cc: David Brooks
The obvious — and crucial — question is: What’s the difference? Why has democratic constitutionalism worked relatively well in one North African Arab country while it has crashed and burned in another? And what will the answer tell us about the future of democracy in the Arabic-speaking world, from Libya to Syria and beyond?
You might think the answer has something to do with Islam. But remarkably enough, it doesn’t. In both Tunisia and Egypt, the first democratic elections produced significant pluralities favoring Islamic democratic parties. Ennahda, the Islamist movement whose political party won in Tunisia, is ideologically similar to the Muslim Brotherhood, and is a kind of associate of the Brotherhood’s loosely affiliated internationale. Both parties believe in combining Islamic values with democratic practice. Both accept a political role for women and equal citizenship for non-Muslims, even if in practice they are both socially conservative and seek the gradual, voluntary Islamization of society.
The contrasting personalities and styles of their leaders, however, have pushed Ennahda and the Brotherhood to behave differently when negotiating religion with secularists in their respective countries.Rachid Ghannouchi, the spiritual leader of the Tunisian Islamists, has emerged as the closest thing to an Islamic Nelson Mandela. During his decades in exile, Ghannouchi wrote extensively about the compatibility of Islam and democracy, and developed a relatively liberal vision of how Islam and the state should interact.
Skeptics then claimed that Ghannouchi’s views were a cover for a more radical agenda; and some Tunisian secularists still think so. But the evidence thus far is sharply to the contrary. When Islamists called for inserting a reference to Shariah into the Tunisian constitution — usually the sine qua non for any Islamic political party — Ghannouchi took seriously the opposition from secularists. In a dramatic showdown with members of his own party’s leadership, he reportedly threatened to resign unless they dropped the measure.
This may have been the turning point in Tunisia’s constitutional process. Ghannouchi’s position is straightforward: He wants Tunisians to adopt Islamic values, but piety means nothing if imposed by coercion. Islam, he believes, will succeed in persuading people to adopt its truths more effectively if they don’t have its teachings shoved down their throats.
Or Muslims are genetically incapable of democracy. Either way.