Dreaming of Spring in Tunisia by Katharine Cornell Gorka

The whole world seems to be agog with the victory of Islamists in Tunisia.  “Moderate Islamists,” they are called.  “A historic milestone on Tunisia’s path from autocratic dictatorship to a government that respects the will of the people,” declares Hilary Clinton. “As the first country in the region to put democracy to the test at the polling booth, Tunisia is once again leading the way,” declared British Prime Minister David Cameron. “…An important step forward,” said President Obama.  But forward towards what?

The Islamist party Ennahdha has won a strong victory and few seem concerned about it.  Indeed many seem to think democracy now has a foothold in the Arab world.  But we are like Dorothy in a field of poppies.  We have been anesthetized by Ennahdha’s soothing words and now we are dreaming of spring.   Ennahdha has been clever about putting a moderate face on its Islamist identity.  They claimed to strike a balance between modernity and Islam.  They made a lot of noise about putting on their list Souad Abdelrahim, a female candidate who does not wear the veil.    They said they will protect human rights and the rights of women.  They said that their approach to Sharia is consistent with Tunisia’s progressive tradition.  Hence Western politicians, analysts and media outlets are now using the term “moderate Islamist” without a trace of irony.  That is a victory in itself.  But “moderate Islamism” will likely prove as fictional as the Wizard of Oz.

The victorious Ennahdha Party is headed by Rashid Ghannouchi.  Once touted by John Esposito as a great Islamic reformer, Rashid Ghannouchi described himself as the pupil of Khomeini.  On the eve of the Kuwait war, he said, “We must wage unceasing war against the Americans until they leave the land of Islam, or we will burn and destroy all their interests across the entire Islamic world…” He also said, “The greatest danger to civilization, religion and world peace is the United States Administration. It is the Great Satan.”

So clearly Ghannouchi is not a lover of America, but what kind of country will he help create for Tunisia?  Importantly Ennahdha will have the job of overseeing the writing of a new constitution.  They have promised to do so with Islamic principles in the fore.  According to Larbi Sadiki, who frequently hosted Ghannouchi during his exile in London, “[Ghannouchi’s] only condition for Muslim democracy to flourish is the sharing of the immutable principles of Islam as a shared set of values.” Where that has been done elsewhere, the results have proven disastrous for those who are not Muslim.  Iraq and Afghanistan have already demonstrated what that looks like. Iraq’s constitution states, “Islam is the official religion of the State and is a foundation source of legislation…No law may be established that contradicts the established provisions of Islam.”  Similarly, Afghanistan’s new constitution says, “The religion of the state of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan is the sacred religion of Islam…In Afghanistan, no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam.” Just one result of the new constitutions is that Iraq’s Christian population has been decimated—from a population of 1.4 million to now less than 400,000 and dwindling.  And today not a single Christian church exists is Afghanistan.

But Tunisia is 98% Muslim, one could argue, and so its treatment of Christians and other minorities is largely irrelevant.  Then look to northern Nigeria, where the demographics are closer to Tunisia’s.  Democracy was restored to Nigeria in 1999, after 33 years of military rule (Tunisia regained democracy after 55 years of totalitarian rule).  In spite of a secular federal constitution, some of the northern states of Nigeria, which are Muslim-majority, introduced sharia. They claimed that they simply wanted to organize their lives according to the tenets of their faith, and they promised that they would not impose their harsh punishments on non-Muslims. It seemed a reasonable enough position, one which was likely to evoke little resistance.  The West does not like to argue against self-determination, particularly in post-colonial environments, and at the same time, the West reacts most vociferously to the more draconian punishments of Islam (the Hudud, or fixed punishments): death by stoning for adultery, amputation of hands or feet for theft; flogging for drinking; death for apostasy.  So as long as an Islamic government is willing to forego these punishments, what can the West argue against?

But as Johannes Harnischfeger concludes in his study of Nigerian democracy, “Muslim self-determination does not strengthen the rights of the individual, but empowers the Islamic community, or more accurately, its leaders, who decide in the name of Islam how their brothers in faith have to live.” The introduction of sharia in northern Nigeria led to deadly attacks on Christians and has undermined democracy in other ways as well.  As Harnischfeger points out, an Islamic polity creates an unresolvable tension between man-made laws and God’s laws because of the immutability of God’s laws in Islam. Islam’s dictates on non-believes creates permanent minorities, thus stifling a true competition for power, ultimately strengthening the politics of exclusion and destroying democracy.  In the contemporary world, where equal rights for women and minorities have become paramount, these might seem the most serious concerns with regard to an Islamic state.  But what about the far deeper issue that lies at the very heart of America’s founding—freedom of conscience?

Christians spent centuries asserting that church-state collaboration was the will of God.  They believed that the civil authority had not only the right but the duty to promote the church’s doctrinal and material interests.  Moreover, it was widely believed that imposing religious uniformity (as the Islamists wish to do) was beneficial for social and political stability.  Indeed one hears echoes of the Puritans and Separatists when the Islamists say they simply want to be allowed to live their faith more fully.   But we have been there.  We learned this lesson already.  The Puritans sacrificed everything to create the theocracy they dreamed of, and where did it lead them?  Right into the very abuses and oppression they had fled.  In the theocratic experiment of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, dissenters were banished, skeptics were fined, the apathetic were censured.  They recognized that ultimately both their faith and their government were better served by keeping the two distinct.   So why are we acting like we have not learned this lesson already?  Why are we so quick to toss out two millenia of history and allow ourselves to be seduced by the notion that a religious polity is a good idea?

Samir Dilou, spokesman for the Ennahdha Party, said in an interview on May 18th, “We do not want a theocracy.  We want a democratic state that is characterized by the idea of freedom.  The people must decide for themselves how they live…We are not an Islamist party, we are an Islamic party, which gets its direction from the principles of the Koran.”  Of all the people in the world, Americans first and foremost should recognize the absurdity of that statement.  All the evidence is there to suggest that Tunisia’s new government will prove antagonistic both to American interests and to the values America is built on.  That is not to suggest we should have intervened to create a different outcome.   Tunisia’s fate is its own.  But neither should we be at the front of the cheering section, applauding what will likely be a long and brutal lesson for Tunisia on what happens when religion is enchained with politics.

Katharine Cornell Gorka is Executive Director of The Westminster Institute, a non-governmental think tank whose mission is to promote individual dignity and freedom for people throughout the world, with a particular focus on the threat posed by extremism and radical ideologies.

For more on the Tunisian elections see also:

Robert R. Reilly on the Moral Lessons from Tunisia

From Bridge the Gap News Alert:

The Arab Spring is becoming an Islamist takeover

Much as I sympathise with the desire of millions of young Arabs to free themselves from the tyranny of autocratic government, I’m afraid I’m finding it hard to draw any positive conclusions from the results of last weekend’s elections in Tunisia, where the Islamist Ennahda party has emerged as the main winner  .


Furious Tunisians protest fraud, point finger at Islamist party

Protesters call for probe into finances of Ennahda, which is widely suspected of being propped up by Gulf countries.