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Islamists and the Problem of Double Discourse

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I was in Tunis last week participating in a conference that brought together the main political viewpoints now competing for ascendancy in Tunisia. Several American scholars who study transitions to democracy or Islam and politics were also there. The conference was organized by the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy, a Washington D.C. based think tank that has been promoting democracy in the Muslim World for over a decade.

Sheikh Rashid Al-Ghannoushi was at the conference and he spoke about his vision for Tunisia and the importance of recognizing the long and enduring non-secular heritage of Muslim societies. Al-Ghannoushi, who was in exile in London, has returned to Tunisia after the Jasmine revolution, and has already made a mark as the most important voice in Tunisian politics and his movement, Al-Nahda (Renaissance) is expected to be one of the major, if not the biggest, players in the Constituent Assembly which will write the new constitution of Free Tunisia. The elections for the Constituent Assembly are scheduled for October 23, 2011.

Many secular intellectuals and politicians in Tunisia fear that Al-Ghannoushi and his movement may use the democratic process to transform Tunisia into an Islamic State and undermine the civil and political liberties of those who do not share their Islamist vision. Tunisia has made considerable strides in terms of granting women equal rights and there is a genuine fear among young women that Al-Nahda may seek to convert Tunisia into another Iran. Needless to say, Al-Nahda and its leadership denies these allegations as fear mongering, and insist that they are just another party, albeit one that places a greater emphasis on the fact that Tunisia is a Muslim country and believes that Islamic values can contribute much wisdom to political governance.

The success of Tayyib Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey, has given hopes to secularists that Islamist parties elsewhere too can thrive in a democratic context without undermining or endangering democracy. It has also given Islamist parties a roadmap to legitimacy. Will Al-Nahda become another AKP, or will Al-Ghannoushi subvert democracy, once he benefits from it? Everyone wants an answer to this question. The situation with the Muslim Brotherhood is more or less similar, even though the Egyptian context is much more complicated than the one in Tunisia.

Rashid Al-Ghannoushi is different from other Islamists. He has benefited from the political asylum provided by Great Britain and has lived in a liberal democracy for years and understands how it works and hopefully by now has recognized and understood its virtues. He has departed from other Islamists and has in the past argued in favor of pragmatism over ideology, rejected the idea of killing religious apostates, accepted the necessity of coalitions and expressed willingness to share power with non-Islamists. Among all Islamists before Turkeys' AKP, which actually insists that it is not an Islamist party, Rashid al-Ghannoushi comes across as the most democracy-compatible of Islamists.

But still many of his critics, especially in Tunisia are not convinced and the allegations of "double-discourse" are frequently made. The argument is that he says one thing when the secularists and the West are listening and another to his followers. Critics also insist that while he, given his unique experience and education, may genuinely be democratic and even liberal, the rank and file of Al-Nahda are not as is evidenced from the frequent undemocratic sentiments expressed by many of its youth leaders. Al-Ghannoushi concedes that his party could do better on message discipline.

During the question and answer period, I asked Sheikh Rashid the following question: Do you realize that if you win a significant share of the Constituent Assembly seats, one of your primary goals while you frame the constitution would be to protect the rights of those who did not vote for you from those who did vote for you? Will you be able to do it? Why don't you put all the fears and suspicions about your intentions to bed by releasing a draft constitution before elections? Let everyone know what Al-Nahda is striving for.

I was disappointed with his answer. I was hoping for something in the nature of -- "what a great idea, we will release a draft constitution before elections," or, "we have already thought of it and are in the process of doing just that." But all he said was that Al-Nahda was not going to the polls without a program and that one hundred and fifty university professors were currently working on drafting Al-Nahda's program. No comments on sharing what he or his party would like to see in Tunisia's constitution. Nor did he express a commitment to defending the rights of those who do not vote for Al-Nahda.

I hope that the Tunisian people demand that all political parties, Islamists and non-Islamists release a draft of the kind of constitution that they envisage for Tunisia. At the moment the political environment is full of mistrust, suspicion and even fear. A self-disclosure that effectively commits political parties to certain fundamental principles before the elections, will reduce the tension and enhance cooperation.

As the Arab Spring spread across the region, similar disclosures can help reduce suspicion of those Islamists who claim that they believe in and will work towards establishing democracies. These disclosures will also force them to commit to democratic principles before they get involved in writing constitutions.

Dr. Muqtedar Khan is Associate Professor at the University of Delaware and a Fellow of the institute for Social policy and Understanding. His website is www.ijtihad.org.

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