Tunisia, the prime mover of the Arab Spring, had its first democratic outcome: Last weekend, this small Arab nation held free and fair elections, which had been only a dream under the tyranny of its former dictator, the all-secular Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Moreover, the winner turned out to be the Islamic-inspired party that the same Ben Ali brutally suppressed for decades: the Renaissance Party, or, with its original name, Ennahda.
I am sure some eyebrows are now raised in the West, and elsewhere, for Ennahda is defined as an “Islamist” party, which might, say, ban alcohol, put women in burqas and chop off hands and heads. But that really does not seem to be what the party aspires to. Right after its election victory, Ennahda’s second figure, Hamadi Jebali, who is also the candidate to be the next prime minister, dismissed such fears. He said that if Ennahda comes to power, “individual liberties [will be] granted for foreigners and Tunisians alike.” Among these liberties, he explicitly said, are things like wearing bikinis, drinking alcohol or doing “non-Islamic” (i.e. interest-based) banking.
There are good reasons to believe that Ennahda will keep these promises if it comes to power, for its main leader, Rached Ghannouchi, is a thinker who has long reconciled Islam and freedom. Unlike radical Islamist thinkers such as Sayyid Qutb, from which he was influenced initially, Mr. Ghannouchi growingly synthesized Islam not with a totalitarian but a democratic vision.
So, as early as the 1980s, Ghannouchi began advocating “the end of single-party politics and the acceptance of political pluralism and democracy.” He defended women’s rights and education, along with equal rights for non-Muslim citizens.
Yet none of that saved Mr. Ghannouchi and his party from the wrath of the Ben Ali regime, whose secularism was simply an anti-religious madness. People could be arrested simply for frequenting mosques. Members of Ennahda, including Ghannouchi himself, were jailed and tortured. Many of them had to flee to Europe to save their lives and freedom.
With all that terrible history of secular dictatorship, Tunisia is very similar to Turkey: Both countries have suffered from not Islamic but secular fundamentalism, which they imported from France, but took it to even worse extremes. In both countries, for example, the headscarf was banned in the public square and veiled women were degraded to second-class citizens.
But just like in Turkey, democracy in Tunisia brought an end to secular dictatorship. The end of the Ben Ali regime in Tunis, in other words, is not too unlike the end of the Kemalist regime in Ankara. In both cases, powerful oligarchies who positioned themselves against religion were overthrown by masses that aspired for freedom, including freedom of religion.
Similarly, it is not only significant but also telling that Ennahda spokesmen have repeatedly said that they take Turkey’s incumbent Justice and Development Party (AKP) as their “example.” Ironically, Ennahda’s secularist rivals, the leftovers of the Ben Ali regime, seem to have taken an example from Turkey as well: Just like the Kemalists, all they did during their campaign was fear mongering about “the Islamists.” And, again, just like the Kemalists, they terribly failed.
Of course, it is time now for Ennahda to work toward forming a stable government and disproving the fears that secularists pump and some secular people probably genuinely have. If they can be successful in both and form a government that will bring more freedom and prosperity to Tunisia, they will have replicated the “AKP model” in the Arab world. As the initiators of the Arab Spring, and as the heir of a liberal Islamic tradition that dates back to the 19th century, they are simply the perfect people to do that.