By Dr. Abdul Wahid
People across the world have eagerly watched Tunisia’s first ‘Post Ben-Ali’ elections, with some western commentators voicing concerns about the Ennahda party taking the largest share of the vote.
These elections for the ‘constituent assembly’ are not wholly ‘free’ elections, since the large list of competing parties have been selectively permitted to participate by the ruling faction that is a remnant of the old regime. Under the electoral rules several parties were not allowed to register for the elections, as they were not deemed to serve the ‘national interest’ as laid down by this ruling faction.
In the west, there has been an obsession about how ‘Islamic’ Ennahda really are – mainly because of the fallacious premise that the more Islamic a country is, the more of an ‘extremist’ or ‘terrorist’ threat it poses.
This narrative, which originated from right-wing think tanks in the USA and UK, has become the lens through which many in the world now see Islam and Muslims. Muslims have become affected by the propaganda and feel it necessary to distance themselves from anything that might attract the label ‘extremist’. But by doing so, they reinforce the criteria of what is moderation and what is extremism.
Since the fall of Ben-Ali, Ennahda’s leadership has sent out strong signals – which seem to play to the secular elites in Tunisia and to western on-lookers – that they are ‘moderates’ and not ‘too-Islamic’ for their tastes.
Said Ferjani from Ennahda’s political bureau – a decent man on a personal level – was reported by the Independent newspaper to acknowledge the West’s negative obsessions about Islam, but went on to reinforce that very same criteria by saying “We made it clear in our programme that we are going to implement a democratic, Western-style system in Tunisia“.
Ennahda’s leader Rached Ghannouchi, on another occasion pledged that his party would “not ban Alcohol and bikinis” – a strange promise to make in an overtly Muslim country, where the existing constitution (enforced by the successive brutal and militant secular regimes of Bourguiba and Ben-Ali) declares Islam as the official state religion and requires the President to be Muslim.
Such statements will cause extreme confusion – and perhaps even anger amongst some of the rank and file. Ennahda’s reputation is one that derives from the Muslim brotherhood tradition. For decades their followers were persecuted by the secular regime because of their Islamic credentials.
In the days of the oppressive dictatorship there was talk of tactical moves to shape their message in such a way as to allow them some space in the Tunisian political medium in order to get a platform.
Yet if this is their strategy, it is extremely ill judged, even though their past sacrifices has won them respect in the hearts of people (many of whom believe they have an Islamic agenda and are oblivious of these recent statements).
Firstly, their non-religious antagonists have – quite understandably – questioned their motives for switching from an Islamic message to one that endorses liberal practices and a western-style system. At best, it might make them look as if they have had a change of heart. At worst, it could make them look like they are Machiavellian or have a hidden agenda.
Secondly, from the perspective of Islamic principle, these statements might be seen as a neglect of basic Islamic principles. People would be right to question how serious you were if you permitted these, but said that you would implement Islamic values in the prohibition of political corruption and alleviation of poverty. The pick and mix approach to Islamic law is precisely what has discredited its reputation in many parts of the world.
Thirdly, these tactics seem to miss some obvious facts about the world today. The people of Tunisia, who were forced to accept western style social and religious norms by Ben-Ali and his predecessor, sacrificed their blood to call for a change. So, to underrate the Islamic sentiments of the people is to do them a disservice. So the proposals to ‘promote the idea of marriage’ whilst permitting the practices encouraged by the last regime seems out of step with the public (as well as maintaining the prohibition on some Islamic issues like polygamy). Moreover, the approach of European conservatives to ‘promote’ and ‘encourage’ marriage, without implementing any policy initiatives to enforce the status of marriage, has utterly failed to stem the breakdown in family life in Europe. This is all the more negligent when Islam has many rules that do actually protect and raise the status of this institution.
In a similar vein, to maintain the interest-based banking system, when many serious commentators in the West are questioning their own financial system seems absurd when Islam prohibits this most unjust and destabilizing of practices.
Few would argue that the western-style system Ennahda seems to be advocating in order ‘to serve the people’, does actually achieve that end (even if there are a few individuals who do try to maintain their integrity). All the evidence, especially since the financial collapse of 2008, shows that the interests of ordinary people are readily sacrificed in order to serve corporate interests because – governments argue – the finance and business sectors are ultimately the wealth and job creators.
Finally, it betrays a colonized mindset that seems to insist upon accepting an endorsement from the west. For decades the Muslim world has looked at all things western as the root to progress and prosperity. Yet, post-9/11 the west’s professed commitment to ‘human rights’ and the rule of law has been exposed as a myth. Post-2008 the west’s free market has been shown to be unstable and reckless – and in need of socialist-style state intervention to try to stave of a complete collapse of the system. Indeed, even in the area of sexual freedoms, alcohol and drugs, there have been huge questions about the effect on family life and the effect on society generally.
It is not that a submission to western norms (and even a delusion that they are some sort of panacea) might be seen as a betrayal of one’s principles and supporters. It could be seen as a betrayal to humanity, that is so in need for an alternative to a system that enslaves the majority to the rich; one that could be a beacon and example for the rest of the world.
Dr. Abdul Wahid is a regular contributor to New Civilisation. He is currently the Chairman of the UK-Executive Committee of Hizb ut-Tahrir in Britain. He has been published in The Times Higher Educational Supplement and on the websites of Foreign Affairs, Open Democracy and Prospect magazine. He can be followed on Twitter @abdulwahidht or emailed at [email protected]