Anis Mili / Reuters Women draped in Salafi, Palestinian, and Tunisian flags walk the streets in Tunis, January 2013.

From Political Islam to Muslim Democracy

The Ennahda Party and the Future of Tunisia

Ennahda, one of the most influential political parties in the Arab world and a major force in Tunisia’s emergence as a democracy, recently announced a historic transition. Ennahda has moved beyond its origins as an Islamist party and has fully embraced a new identity as a party of Muslim democrats. The organization, which I co-founded in the 1980s, is no longer both a political party and a social movement. It has ended all of its cultural and religious activities and now focuses only on politics.

Ennahda’s evolution mirrors Tunisia’s broader social and political trajectory. The party first emerged as an Islamist movement in response to repression at the hands of a secularist, authoritarian regime that denied citizens religious freedom and the rights of free expression and association. For decades, Tunisian dictators shut down all political dis­course in the country, forcing movements with political aims to operate exclusively as social and cultural organizations. But the revolution of 2010–11 brought an end to authoritarian rule and opened up space for open, free, and fair political competition.

Tunisia’s new constitution, which Ennahda members of parliament helped draft and which was ratified in 2014, enshrines democracy and protects political and religious freedoms. Under the new constitution, the rights of Tunisians to worship freely, express their convictions and beliefs, and embrace an Arab Muslim identity are guaranteed, and so Ennahda no longer needs to focus its energies on fighting for such protections. Therefore, the party no longer accepts the label of “Islamism”—a concept that has been disfigured in recent years by radical extremists—as a description of its approach. In this new democratic stage of Tunisian history, the question is no longer one of secularism versus religion: the state no longer imposes secularism through repression, and so there is no longer a need for Ennahda or any other actor to defend or protect religion as a core part of its political activity.

Of course, as Muslims, the values of Islam still guide

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