Is Islam compatible with democracy?
Beginning last year, the democratically inspired “Arab Spring” movements have toppled repressive regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.
Are these fears reasonable?
Consider the example of Tunisia, the birthplace of the Arab Spring. After the fall of the oppressive Ben Ali regime in January 2011, democratic elections were in October. The Islamist Ennahda Party was in fact the clear winner, gathering 40 percent of the votes, far more than any other party.
Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi, however, insists that there is no contradiction between Islam and democracy. “We believe that all Tunisian people can survive peacefully within a moderate vision of Islam, which can be compatible with democracy . . . We accept the notion of citizenship as the basis of rights, so all citizens are equal whether they are Islamist or not Islamist.”
Ghannouchi rejects the Taliban or the Saudi model of Islam, insisting that Ennahda’s vision is closer to “the Turkish, the Malaysian and the Indonesian models, models that combine Islam and modernity.”
Gannouchi further insists that the rights of women, including their right to education, will be respected. His own daughter, Intissar, was raised in London while Gannouchi lived in exile there. She studied law in Cambridge and the London School of Economics, specializing in human rights.
Intissar says of Ennahda, “The inspiration for our values is Islam, but we’re concerned to address the modern daily concerns of Tunisians, within the context of modern culture. We are a political party, not a religious party, just like the Christian Democrats in Germany.”
Opponents of Ennhada, however, are suspicious of such statements. They worry that Ennhada has a hidden agenda and is simply using the democratic process as a gradual means of establishing Sharia law.
Yet thus far it seems that Ennhada is sincere. After the elections, they formed a ruling coalition with two secular, left-leaning parties. The interim presidency was given to the human rights activist Moncef Marzouki of the secular Congress for the Republic Party. Ennhada has officially opposed any reference to establishing Sharia law in the new constitution.
Recent history shows that when people in Muslim majority nations are allowed to elect their own leaders, they elect Islamist candidates.
We Americans should support their right to express their own deeply held religious values through their government officials, while at the same time insisting that basic human rights, including the rights of non-Muslims, be protected.
We will continue to watch with cautious hope how the seeds of the Arab Spring grow in Tunisia.
Martin Albl teaches religious studies at Presentation College. Write him at email@example.com.