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View of the city of Monastir and of the mosque, Monastir Governorate, Tunisia. (DeAgostini/Getty Images)

The "End of Islamism" and the Future of Tunisia

Said Ferjani

In 1971, 16-year-old Said Ferjani met Rachid Ghannouchi, his Arabic language teacher, for the first time. From that point onward Ferjani’s life would be tied to Ghannouchi and the religious and political movement he founded, Ennahdha. Ferjani was present at each juncture in the movement’s history, from its growth as an opposition movement in the 70s, its clash with authorities in the 80s, the planned coup of 1987, its exile in the 90s, and Ennahdha’s triumphant return to Tunisia following the fall of the Ben Ali regime in 2011. In the 2011 election, the movement won 89 of the 217 assembly seats and its secretary general, Hamadi Jebali, became prime minister. In January 2014, the party willingly stepped aside in the face of severe criticism to end a political deadlock and enable a technocratic administration to take power. Now, Ennahdha is a vitally important voice in the emerging democracy in Tunisia. In this interview, Ferjani, a prominent leader of Ennahdha, answers questions that delve into the movement’s past and look at its future.

Current Trends: In a February 2012 interview with The New York Times, you stated history would judge your generation “not on its ability to take power, but rather what it did with power, which has come after four decades of activism.” How has Ennahdha fared so far? Are you satisfied with what you have accomplished during your two years in power?

Said Ferjani: There is a sense of satisfaction, to a certain extent. On the one hand, in our country, we are part of history in the making. We contributed to transitioning toward democracy and away from a regime that was authoritarian and oppressive. However, we can’t deny the pressure to deliver the socioeconomic expectations of our youth in terms of employment. We also face pressure to address the recent threat of terrorism during the transition and to address the attempts to destabilize the state and weaken the country. Without stability, we risk low investment, making it difficult to build our economy.

CT: In that same interview, you told the story of your encounter with Mr. Rachid al-Ghannouchi, your teacher when you were 16 years old. You highlighted Mr. Ghannouchi’s questions: “Why are Muslims so backwards? What made them backwards? And whether it was their destiny to be so?” The question of Muslim decline has occupied Muslim scholars since their discovery of that decline with their encounter with the West. It is also the title of Prince Shakib Arslan’s book, which continues to influence Muslims until today. What, in your view, are the reasons for Muslim decline?

SF: First of all, the Middle East belongs to an old order. That order, under different names, where Muslims have prevailed, has also suffered under colonization, whereby some Muslims, such as Muslim elites, have questioned the role of Islam itself. But you can’t point the fingers at Islam for supposedly being ‘backwards’ or being the instigator of Muslim decline.

We cannot blame our faith for our ‘backwardness’ as some have claimed because those of the Muslim faith were able to lead the world for some time. The Muslim faith allowed Arabs to enter into civilization. Rather, the causes and reasons behind our perceived backwardness are something else. Muslims need to make new choices. We simply have to learn from the West, how they were able to provide security and prosperity without compromising their faiths and values and their philosophies. We have to learn how to reconcile our faith with modernity and with development.

CT: Many argue that the West has compromised its faith in its pursuit of worldly power. How would you respond to that?

SF: First, in my response I’ve used on purpose both “faith” and “philosophy” because I wanted to note the strong presence of Christianity not only in the church or during Christmas and Easter festivities but also in many aspects in the culture of the Western peoples, which are present side by side with philosophies such as those laïcité was derived from. The Christian democrats in many ways were founding fathers of the modern European project. The role of faith in the U.S. is quite apparent; even the U.S. dollar has the words “In God We Trust.” John Locke, the father of liberalism, was clearly informed by his own religious convictions, and there are a myriad of ways that faith influences “secular” Western values. Going beyond the West, in India faith is, in many ways, central to political life. Even in China faith is resurgent and becoming a pressing issue. What has empowered the modern West are its values which are informed by its faith—despite the presence of many faiths, and also of philosophies that negate faith—within a context of fundamental freedoms.

CT: The London that you reached in the 1990s following your escape from Tunisia was the center of Islamist activism with Islamists from across the Muslim world mixing in the city. What did you learn from the experience of other Islamists? You became involved with the Muslim Association of Britain. Did the mixing lead to a feeling of unity and common cause or a discovery of differences?

SF: Yes, both of these simultaneously. The experience in London gave me the opportunity to learn from other Islamists, as well as Western institutions, the UK parliament, and NGOs about the system of democracy. We came to the conclusion that Islamism could be moulded to defend the identity of Muslims both intellectually and philosophically, yet might not be very useful in terms of building a flourishing state and prosperous society. It is important to be conscious of different ideologies, but that doesn’t mean they are necessarily useful in providing the basis for solid education, medical care, or livelihood to the millions of youth and citizens we are responsible for. Therefore, Islamism has become irrelevant for us, and one could say we are living in the “post-Islamist” era.

CT: Your views on the “End of Islamism” as a useful political category and your use of the term “post-Islamist” to describe the Ennahdha movement are similar to those articulated by the French scholar Olivier Roy. Roy’s view, however, seems to contradict those of Sheikh Rachid Ghannouchi who in two articles in 2009 and 2013 rejected these political terms and argued instead that the future belongs to Islamism.

SF: These were the views of Sheikh Ghannouchi in 2009, when Ennahdha was in opposition and outside of the Tunisian public sphere and the state. In 2013 [when Ghannouchi also said this] it was a time of high political polarization in Tunisia, and it was being claimed that the end was near for Ennahdha as an entity and movement. The terms may be inaccurate, but the context in which Mr. Ghannouchi used them needs to be taken into account.

Islamism ended, however, once Ennahdha entered government and shared responsibility for social and economic provision and became accountable to the electorate and to civil society. This is also in line with Mr. Ghannouchi’s latest pronouncement describing Ennahdha as Muslim democrats rather than Islamists.

CT: The West has often been portrayed as the “Other” in Islamist writings. You have lived in that West for more than two decades. How have your views about the West changed?

SF: I view the “West” as a partner, rather than an enemy. The West is part of our make up. Bear in mind that geographically speaking Tunisia is not more than 30km away from Italy. So Tunisia is in a unique position to bridge the gap between the “West” and the Muslim “East” on the basis of a win-win formula. The idea that the well-being of one side is only at the expense of the misery of the other leads to nowhere, and so we must flourish and support each other in security, in development, and mutual benefit. Ennahdha has chosen to bridge the two worlds and to reconcile Islam with modernity and democracy.

CT: The question of Muslim populations in Europe and their integration and assimilation as Europeans is again on the front pages of newspapers following the Paris attacks. What has been your experience living in London for more than two decades? What do you see as the major obstacles to integration? How did British society react to you?

SF: The notion of assimilation is dangerous as it proposes the idea that whoever is different from the Westerner must prepare themselves to lose their culture, identity, and values, which only seeks to marginalize individuals and communities. People should embrace the prevailing political values, yet also preserve their faith and culture. British society has embraced me for the most part, since the political and judicial system is what protected me as a former political prisoner of conscience, although the same may not be said for other minorities or migrants who are met with hostility and ignorance. I am able to say that I was fortunate to have spent my exile in Britain and being a minority has allowed me to build networks and understand institutions of democracy.

CT: In the UK, you served as the Chair of the Mosques and Imams National Advisory Board. What, in your experience, has been the root cause of radicalization among European Muslim youth?

SF: My answer would be alienation. When individuals feel they are facing injustice, be it at home or abroad, and are only ignored by their societies, they become susceptible to radicalization. You cannot divorce radicalization from the social realities of those who often face discrimination for being different. Belonging to a minority can make you vulnerable and so it’s important to provide a safe and inclusive space for all people. Our youth in Tunisia in particular must be taken care of, listened to, engaged with, and actively involved in producing suitable solutions for peace and stability.

CT: In the 1970s, as the young Islamists of Tunisia were discovering their own religion and looking for guidance, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood became a source of emulation and bay’a was given. How has Ennahdha’s relationship with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood evolved, and where does it stand today?

SF: Among the different Islamist groups, the Muslim Brotherhood was reasonably progressive when compared to other Islamist groups. However, they don’t have a common political entity for the state, nor the same political interests, so you’ll notice some members were working with the US government in the form of Hizb Islami in Iraq, while other groups, such as Hamas, were not very warm toward the US. Therefore, the Muslim Brotherhood does not have a cohesive approach to creating a modern democratic state that delivers security, peace, and prosperity for the individual countries [in which it operates], within the framework of the prevailing world order and regional orders. That’s why there is no other choice but to look beyond Islamism, due to its problems and limitations, particularly when dealing with states. Having said that, it’s important to understand that Islamism is one thing, Islam is another.

CT: The relationship between Da’wa—religious proselytization—and politics has posed a challenging set of questions for Islamist movements. In Egypt, despite calls from Abdel Monem Aboul Fetouh and others, the Muslim Brotherhood rejected this separation, while in Morocco the Justice and Development Party separated from its da’wa organization since its entry into party politics. Today, this dilemma remains a source of discussion among Ennahdha leadership and membership. How has Ennahdha’s thinking developed throughout the years on that question, and why is there a move today to separate Da’wa from the party?

SF: The dynamics of Da’wa that belong to the sphere of faith is very different from the dynamics of politics and the sphere of party politics. Within a democratic system, Da’wa may belong to the space of civil society, whereas party politics is different, and so mixing the two together may harm both. This could potentially destroy the party system. Thus identifying a distinction between the two and separating them is a must. In Ennahdha, after wide-ranging debate, there is already consensus among all of the movement’s intellectual trends that Da’wa and the party must be fully separated because Da’wa is not in tune with the nature of a modern political party as Ennahdha should be.

CT: For much of its history, Ennahdha has been the only Islamist current in Tunisia. President Bourguiba broke the official religious establishment, Tabligh had no political agenda, and Hmida Ennaifer’s Progressive Islamist movement failed to attract followers. Today, the situation is different. The Islamist scene in Tunisia is quite diverse—with currents from Madkhali Salafis to activist Salafis to Jihadis and ISIS. How does Ennahdha attempt to deal with this diverse Islamist scene? Do you view Salafis as natural political allies who have gone astray or as possible electoral competitors should they decide to compete in politics?

SF: First of all, I must say I recall that before the 24th October election, some Tunisian Salafis approached Ennahdha, stating that both Ennahdha and the Salafis are sticking to the faith of Islam and therefore must be allies for the first democratic elections. Ennahdha’s answer was straight forward: if the elections were about the Muslim faith only, we could be in one camp. But since the election is about different political parties and politics in the country, we feel that the leftists, including those who are anti-faith or atheists, are closer to Ennahdha than those who lack an acceptance of the political discourse. Mr. Ali Larayyedh (an Ennahdha leader) was the first to put forward the initiative in calling Ansar Al Sharia a terrorist organization. Right now, ISIS is the main source of instability in Tunisia and North Africa, and we have to fight them together with our Western allies to defeat them and put an end to their bloody atrocities. In short, we believe people can have their own personal views, but citizens must be a source of peace and stability to your fellow citizens.

CT: What lesson should other Islamists learn from the Tunisian experience? Is the experience of Tunisia transferable to other countries or does it remain unique to Tunisia?

SF: We want our country to succeed. And if anyone thinks that our experience is useful, we are ready to help.

CT: Many people say that Ennahdha is a civil Islamic party, but some in the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood say that Ennahdha is an example of an Islamist movement that has failed. The Brotherhood says that Ennahdha abandoned key positions that Islamists widely see as non-negotiable while being forced out of power through elections. How do you respond to this criticism that you have betrayed your principles while gaining nothing in return?

SF: First, we prefer to stick to the pillars of Islam as Muslims, rather than considering Islamism as a dogma and interacting toward it as though it rests on the unchangeable pillars of the Islamism of the Brotherhood or similar groups. Our interests are in serving the people without contradicting the great value of our identity and our religion. The Prophet PBUH said: the most beloved to Allah, are those who most benefit the people [Muslim and non-Muslim alike]. This is an important principle of Islam that we will always stick to, rather than any other dogmatic ideologies.

CT: In a 2013 article in Al-Monitor, you were quoted as saying: “The Ennahdha party refused to be labeled as ‘Islamist’ according to the Western connotation of Islamism,” adding that it has not called for the implementation of Sharia. If Ennahdha is not an Islamist party, what is it then?

SF: It is a Muslim Democratic party. We bear responsibility for the social and political reality of Tunisia, as Muslims.

CT: Despite the Ben Ali regime’s heavy crackdown on Ennahdha, the minute the regime fell, the party emerged once again as the leading political party in the country. How was Ennahdha able to maintain its base despite the regime control of the media, its arrest and torture of Ennahdha leaders and members, and many of the group’s leaders living in exile? Did the group use new technologies and social media to remain in the hearts and minds of Tunisians?

SF: Despite the catalogue of cruelties perpetrated against Ennahdha, it has not reacted with violence because we don’t believe that violence should be used, even against dictatorial regimes, even if they were repressive. That is the difference between Tunisia and Algeria. Our approach was to avoid any violent reaction and embrace as much as we can the techniques of peaceful resistance. We have relied on human rights groups and the international media, along with patience, and we have focused on serving our people and membership. This includes financial support for many of our youth members for their education outside the country. The election of Ennahdha by the people of Tunisia is a reflection of their appreciation of Ennahdha’s actions during its suppression under Ben Ali.

During our campaign we did not use victimhood to gain support, but rather presented a sustainable vision for the future of Tunisia, politically, socially, and economically. When we chose to leave power, it was a pragmatic decision to further entrench the democratic system, rather than hold onto power for the sake of it. Ennahdha believes that power is a means to achieving the aspiration of Tunisians in democracy, prosperity, and development, rather than for selfish means. We always try to think strategically and pragmatically for the best interests of our country as opposed to being short sighted and only relying on the arithmetic of our success at the polls.

CT: You once plotted a coup and acted as the go-between from Salah Karkar to Ennahdha’s military wing. Tell us a bit about the background of that military wing. When and why was it formed? What drove you early on to choose a path that would have inevitably resulted in some blood being spilled? How have Ennahdha’s views on political violence changed since then?

SF: Well first of all, the entire question is an amalgamation of inaccurate descriptions of what happened. In 1987, Bourguiba and Ben Ali (who was the Minister of Interior at the time) conducted an intense crackdown on activism that resulted in tens of thousands of arrests, and Bourguiba in his last days was preparing to unlawfully retry (in a special security court) the leadership of MTI (Islamic Tendency Movement) to inflict capital punishment upon them. If that had occurred, then civil war would have broken out.

Mr. Qasid Farshishi, Mr. Moncef Bensalem, and I decided to talk to the people that we knew within the army, the security forces, and the civilian population, to facilitate a coup d’etat on the 8th of November. Despite Ben Ali being Bourguiba’s right-hand man and fighting the grassroots phenomenon of MTI that later became the Ennahdha Party, we decided alone, without any link to any official institution of the MTI, to abort the coup due to the suspension of the security court (as our aim was not power in itself) so that we could prevent a civil war. Violence has never been part of the political-make up of MTI.

CT: From the day of Ennahdha’s founding, and even when it was still the Islamic Tendency Movement, Rachid al-Ghannouchi has played an enormous role in the movement’s past and present, acting as both a founder, leader, theoretician, and organizer. What is the future of Ennahdha after Ghannouchi?

SF: Ghannouchi is one of its great leaders, however, in Ennahdha, since its first official conference in 1979, there have been 20 leaders, including Mr. Hammadi Jabali, Mr. Fahedl Baldi, and others. Ennahdha survived when Mr. Ghannouchi was in jail between 1981-84 and survived between 1988-92 when Mr. Ghannouchi was not the leader. Certainly, Mr. Ghannouchi has played an instrumental role in Ennahdha, but the movement and the party is not defined by him.

CT: The tyranny of Ben Ali has left Tunisian society deeply fragmented and divided. What is Ennahdha’s vision and plan for helping Tunisia to overcome this legacy, to build trust, and to form a new national compact?

SF: Through democracy and consensus we aim to bring Tunisians together. After reasonable political success, we are now focusing on the economy and social success to avoid fragmentation and divisions among the elites and different regions in the country.

CT: What kind of country do Tunisians aspire to live in, and what is Ennahdha’s plan to help the Tunisian people achieve this?

SF: Tunisians aspire to live in a country that respects its citizens, delivers economic and social development, and brings stability without compromising their freedoms. Ennahdha’s plan is to deliver new laws that are compatible with a new constitution and eliminate the old ones to deliver economic reforms. Our main concern is making Tunisians less reliant on state subsidies, giving them control over their lives by allowing SMEs [small and medium enterprises] to flourish, and cutting red tape so that investors find Tunisia attractive. That will create jobs and grow the economy. We believe that cutting tariffs and red tape will automatically create a windfall in tackling poverty, corruption, and contraband. By reducing the space for state corruption to occur and creating more jobs for the jobless in Tunisia, we can free capital that would have gone to bribes or barred investment and trade due to tariffs or regulation. Education and industry must help Tunisia move up the value chain, and Tunisia’s regulatory environment must be continuously made more amenable to investors and private enterprise. This is why Ennahdha and its allies in parliament were able to vote through the Public-Private Partnership Law and the new investment laws that ease previous restrictions. Freedom and prosperity should not be at odds.

CT: What can the U.S. and other Western countries do to better support the Tunisian people and their transition to a prosperous and robust civil democracy in the years ahead?

SF: One of the best ways that Tunisia can be helped is through trade. Trade reduces unemployment and tackles state reform by enlarging the non-state space and helping Tunisia’s SMEs develop and access international markets. This will have a dual effect of making Tunisians more independent and prosperous. Financing for infrastructure and projects especially in the interior regions, where profits are more difficult to realize, and where most acute socioeconomic problems occur, is another urgent matter. Prosperity and democracy go hand in hand. Tunisians are not looking for simple handouts, but for jobs and an opportunity to prosper. These suggestions I believe will go a long way in providing them. On an apolitical level, encouraging greater consensus and engagement between different parties, regardless of their views, remains important. Tunisia has not come out of its transition yet, and the consensual framework is essential for the foreseeable future in Tunisia.

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