In Tunisia, popular Ennahda party tests ‘moderate’ Islam

November 28, 2011

Nearly a year after Tunisia set off the Arab Spring of popular
revolt, the face of political Islam in this fledgling Muslim democracy
is a 47-year-old pharmaceutical executive who favors tailored suits and
stiletto heels.

Souad Abderrahim's main political experience was
as a student union leader more than two decades ago, but the political
neophyte is now cheered at rallies and trailed by the media as a leader
of Ennahda, the Islamist party that has become the main political force
in this North African country.

Abderrahim holds a seat in the
country's new Constituent Assembly, charged with creating a democratic
political structure following the downfall of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali,
who ruled Tunisia for nearly a quarter century.

The mother of two
said she felt compelled to emerge as a spokeswoman to curtail fears that
Ennahda would curb women's rights or mix conservative religion and
politics. "When I saw the phobia on the streets about Ennahda as a hard,
backwards party, I felt it was important to be with them and shed light
on this false image," she said.

The Tunisian uprising triggered
the Arab Spring protests that upended politics from Libya to Yemen, and
Tunisia's subsequent steps toward democracy are being closely watched as
a model for other countries.

"Tunisia today is the major test of
the Arab Spring," says Mansouria Mokhefi, head of Middle East and North
Africa programs at the French Institute of International Affairs. "The
direction it goes depends on the success or failure of Tunisia."

That's
why the spotlight is on Ennahda, which styles itself after Turkey's
ruling center-right Justice and Development Party. Its inclusive message
and corruption-free image have attracted a wide following across all
levels of society.

Will it make good on its promises to uphold
Tunisia's pro-Western, secular foundations and women's considerable
rights? Or, as some critics maintain, is Ennahda hiding a more radical
agenda? The answer, analysts say, may shape the future of political
Islam that is gaining ground in countries such as Egypt, Morocco and
Libya.

"Whether it will be moderate Islam as appears the case in
Tunisia and Turkey or another form is unclear," Mokhefi said. "But it's
an inevitable, unstoppable march by Muslims, young and old, toward what
they feel is a reappropriation of their identity."

Abderrahim is
not a typical face of political Islam, or even Islam itself.  Declining
to wear a headscarf, she has emerged as a passionate and articulate
defender of women's rights. Driving in from her upscale villa in the
Tunis suburb of Manouba, Abderrahim expertly juggles cell phones and the
steering wheel in her commute to Ennahda's headquarters downtown. She
keeps in touch with supporters through Facebook.

"Women can have
every degree of liberty, while respecting our religion and traditions,"
she said. "Equality at work, equality in all the Tunisian projects."
That inclusive message is echoed by other Ennahda officials who have
forged a governing coalition with two secular, leftist parties.

"We
take inspiration from the ethical values of Islam which we believe are
universal values—freedom, dignity, equality," said Yousra Ghannouchi,
the London-raised daughter of Ennahda's founder Rachid Ghannouchi.
"Religion is not something we believe the state will interfere in or
impose. It's a matter of personal choice."

Others are not so sure.
Women's rights activists demonstrated in front of the assembly building
as the new government began work on November 22.

"The big
question is are we going to deal with women's rights through positive
laws and codes—which Ennahda vows not to touch—or are we going to return
to the Shari'a [Islamic law], even if it's a soft interpretation?" asks
prominent rights campaigner Khadija Cherif.

Opposition parties in
the new government sound similar warnings. "There are lots of things in
Ennahda's program that represent a danger, notably the relationship
between politics and religion," said Samir Tayeb of the small, staunchly
secular Democratic Modernist Pole coalition.

Probed about her
beliefs, Abderrahim appears to stray off Ennahda's tolerant message. She
disapproves of homosexuality, children born outside of wedlock, and
marriages between Tunisian women and non-Muslim foreigners. "Tunisia is a
Muslim country, and we have our own customs, traditions and Islamic
requirements," she said. "So we can't have these kinds of freedoms that
other parties want."

Western governments have signaled their
readiness to work with Ennahda. But Tunisia observer Steven Ekovich at
the American University of Paris is not surprised at the lingering
wariness. "There probably should be some worry about what Ennahda may
try to do," he said. "But on the other hand, Tunisians are going to be
very vigilant. They're not going to let Ennahda go too far in the
direction of an Islamic fundamentalism that doesn't suit the Tunisian
temperament—or Tunisian history, for that matter."  —RNS