The Islamist party Ennahda has sounded so moderate since winning Tunisia’s first free election last month that it can be hard to see what role religion plays in its political thinking.
Faced with fears they might foist strict Islamic sharia rules on this reform-minded Muslim country, Ennahda leaders insist the beer, bikinis and foreign banks the old secularist rulers allowed will still be welcome under an Islamist-led government.
The party, which won 41.7 percent of the vote for an assembly due to draw up a new constitution, says it will not write religion into the country’s laws and will focus instead on jobs for the unemployed and justice for all.
Ennahda founder and leader Rachid Ghannouchi says joining Islam and democracy is central to his political vision and can point to writings going back over three decades to prove it.
“There is some confusion in the West about Islamism,” he told Reuters. “Some confuse it with fundamentalism and link it to violence, extremism and takfir” – the radical Islamist practice of declaring other Muslims infidels worthy of death.
Ghannouchi, who at 70 looks back on a life of activism and prison in Tunisia and 22 years of exile in Britain, said he saw himself as a Muslim advocating “an applied version of Islam.”
Despite Ennahda’s strong support, there are many Tunisians - especially secularist women - who are not convinced.
“They say they want to be like Turkey, but it could turn out like Iran,” said Rym, a 25-year-old medical intern in the upscale neighborhood of Ennasr. “Don’t forget, that was a very open society too.”
Ghannouchi says Ennahda will guarantee individual freedoms, including women’s rights. He compared its approach to that of the Christian Democrats in Europe or United States politicians who invoke God and Christian values while working in a secular democracy.
“We are against the state trying to impose any particular way of life,” he said to highlight his difference with strict Islamists.
“There shouldn’t be any law to try to make people more religious. We believe in freedom of religion, including the freedom to change religion.”
Ghannouchi’s pragmatic policies are often described as being inspired by the moderate Islamists in Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), but they seem to have been just as influenced by him.
A rare theoretician among Islamist politicians, the Tunisian’s reformist writings were translated from Arabic into Turkish and read there as early as the 1980s.
His 1993 book “Public Liberties in the Islamic State” is “better known in Turkey than Tunisia,” he said. It was banned until autocratic President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali was ousted by Tunisia’s Arab Spring protests in January.
“Tunis has been a centre of reformist Islamic thought since the 19th century,” said Mustafa Akyol, Turkish author of the recent book “Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty.”
“The AKP doesn’t have a Ghannouchi,” he said. “Neither (Prime Minister Tayyep) Erdogan nor (President Abdullah) Gul has written books about reform theology.”
While AKP leaders don’t spell out the theology behind their brand of democratic Islam, Ghannouchi has developed a Muslim argument for freedom that reaches back to a legal scholar active in 14th century Andalusia in then-Muslim Spain.
The goals of Sharia
The key is the interpretation of the moral and legal norms of sharia. Whereas the puritanical Islam of Saudi Arabia or Iran stresses strict enforcement of a legal code, reformist Islam asks what the moral purpose of these guidelines is.
According to the Andalusian scholar Abu Ishaq al-Shatibi, all Islamic law aims to preserve the universal values of life, religion, property, reason and family. Laws that foster these goals comply with sharia even if not written as religious laws.
“When we establish democracy, we see that it achieves many of these aims,” Ghannouchi said. “Anything that promotes these aims is Islamic, even if it is not called Islamic.
“That’s why we say that Islam and democracy are compatible.”
Al-Shatibi’s theory, which allows for a more flexible interpretation of sharia than more conservative Muslims accept, was revived in the 1950s by Tahar Ben Achour, rector of the centuries-old Zitouna mosque and university in Tunis.
Ghannouchi’s defence of this reform view of sharia has had unexpected consequences. Saudi Arabia, home of the puritan Wahhabi Islam that punishes sinners strictly, refused him entry when he wanted to go there on the haj pilgrimage two years ago.
Islamic and democratic values
Radwan Masmoudi, Tunisian-born director of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID) in Washington, said democracy was the most suitable political system for putting Ghannouchi’s interpretation of Islam into practice.
“There are Islamic values that are universal and the state should uphold, such as justice, freedom and equality,” he said. “For that you need a separation of powers and an independent judiciary. Those are secular values.”
Another pillar of Ghannouchi’s thinking – ijtihad, or reasoned interpretation of Islamic texts -- needs freedom to operate effectively, Masmoudi said.
“You can’t practice ijtihad in a dictatorship,” he said.
“People used to think we needed to reform Islam to have a democracy. I think we need democracy first, then we can reconcile Islam with modernity.”