rejuvenation in piety among Tunisians. But not the Political Islam menacingly portrayed in Western media. Rather a new generation of pious Tunisians who are seeking an individualized Islam - one that is based on freedom to practice faith as opposed to a political project to enforce a selective interpretation of Islam.
A second explanation refers to the party’s reputation as an uncompromising opposition movement during the Ben Ali era.
A third focuses on the weaknesses of the other parties.
Fourth, some attribute the appeal of Ennahda to its constant quest for a democratic national “consensus” on the key institutional matters.
Finally, the party is said to have swayed many voters with pledges of job creation and replication of the successful Turkish model of economic development.
Tunisia in the decade leading to the January 2011 revolution witnessed the emergence of a civic Islam: Islamic private schools, Qur'anic classes and community social welfare organizations. In part, this was a reaction to the Ben 'Ali regime which publicly demoted Islam while emphasizing neo-liberal consumerism increasingly tainted with regime graft. By partaking in an Islamic civic activity - "performative activity" to borrow anthropological discourse - Tunisians were subtly engaging in an act of resistance against an authoritarian regime that promoted a particular life style which suited official corruption.
It is this cohort, the authors argue, that not only serves as the basis for the Nahda victory but has influenced the party to adopt an understanding of the role of Islam in public divergent from the maximalist, dogmatic and theocratic trope favored by ultra-conservatives:
The glue of these [Islamic] networks is a specific understanding and practice of Islam whereby religious precepts apply to those who choose them and are not imposed on the whole of the community. This shift in perspective has filtered up to the Ennahda leadership, which has repeated professions of tolerance incessantly since being legalized, partly to reassure secular Tunisians, but partly to reflect the views and practices of its new members and supporters. As Tirad Labbane of Riadh Ennasr said: “Our commitment to Islam does not mean that we want to impose what we do on others. In that sense, you could say that we are anti-salafi, because we do not approve of imposing behavior. If you want to wear a mini-skirt, it is not my problem; if you do not want to wear the veil, it is also not my problem. Choices have to be left to individuals; the state cannot impose behavior. From the state authorities we ask only that they let us do our work in peace.”
Their rallying to Ennahda is not necessarily based on the party’s policy statements or past record or on Ghannouchi’s leadership, but on the assumption that it is the political actor whose beliefs are closest to their own.
These Tunisians are skeptical of any drive for a strong state. Young and old, the pious middle class rather supports the quest for a decentralized democracy with a thriving private sector. The new generation believes in free-market forces and wants to take advantage of the fall of the regime to expand the business opportunities they were denied under Ben Ali. The older generation has weathered the repression of the strong, centralized state and wishes to break it up. Their other bond is the attachment to religious values and practices that they believe should inform policymaking, but not dictate it.
Recently, al Nahda announced that it will not include Islamic law as a source of legislation in a new constitution to be drafted. I wrote a piece on that here.
I hope that authors are right. That al Nahda and the new pious character of many Tunisians is one enlightened with a belief in individual choice and liberty. If Tunisians can navigate this period in their history and establish an Arab Muslim democracy at home both with Islamic identity and individual liberty then they'll be trailblazers for the region once again.