In a 2019 essay, “The Arab World Liberal-Islamist Schism Turns 100,” Elizabeth Thompson describes how a genuine liberal and constitutional movement was emerging in the post-World War 1 and post-Ottoman Middle East, only to be suppressed under the weight of European colonization. Between 1919 and 1920, secular liberals, religious conservatives, and their respective popular bases were ready to compromise and establish a constitutional democracy. British and French colonialism disrupted that accommodation because it interfered with their designs for the region.

The effect of that process has set the dominant tone in Arab politics for the past century; a “dialectic” pitting liberal – in the sense of secular and Western oriented elites –against “populist” Islamists[i]. This chasm has effectively suffocated reform in a quicksand of politics, religion, democracy, and tradition that many in the Arab world have advocated, including in the period of the so-called “Arab Spring” of 2011.

The Westphalian Model and the Role of Islam

Much of the debate surrounding the political evolution of the Arab world has revolved around the role of Islam. Islam is the cultural foundation of the southern Mediterranean, and the Mediterranean is itself the cradle of Islam – from the historical, cultural, and political sense. While not all Arabs are Muslims, and not all Islamic cultures are Arab (Islam is an amalgam of several cultures), the historical core and basis for Islam, particularly at the political level, is in the Mediterranean. And the Arab countries that border the Mediterranean constituted the core of the first Muslim empire, which has generated a common super-natural culture, in the same sense. After that, Rome, Catholicism, and later Protestantism influenced culture and politics in Europe. The premise of success is that whatever democratic or liberal project the Arab world undertakes, it should be rooted in Islam.

One of the main problems that has compromised the secular approach to politics has been the conviction that post-Ottoman states could adopt and adapt Western culture.

One of the main problems that has compromised the secular approach to politics, and to lifestyles, has been the conviction that post-Ottoman states could adopt and adapt Western culture, institutions, customs, and economics, overcoming Islamic systems. Yet, starting in the 1970s, and confirmed by the events of the “Arab Spring,” it has become clear that the adoption has not occurred. Populations in the Middle East and North Africa have remained deeply attached to Islam.

The differences between Islam and the West remain, and they are both practical and philosophical. One difference of significance is that Islam is a civilization as much as it is a faith. Some 20 percent of the world’s population is Muslim. Islam, given the (even theoretical) symbiosis of faith and law in Islam, is based on a revealed text, the Qur’an. It was interpreted and compiled by legal scholars, the fuqaha, in the first centuries following the Hijra and preserved over the course of almost 15 centuries. Therefore Islam, in the sense of society, culture, and way of life, is a civilization.

On the other hand, the modern nation-state paradigm, was born amid the Thirty Years War and the Treaty of Westphalia.

The main point of Westphalia was the right of states to choose their sovereignty without being subject to supranational authorities.

The treaty imposed specific principles in the way states (European ones that is) function. The main point of Westphalia was self-determination—the right of states to choose their sovereignty without being subject to supranational authorities or external interference. European interference typified by the Sykes-Picot agreement or the related San Remo Conference ignored the very principle of sovereignty as Europe itself had defined it.

The Westphalia model itself has been losing much edifying strength in Europe and even such figures as Francis Fukuyama, of “The End of History” fame, have started to question the “nation state.” Therefore, it should not be surprising that Islamic jurists – and not only the radical Islamist ones – are seeking alternatives to the Westphalian model to achieve an Islamic one. As Panayotis Vatikiotis discussed in “Islam and the State [ii],” the idea of state in no way reconciles with the Westphalian model; rather, it is an ideological concept, having nothing to do with territory, nationality, or nationalism.

The governments that emerged from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire have failed to adopt sustainable secular structures.

The nation in Islam is expressed by the concept of Ummah, that is the nation of believers. Even Arab nationalism as pursued by the Ba’ath parties in Syria and Iraq, or by former President Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt, for example, contrasted with the Islamic tradition. Indeed, the emergence of uncompromising Islamist opposition movements have demonstrated that the governments that emerged from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire have failed to adopt sustainable secular structures. The “secular” effort based on a forced integration of citizens along a territorial basis has not worked.

The majority of the people have remained attached to Muslim traditional values which reject the notion that there exists a difference between the “private” and the “public” spheres, which from an intellectual point of view, interferes with the “Westphalian” state model. And this has undermined the achievement of consensus from Morocco to Iraq. Nevertheless, Tunisia may have found a way to harmonize the Westphalian nation-state with the Islamic tradition.

Tunisia’s Advantage: Ennahdha

Tunisia’s advantage is that long before the fall of the Ottoman Empire, its distance from the seat of power in Istanbul and the semi-independent governance arrangement through the Bey (a sort of governor or viceroy), as well as de-facto French rule since the middle of the 19th century, allowed it to develop differently than other Ottoman provinces. Naoufel Flammable, head of the Tunisian Rights, Civil Liberties and Foreign Affairs Committee, and Minister of Labor between 2013 and 2014, describes Tunisia’s Islamist Party, Ennahda, as one of  “democratic Muslims.”

“Ennahdha has embraced a clear separation between religion and politics without renouncing political Islam.”

Flammable stresses that the movement – now Tunisia’s largest political party – has broken ranks with Islamic movements: Ennahdha has embraced a clear separation between religion and politics without renouncing political Islam. Ennahdha appears to have discovered what might be called the Tunisian way, or a third way to political Islam. The strong secular imprint of the population – nurtured through a prolonged European colonization, and its presence and economic reliance on the Mediterranean and contact with non-Muslims – has frustrated efforts to radicalize society. Rachid Ghannouchi’s pre-Arab Spring Ennahda was always different from the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt or Syria.

Founded in 1981 as the Islamic Trend Movement (MTI), the movement now known as Ennahda developed less clandestinely than its Islamist counterparts in other Arab states. MTI quickly became the main opposition force to Habib Bourguiba’s government, exploiting a brief “democratic” window of opportunity brought on by poor economic conditions and the coup that saw Interior Minister Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali replace Bourguiba as president in 1987.

Ben Ali began his rule by opening the system to democratic experimentation, but it was clear that in such a context, MTI gained more appeal than anyone had expected as an Islamist alternative to the secular regime. However, it did not take long before the new Ben Ali regime left no room for MTI (which later turned into Harakat al-Nahda, or more simply Ennahda, the Rebirth Movement).

In the 1990s (and 2000s), the civil war in neighboring Algeria, which attempted a similar though more violent experiment, prompted Ben Ali to crack down on Ennahda, forcing Ghannouchi and other leaders to go into exile. It’s no wonder, then, that in January 2011, after Ben Ali resigned, Ennahda and its exiled leaders made a triumphant return to Tunis. It then became a top political force by seeking and obtaining the support of those sectors of the population that were inclined toward its Islamist ideology while also reassuring the secularized classes by avoiding political conflict and shedding any reference to Islamic law (Shari’a).

Tunisian society, as one of the most open in the Arab world, has traditionally endorsed a progressive vision of Islam.

If political parties are an emanation of society, then Tunisian society as one of the most open in the Arab world (and much of the Muslim world) has traditionally endorsed a progressive vision of Islam. On the other end of the spectrum, Tunisia has not experienced military coups as has happened in many Arab countries (Ben Ali’s coup was “soft” and from within). Ennahda has found a key to success in perseverance, which has pushed it to seek new solutions.

And in Tunisia the quest for the “political” has seen the Islamist inspired Ennahda include more women candidates – while not repudiating any of the rights that women enjoyed in Tunisia. Indeed, the country is among the most progressive in the MENA region. Ennahda even nominating a Jew as its candidate in the constituency of Monastir in 2018. Whether this is meant to appeal to the West or not is not the point. Ennahda clearly wants to cultivate an image of caring for women and minorities to reassure generations of secularized Tunisians.

And, in so doing, Ennahda has shown it is more than willing to modify long held “conservative” views, temper tensions, and expand its appeal. Ennahda has set a solid foundation for obtaining trust from secular parties and their voters. It is the kind of trust that, almost uniquely, affords Tunisia the opportunity to resume the State-building experiment, based on western structures but informed by an Islamic soul and mind that started in Syria in 1919.


Author’s Note: This is part two of a two-part series examining the democratic process in Tunisia, delving into its challenges, and highlighting its exceptional progress. Part one presented Tunisia’s steps to advance the development of an Arab democracy compatible with Islam by adapting the European Christian Democratic approach. Part two discusses how the role of Islam in society has undermined the success of that approach, yet Tunisia has found the path toward a sustainable democratic compromise.

[i] The designation “Islamist” here applies only to peaceful political Islam and not to any extremist or fundamentalist interpretation of the faith. Therefore, the words ‘Islamic’ and ‘Islamist’ may be used interchangeably throughout.

[ii] Panayotis, Vatikotis, Islam and the State, Routledge, London; 1987



Tunisia’s Historic Compromise and the Path Toward an Arab Democracy (Part 1 of 2)

Has COVID-19 Inoculated Tunisia Against Authoritarianism?

Tunisia Faces Growing Challenges on All Fronts