Islam, Democracy and the Future of the Muslim World

This post is an edited/updated version of Sheikh Rached Ghannouchi's October 1, 2014 Lecture at Columbia University's Institute for Religion, Culture and Public Life.

Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to begin by expressing my delight at delivering my lecture at this great intellectual institution.

I see the situation in the Middle East not as being in crisis but rather as one that is at a crossroads: Between moving towards democracy, development and progress; and the relapse of the Arab Spring, the spread of chaos and terrorism and the return of despotic and corrupt regimes.

A few years ago, the world watched with awe as people flooded the streets of Tunis, Tripoli, Cairo and Sanaa, demanding freedom, dignity and the ouster of repressive, dictatorial regimes. The so-called "Arab exception to democracy" collapsed before the will of the youth. Arabs and Muslims were no longer considered unworthy of democracy; their political culture no longer considered as one rooted in the philosophy of oriental despotism. It became evident that support for repressive regimes by the free world to avoid the risk of power falling into Islamists, is no longer a necessary choice.

Stereotypes broke down and the Arab Spring became a source of inspiration for the people of the world - before facts on the ground changed once again and forces working to counter the Arab revolutions began succeeding. Syria was pushed into civil war, Libya deteriorated into chaos, Egypt returned to military rule.

Why did the map of the Middle East change so fast - from a promising democratic movement to being hotspots of conflicts and tensions? Is the cause the rise of Islamists and their failure to govern and build stable democratic systems? I will present a view that is based on Tunisia's experience, the last shining candle of the Arab Spring.

Tunisia succeeded in developing a modernist constitution that stipulates freedom of conscience and guarantees the rights of women and minorities. It is the fruit of peaceful cooperation between moderate secularists and moderate Islamists. Tunisia was able to overcome its political crisis in 2013 thanks largely to our commitment to consensus and national dialogue that culminated in an independent, technocratic government tasked with managing the process of holding free and fair elections.

Tunisia is also engaged in a war against terrorism, which began under the Troika government led by Ennahdha, our party of Muslim democrats that on 27 August 2013 designated Ansar al-Sharia as a terrorist organization, arresting dozens of its leaders, dismantling its cells and foiling many of its operations.

Tunisia's experience shows that democracy is possible in the Middle East as long as its conditions are present. There is no "Arab exception to democracy." There is no contradiction between Islam and democracy. And dictatorship is not a necessary destiny.

Tunisia was able to embark on this path thanks to a variety of factors that unfortunately were not present at the required level in other countries.

The first factor is the rejection of domination and monopoly of power: Ennahdha Party which won the majority in the elections of the National Constituent Assembly in 2011, refused to dominate power. We instead called for a national unity government after the 2011 elections and were able to form a coalition government with two secular parties - Ettakattol and CPR.

From the beginning, Ennahdha has been committed to the establishment of a political system where secularists and Islamists coexist. That was not always easy, but Ennahdha's compromises were the principal catalyst for resolving crises and for accelerating the adoption of the Constitution.

Coexistence with secularists was the result of a reformist intellectual process. Our party was the first Islamic movement to adopt democracy in 1981 and to unequivocally announce that it is a civic party that believes in democracy, citizenship and civic values. It is a conviction that did not dither even after the savage wave of repression of the 1990's in which we were subjected to by Ben Ali's regime. Ennahdha remained a peaceful movement struggling against dictatorship through democratic means, rejecting violence and extremism. Refusing domination of power and opting for coexistence between secularists and Islamists were two important factors in the success of the Tunisian model.

The next important factor in Tunisia's success is the adoption of what we call "consensus" politics. This is based on our belief that during transitional periods, ruling with 50% +1 majority does not lead to a stable political system; what is needed is as wide a consensus as possible between the main political trends whether in the majority or minority.

That is why we wanted a constitution that doesn't just represent a simple majority but the widest majority possible. This principle of consensus helped save Tunisia from many of the crises that it faced because we focused instead on a national dialogue that brought together all the political trends and views represented by 22 parties, with no exclusions.

The national dialogue succeeded in producing a constitution supported by 94% of the constituent assembly. The dialogue helped build consensus on the democratic transition process through the agreement on an independent election commission and on dates for the elections.

Many of these successes were the fruit of sacrifices made by the majority party to preserve the country's unity. First, we conceded key ministries, then we conceded the government. It was not an easy decision, but Ennahdha adopted that decision by an overwhelming majority, because it is a responsible party that puts the country's interest above its own, and realizes that guaranteeing freedom for all Tunisians is more important than clinging to power if that led to division and conflict.

The fourth factor, in my opinion, is our firm opposition to the political exclusion law - our refusal to exclude all members of the dissolved former ruling party, despite the dangers of allowing them to operate politically. We saw the effects of exclusion and eradication in several experiences in our region -- the most recent of which is Libya -- and chose instead to leave it to the people to decide. We agreed not to treat those who oppressed, imprisoned and tortured us, and spread corruption and despotism, like they treated their opponents for decades.

The fifth factor is related to the nature of the Tunisian military institution which is a republican institution opposed to coups, which stood by the people during our revolution and committed itself to the protection of the democratic transition. This is also true of the security institution which has recovered its effectiveness and soundness.

Ladies and gentlemen, the success of the Tunisian revolution is not a coincidence. It is the fruit of a consensual process led by Ennahdha in collaboration with our partners: Political parties and organizations such as the Workers' Union and Chamber of Commerce.

This success, however, does not negate the existence of serious dangers threatening our democratic transition. There are forces determined to abort all Arab Spring experiments and demonstrate that the Middle East is not eligible or ready for democracy - and that the only appropriate place for Islamists is prison, torture cells and exile.

You will be told here in the United States that the best option for the region is dictatorship in order to preserve peace. Just as our people are told that they can enjoy security, prosperity and progress only under despotic regimes.

This idea has been tried in the past. Support for dictatorships in the Middle East indeed led to disasters in the region and to the emergence and spread of terrorism around the world. It also, ultimately led to the revolutions themselves.

Linking Islam and violence will only give extremists greater scope to attract broad sectors of youth. If young Arabs' feel there is no genuine commitment to supporting democracy and freedoms, they will feel bitterness towards themselves and their societies. The absence of just and comprehensive peace in the Middle East will only feed further tension and hatred.

I return to my first question: Is the situation in the Middle East in crisis or at a crossroads?

The Tunisian model, ladies and gentlemen, demonstrates that it is possible for you to trust the people of the Middle East -- and that duty calls for all friends of freedom and democracy in the free world to help the region continue its progress towards freedom and modernity.

We appreciate the reference to Tunisia in President Obama's speech at the UN General Assembly where he mentioned Tunisia as a positive example of coexistence between Islamic and secular parties. We also appreciated when he stressed that the war on ISIS is not a war on Islam, and that it cannot lead to a clash of civilizations. I believe it is very important to strongly defend and promote this approach, because confusing Islam and terrorism can only benefit terrorists themselves who oppose democracy and consider it to be un-Islamic, and also benefit dictators who know that the presence of democratic states that guarantee freedom, justice and the rule of law hinder their establishment of regimes based on corruption and repression.

It is important to stress that a uniquely security solution to fighting terrorism is not enough; doing so will complicate this problem even more both in the short and long term. In addition to security, we need to tackle this problem at a political level through democracy and inclusiveness. We also need to tackle it at the religious, intellectual level by showing that the extreme understanding of Islam that they have is wrong. And we should not forget the socio-economic dimension in the fight against this disease.

In Tunisia we defeated dictatorship and we hope that we are on our way to defeating terrorism by showing that there is no contradiction between Islam and democracy, and by building a growing economy. I believe that "democratic Islam" is the antithesis to despotism, preventing it from imposing a choice between security and freedom.

With this vision, Tunisia goes forward towards a new phase in our democratic process, where we will, for the second time since the revolution, seek the people's will. It is an event which we wish to use as an occasion to strengthen the unity of society and build a strong partnership.

Ennahdha has willingly made a further concession in order to ensure the success of the coming phase by choosing not to put forward a candidate for the presidential elections. We have also called for a national unity government that brings together various parties because we believe that Tunisia cannot be managed by a simple 50% +1 majority in the coming years.

Based on our reading of the crises of the region, the causes of which include low development indicators and high youth unemployment, we chose the slogan of Ennahdha's electoral program to be "Towards a rising economy and a secure country." Realizing the dangers of delaying our economic development, I appeal to Tunisia's friends to offer the necessary financial support to the current government and the future government, and not await investments that require a long time and specific conditions for their execution.

Ladies and gentlemen, I was keen to come to the United States despite our busy election campaign, to address this enlightened elite at a critical moment that requires our unity in defense of freedom and democracy, against the return of dictatorship, to defeat terrorism and to eradicate the causes of its emergence and expansion.

The Muslim world needs to make greater efforts in the field of reform and renewal, the building the modern cultural and civilizational systems that counter extremism and rigidity - a vision I have defended for more than four decades. But that is not possible until we accurately diagnose the causes that brought our region to its current state, at the forefront of which are the regimes of despotism, repression and corruption, which have wasted the resources and capabilities of the Arab and Muslim world, imprisoned entire populations in the darkness of repression and denial of freedoms, and destroyed the will of youth pushing them to the feeling of political oppression and development failure and towards networks of extremism.

Thus it is not surprising that takfiris believe that democratic Islam is more dangerous for them than secular regimes. And it is not surprising to hear the frequent sermons of leaders of terrorist organizations mocking Islamists who choose the democratic path, to the point of calling for our murder.

Ladies, and gentlemen, from this platform, I call for a comprehensive approach for countering terrorism, where security efforts are complemented by the efforts we are engaged in to resolve conflicts in the Middle East and support the Arab Spring, in the face of the winter of terrorism and dictatorship. I call for economic support of successful Arab Spring models, and in particular Tunisia, in order for it to maintain its balance.

While I call on the international community to stand by the Syrian people to complete its revolution, I call on young people deluded by terrorist groups to realize the danger of the criminal project of takfiris, and to desist from serving its evil interests.

I also call on Muslim scholars to continue playing their role in exposing the deviations of takfiris and raising awareness of their dangerous aims that are against peace and against Islam.

The Tunisian experience, which has become a model of complementarity between Islam and democracy, has demonstrated that the solution in the Middle East to guarantee a stable region is supporting freedom and democracy and guaranteeing the right to development and progress. It has also highlighted that democracy is possible in the Middle East; it can be an effective tool against terrorism; and indeed, the only real alternative.

This message I bring to you from Tunisia, whose people have chosen the path of democracy and freedom, through the cooperation between its secular and Islamist elites and its people who sparked the revolutions of the Arab Spring, and who knew how to preserve the flame of their revolution, by God's grace.