Alert Sign Dear reader, online ads enable us to deliver the journalism you value. Please support us by taking a moment to turn off Adblock on

Alert Sign Dear reader, please upgrade to the latest version of IE to have a better reading experience


Secularism in Muslim societies

October 30, 2011


MUCH has happened in the last week to draw attention away from the momentous elections in Tunisia: Qadhafi’s gruesome killing; the Turkish earthquake; and the Eurozone crisis, among other lesser events. But the elections in Tunisia might well cast a long shadow that extends far across its borders.

As the country where the Arab Spring first blossomed and toppled a dictator, it is fitting that North Africa’s first free and fair election was held there. As expected, Ennahada, or the Renaissance Party, won a plurality, gaining 90 seats out of an assembly of 217 with 41 per cent of the vote.

While this victory of an Islamic party has been viewed with considerable misgivings in secular circles in Tunisia and the West, others see it as an inevitable outcome. Under Zein-el Abedine, the long-serving Tunisian dictator, opposition was brutally crushed, and political parties were not allowed to function normally. Ennahada was the major underground movement that resisted, and its members suffered arrests, torture and repression. Its leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, spent 20 years in exile in the UK before returning to his country last January.

Given Ennahada’s principled opposition to dictatorship and corruption, and the disarray the secular groups were in when elections were announced, the Islamic party’s performance in the elections was not surprising. As Le Temps, a French-language daily in Tunisia, noted recently: “The divisions among the leftist parties contributed to their defeat.”

To allay the fears of secular Tunisians, an Ennahada spokeswoman clarified that the social gains made by Tunisian women would not be threatened by her party. She insisted that her party had no intentions of forcing women to wear the hijab, or dress in any way they didn’t want to. She also said it was Ennahada’s policy to encourage more women to join the workforce.

“Gender equality in the work place is a central plank in our platform”, she pronounced.

Indeed, Ennahada looks to Turkey’s mildly Islamist Justice and Development (AK) Party for inspiration. Under Recep Erdogan, the party has been in power for over a decade, and has transformed Turkey into an economic powerhouse. Turkey is also now a major political player in the region. I have been visiting it for nearly fifty years, but my last trip a few months ago was a real eye-opener: the country is booming as never before, and Istanbul is a magnet for cultural activities, drawing increasing numbers of tourists from around the world.

Compare Ennahada and AK with Pakistan’s religious parties, and you get a sense of dinosaurs stuck in a time warp. As the MMA alliance showed us when they were governing in Khyber-Pukhtunkhwa (then NWFP), their thinking is mediaeval, and they have no clue about modern realities. It may be true that some of our secular leaders haven’t done much better in terms of governance, but our Islamist parties have not evolved at all.

Indeed, their entire manifesto seems a list of punishments for anybody breaking their particular rules. They seem to have reduced Islam to a series of do’s and don’ts, with little emphasis on spirituality or contemplation. Above all, they are ignorant of economics, science and social realities. They are united in wanting to lock women up in their homes, and are virulently sectarian. Small wonder, then, that they do so poorly in almost every election, with the exception of Musharraf’s rigged 2002 polls.

For our benighted clerics, I have no doubt Ennahada and AK would be considered heretics. Both Tunisia and Turkey are tolerant about alcohol, for example: they realise that a ban would discourage tourism, a major source of foreign exchange.

And while more women are seen wearing the headscarf in Turkey than when I first went there, many others dress in revealing Western clothes. Personal choice about what to wear is just not the big deal our clerics make it out to be.The Taliban, of course, take dress and appearance to a whole different level. From their ban on men shaving to women being caned for exposing an inch of their ankles, we have a stone-age group that wants to drag society back to the seventh century. No wonder a significant majority of Afghans do not want them back in power, and are terrified of their taking over once Western forces leave. It’s scary to think that many Pakistanis admire them; perhaps they should live under their rule for a bit so they can better appreciate the freedom they enjoy in Pakistan.

Significantly, the Tunisian spokeswoman I cited earlier clearly said she considered Ennahada a political party, not a religious one. In their years of opposition, it appears party ideologues have understood that in this day and age, they cannot impose their vision on people against their will. Pakistani religious parties, by contrast, have enjoyed the patronage of military leaders, and have suffered nothing to further their agenda. Unlike the Muslim Brotherhood and its many offshoots, our clerics have been junior partners to a succession of military dictators. Thus, they have not had to re-examine their ideology and their methods.

Already, Ennahada is in talks to form a coalition with leftist and liberal parties. Should the coalition succeed in forming a stable government – and there is no reason to think it won’t – Tunisia will be another example of the ability of Islamists to govern effectively in the 21st century. Turkey already has provided us a blueprint of the way forward.

The reality is that Islam is a powerful element of our identity, and it is entirely right that it be reflected in our polity. However, traditional Muslim ulema have focused exclusively on a literal interpretation of their faith without adequately considering the context of the modern world. In this, they reflect their own limited education and knowledge.

However, as Tunisia and Turkey have shown, there is no contradiction between being Muslim and embracing the values of secularism, the cornerstone of the Turkish constitution. For a society to be inclusive and tolerant, there has to be space for people of all beliefs, or none. Until our religious parties can adapt themselves to this way of thinking, they will continue to be irrelevant and unacceptable.