Can Tunisian Islamism survive without secularism?

Writing in AlJazeera, Northwestern University professor Elizabeth Shakman Hurd argues that democratically elected Islamist parties in the Middle East have overturned the secularist/islamist divide.

Yet outside actors should also consider what Middle East Report calls the “pull of the possible”, and reach out to actors, parties and tendencies that refuse to be defined by the political limitations imposed by a secularist versus Islamist frame….

Overcoming the urge to classify actors as secularists or Islamists will take some work. The US failed to see the Egyptian revolution coming in part because it followed the lead of the Mubarak regime and divided the world into two camps: radical Islamist threats to the regime and friends of Mubarak (and the US)….

…If interested parties in the region, the media, or the international community re-instrumentalise the secularist-Islamist divide it could jeopardise the long-awaited transition to democracy in the Middle East and North Africa…

…Democratic voices that are non-secular and non-theocratic exist across the Middle East today, and not only in Tunisia. Now would be a good time to listen to what they have to say.

Dr. Hurd’s point misses the fact that Islamist parties grew up and became popular as opposition movements to secularism. The question is not whether the West can get along with Islamist movements, but whether Islamist movements can define themselves without secularism.

As I wrote last month in Foreign Policy:

Ennahda seems intent on [characterizing] its opponents as extremists. The party aims to project itself as the guarantor of Tunisia’s moderate center, while at the same time pushing the center to the right. Recent statements by Ennahda’s leadership group “fundamentalist” and “extreme” secularists with radical Islamist groups. This is an interesting strategy because it co-opts the language used by the regimes of Habib Bourguiba and Ben Ali that described the government as the guarantor of a certain Tunisian moderation. It also shows opponents of the regime as not only divisive, but also dangerous.

Today, Western governments are meeting with, providing aid to, and supporting the new Islamist led governments in Morocco, Egypt, and Tunisia. The question may be not whether the West can handle Islamists, but rather whether Islamists can operate without secularists.

3 thoughts on “Can Tunisian Islamism survive without secularism?

  1. The better we leave God and religion out of the equation , the better off the Tunisian political landscape would be. Unfortunately , the divide is still centered around believers vs. non.believers. Also, it’s regrettable that Ennahdha views any opposition as an organized force to deny her the right to exist. Both parties should learn how to exist with each other, including all current opposition parties who stigmatized Ennahdha and demonized it to the degree that any reformist social & economic program is dead on arrival from day one.
    I sense a high level of anticipation, impatience and alas cynicism on behalf of certain sides of the opposition that’s tantamount to feelings of sabotage and “sheudenfreude” or “shemata” as we say in the Tunisian dialect.

    • Thanks for your comment. Your last point is especially important – and frustrating. it’s difficult when you know that, ultimately, the vast majority of Tunisians want to improve their country and yet scoring political points oftentimes seems more important.

  2. Pingback: Can Tunisian Islamism survive without secularism? | Atheists Against Islamism

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