Tunisia’s Muslim Democrat party further separates mosque and state

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Tunisia’s Ennahda party no longer wants to be called “Islamist” or “moderate Islamist”. Instead, it must henceforth be seen as “Muslim democrat”, somewhat like the Christian Democrats of Germany.

Ennahda founder and leader Rached Ghannouchi made the announcement on Friday at the opening of his party’s first congress since 2012. “We are keen to keep religion far from political struggles, and we call for complete neutrality,” he said. “A modern state is not run through ideologies, big slogans and political wrangling, but rather through practical programmes.”

This is a significant, if long-signaled development. It is an obvious attempt by Ennahda to broaden its appeal and avoid the “Islamist” label that is routinely applied to violent extremist groups such as Al Qaeda and Boko Haram.

Ennahda, which was founded in 1981 as the Islamic Tendency Movement, acquired its current name in 1989. It was banned under the Ben Ali dictatorship, right until the 2011 uprising.

Its decision to embrace the “Muslim democrat” label and reject “Islamist” is important in the context of defining the political space that Islam can be said to occupy in Tunisia. Ennahda is suggesting that for Muslim Tunisians, Islam is a religion and democracy the political path.

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Earlier this year, Sayida Ounissi (left) an Ennahda MP described in a Brookings paper what it meant to be a Muslim Democrat political party in the 21st century: “The fact is we can no longer use a term so charged with negative connotations when describing what we consider to be one of the most positive phenomena taking place in the Muslim World today. For the vast majority of Muslims, ISIS and its ilk are those who misinterpret and abuse Islam and use religion as a marketing tool for unspeakable, inhumane acts and for a brutal war for territory with no end.”

It would be a waste of time and energy, the MP went on, “for us to take up the task of constantly distancing ourselves from a violent and dangerous ideology which is precisely the sort of model we are fighting against.”

Ms Ounissi, 28, is a modern hijab-wearing politician, who probably exemplifies what it is to be a Muslim democrat.

In her paper, she points out the improbability of linking “the French socialist president François Hollande with Georges Cirprani, the historical leader of the terrorist group Action Directe, despite both of them hailing from political groups which claim inspiration from the same ideology.”

And she casts Ennahda’s new political label as similar to the efforts of Morrocco’s Justice and Development Party (PJD) and Turkey’s governing AKP.

Both, she said, “have accumulated significant experience in successful state-driven economic development.”

The relabeling is more than a cosmetic exercise but a restatement of purpose. In real terms, come Tunisia’s March 2017 municipal elections, Ennahda would probably have more of a chance of receiving support and encouragement from the wider world because it is “Muslim democrat” not “Islamist”.

Originally published at www.rashmee.com on May 23, 2016.

Journalism by trade & inclination. PhD. Sign up for free email updates on https://www.rashmee.com email me at rashmee@rashmee.com http://muckrack.com/rashmeerl

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