Is it All About Islamism Vs. Secularism? – OpEd


By Gamze Coskun

A small country in North Africa, Tunisia, has taken big steps for itself and for the region in a very short one-year period. It inflamed the wave of courageous protests among civilians against Middle Eastern nations’ outdated autocratic regimes.

Setting aside the Egyptian constitutional referendum held in March, Tunisia has also become the first country in which the first free democratic elections were held.

Although Ennahda won the biggest share in the Constitutional Assembly, it was of significant importance that different political views from liberals to socialists and from Islamists to secularists had their own shares as well.

Starting Nov. 22, the Constitutional Assembly sessions have been held and different voices and suggestions are able to be heard for the first time in Tunisian history. Even the opposition parties do not seem excluded from the political scene and discussions.

Although oftentimes they are far from being able to find a common way, and they even waste time in discussing minor issues without reaching an agreement or conclusion, people should be aware of the improvement achieved so far despite the disadvantages that come with a lack of experience.

No one said or expected this process and transition would be easy and short, yet the hope is that sooner or later things will get on the right track and public determination should not be lost. The most important of all is to not get lost in empty debates of differences and focus on disagreements that polarize the populous, disregarding or failing to address the more important issues of the country, which were the driving forces behind the Tunisian Revolution.

Polarization within society?

As results of the Oct. 23 elections were revealed, many segments of Tunisian society as well as the international community were alarmed by Ennahda’s victory, although the party far from achieved the absolute majority of 109 seats.

Suddenly, almost everyone began to discuss the threat of an Islamic regime rather than talking about the success of Tunisia in dealing with the election process compared to other states still trying to handle the situation.

Yet, so far, Ennahda does not seem like it is pushing for any Islamic agenda or radical Islamist solutions and follows a more moderate approach. In fact, its coalition with the secular center-left Congress for the Republic party and social democratic Ettakatol party also reduces the possibility that Ennahda can impose its radical Islamic agenda on the country – if it even has one.

At this point, what needs to be done is the encouragement of cooperation between all factions, including Islamists and secularists, instead of stimulating an ideological war which may easily push society toward a dangerous polarization and endanger all the transition and improvement. We can see some small indications of this in the Occupy Bardo protests that have been going on for one week in Tunisia, as some groups chant for or against Islam while most of the people still unite under the main slogan of “Employment, Freedom and Dignity.”

It would be so idealistic to seek a full agreement and no discontent between different parties. Naturally, there will always be disagreements as differences cannot be totally abolished in all cases. Therefore, the Arabs and international community first have to learn to respect the rules and results of the democratic game. If we insist on judging the results while opposing but not bringing any tangible alternatives, the demands of the street will be left unfulfilled. Tunisians need jobs, freedom, improved living standards and their rights rather than never-ending empty discussions on ideologies and their differences.

Gamze Coskun
USAK Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies

This piece was firstly published in Hurriyet Daily News.


JTW - the Journal of Turkish Weekly - is a respected Turkish news source in English language on international politics. Established in 2004, JTW is published by Ankara-based Turkish think tank International Strategic Research Organization (USAK).

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