Tunisia, Islamism and the West

By Brandon Beasley

Since the fall of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s regime in Tunisia, many have been cheered by the prospects for democratic reform in that North African country. But one cannot help but take note of a kind of muted or cool support from many leaders of Western nations, at least in the initial stages of the revolt. Indeed, it was not until Ben Ali fled the country that any Western leader expressed support for the Tunisian uprising. This ought to surprise us, for the Western world considers itself the bastion of freedom and democracy, supposedly encouraging and supporting their development in countries which lack liberty. The lack of exuberant praise and expression of only timid support contrasts immensely with the reaction by the same countries to the assertion of democracy in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union. How to explain this disparity of reaction?

It can be attributed to the existence, in countries like Tunisia, of Islamists. The West seemed willing to tolerate despotic governments, so long as they were secular and amenable to their economic and foreign policy interests. While radical Islamism is a force we should be wary of, not all Islamists are created equal and one cannot ignore the fundamental democratic rights of all people.

The West should not be too frightened of Islamism in Tunisia. Many Tunisians seem cool to Islam, an aspect of many Tunisians’ refreshingly democratic and secular character. This is likely a result of the reforms instituted during the leadership of Habib Bourguiba from 1956 to 1987 which modernized and secularized the country and continued under Ben Ali’s government. Though the enforcement of secularism under Ben Ali was clearly undemocratic, the atmosphere of secularism created has no doubt influenced the population, especially young people, many of whom are anti-Islamist.

This influence, however, can also cut the other way by encouraging underground Islamist sentiments. But Tunisia’s most popular Islamist party (previously outlawed under Ben Ali’s regime, now un-banned by the interim government), the Hizb al-Nahda or Renaissance Party, agreed with other opposition parties years ago to endorse democracy, pluralism and women’s rights (the last two of which, especially, more radical Islamist parties are notoriously intolerant). They have explicitly denounced radical Islam, such as the pan-Islamic, pro-Caliphate party Hizb ut-Tahrir. Indeed, even as we might be sceptical and suspicious of the al-Nahda party, one must note that Islamist parties dominate the democratic landscape in both Iraq and Afghanistan, democracies (imperfect though they are) which Western countries had a hand in creating.

Might Islamists do well in future Tunisian elections? We will not know until elections are held, though there are indications of a base of support in more rural regions. But as noted above, many Tunisians do not seem ready to embrace Islamist parties with open arms and at least one Islamist party seems willing to work within a pluralist, democratic, multi-party system. As such, the existence of such a party in a future Tunisian legislature should not worry us too greatly.

Western countries should be pausing to reflect. We have done poorly by Tunisia and in our fear of extreme Islamists we have let democracy be trampled. If people in Tunisia vote for Islamists, that is and should be their right and privilege. But the indications are that many of them will not vote that way and that those Islamists who are most likely to win seats in the legislature are (relatively) moderate.

Above all, it can be hoped that the people of Tunisia’s clear commitment to reform is not likely to allow the election of Islamists who would fail to bring forward the open, pluralistic and democratic society that Tunisians, who have taken to the streets and demanded freedom with such courage and conviction, so clearly want.

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