Victory of Islamists in Tunisia

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Gholamali Khoshroo
Senior Editor of the Encyclopedia of Contemporary Islam

The victory of Tunisia’s Islamist Al-Nahda Party has been the first election win of an Islamist party in the Arab world since 1992 when Islamist figures won Algeria’s elections and were subsequently suppressed in a military coup d’état which dipped the country into a long civil war. This time, however, al-Nahda has won by a landslide in a democratic election with a turnout of about 80 percent to formulate the country’s new constitution and engineer its future political system.

Tunis has a population of about 12 million which follows relatively liberal social norms. It has a relatively large middle class with good share for women in social affairs. Also, the country’s amazing Mediterranean coasts have been a great lure for the European tourists. The previous government promoted secularism while suppressing people through police and security establishment. It also boasted a high rate of corruption at all levels of the government along with relentless violent treatment of Islamists and people’s religious symbols.

Former president, Habib Bourguiba, and his successor, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, ruled for a total of 54 years and did their best to integrate an Islamic country which was once cradle of the Islamic civilization in the western part of the Muslim world into the culture and lifestyle of its northern Mediterranean neighbors. The integration was forceful, dictated from above, imported, single-faceted, imitative, and marked with profound corruption, discrimination and humiliation.

The people of Tunisia took part in their first free election which was overseen by impartial observers and saw participation of Islamic, liberal, leftist and other political parties. Before everybody’s eyes, the Islamist al-Nahda Party won a majority vote. This was in stark contrast to rife clichés in the Western media as well as common perception of many Western-minded figures in the Muslim world that there is only two way to rule: either follow a secular democratic policy, or one based on Islam and despotism. Tunisian Islamist figures have shown high respect for democracy while safeguarding religious values. They believe that a democratic Islam is the best solution for the existing problems of the Tunisian society.

Al-Nahda Party has been subject to two decades of suppression when its supporters were either in jail or in exile or lived underground. The party believes in Islam as its ideology, respects all political groups, and looks forward to a competitive political system free from domestic repression or foreign affiliations. It also intends to invite all parties to join hands and establish a democratic system which will venerate human rights and dignity and be attuned to the Islamic values while maintaining political and cultural diversity.

Following victory of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, West-dependent states did not hesitate to suppress any freedom- and justice-seeking movement on grounds that it was affiliated to the Islamic Revolution. Their leaders were also labeled as agents of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Now, such lies are no more believed in the North Africa and the Middle East. Islamic nations are now awakened and with good grasp of the sensitivity of the existing conditions, yearn to get back to their pristine Islamic values. They aim to do away with Western-minded dictatorships and pay more serious attention to their own social and economic problems. They are bent on establishing a new system in which people’s participation, national independence, and Islamic identity will be the main pillars.

The leader of al-Nahda, Rashid al-Ghannushi, was first put behind the bars about three decades ago and then sent into exile. For the past 22 years, he lived away from his homeland Tunisia and continued political, social and cultural activities in the hope of finally establishing an independent, free and Islamic society.

I had an opportunity to meet him some 20 years ago. I clearly remember the gist of his words that Tunisia is a country with striking history of the Islamic civilization which was run by those who had no faith in Islam, nor in political and civil liberties. He maintained that they had hid their dictatorship under the cover of progress and modernity and continued to humiliate and suppress people. Al-Ghannushi said his party meant to restore people’s rights, develop education, pay more attention to women’s rights and safeguard original Islamic and human values. They accuse us of harboring violence and radicalism, he added. “We do not believe that religious values are at odds with people’s will or their participation in social and political affairs. We only oppose political dependence and blindfolded subservience to the West.”

Rashid al-Ghannushi invited the modern Tunisian society to justice, fairness, tolerance, hard work and respect for ethics. He urged everybody to respect others’ rights, engage in constructive dialogue while maintaining theoretical and cultural diversity, and solve problems through active participation in social and cultural affairs. He believed Islam to be the main source of solutions for people’s problems and introduced democracy as the best way of managing the society. Tunisia’s new constitution will be soon drafted on the basis of the Islamic values and with the participation of people by Islamist and other active social and civil groups. This experience will be no doubt, source of new inspiration for the ongoing movements in various parts of the Islamic world.

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