Saturday, October 29, 2011

A chill in the Spring?

The recent development in Tunisia, which was the flash point for the ongoing Arab revolts against their incumbent dictatorships, is interesting.  The Islamist Ennahda party, which was banned for decades and its leaders forced to flee abroad, will lead Tunisia’s new government, which is sure to raise many eyebrows. Whether it bodes well for the “Arab Spring”, or pull it back to winter again, only time can tell.

It is common observation that the underlying reasons for the revolt that overthrew the incumbent dictatorship by Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali  in Tunisia was purely secular in nature, and Islamists themselves make little claims in pulling it off. However as the election results show, they are the ones who make hay at the end of the day.

Ennahda, which has garnered 40% of the votes polled has certainly reasons to celebrate. However in a realistic perspective it has only served to divide the votes on ideological basis, when it was the most calling moment for the country to be united based on common interests. As a result a hung parliament is in view; how far the democracy will remain stable in the balancing act, if not tug-of-war, between Islamists and secularists is a worrying proposition. This is the problem which naturally occur when you mix ideology with politics, when it should have been just the common interests.

It is amusing to observe the antics of Ennahda to keep at bay any potential obstacle on its march to power.  Ennahda is expected to form a government with two of the secularist runners-up. Ennahda has tried to reassure secularists by stressing it will not impose a Muslim moral code. It will not impose the wearing of the Islamic headscarf, or hijab, on women because all attempts to do that in other Arab states have failed, the party’s leader Rachid Ghannouchi  has said.

Rachid Ghannouchi said women would have jobs in the new government “whether they wear a veil or don’t wear a veil”. It would respect all Tunisia’s international treaties when it forms a new government. His officials say there will be no restrictions on foreign tourists—a big source of revenue—drinking alcohol or wearing bikinis on the country’s Mediterranean beaches. One of the party’s most prominent candidates is a businesswoman who does not wear the Islamic veil and this week sang along to pop songs at a party rally. Ennahda has also reached out to anxious investors by saying it will not impose Islamic banking rules.

All this shows the desperation of Ennahda in going to any extent not to lose catch of its windfall. It is good that they realized they cannot survive in politics without the help of secularists and are now willing to approach things more practically. But one question that arises is what is so “Islamist” in a party that does all these things? What is the relevance of Islamic politics in this? Did the Islam-loving Tunisians voted for them hoping for just this?

If they are trying to be secular so hard then why do they call themselves Islamists? By cooperating with the secularists aren't they condoning secularism? Would not it be better that some secular party had been in power who make all these “concessions” than someone who claim to be Islamist? Isn’t it a blot for Islam to have a party in its name and making such concessions for alcohol, bank interest, pop music and bikinis. If they can make all these concessions in all these fundamental values of Islam would that mean the only thing they don’t want to give up is their fair share in power? So is Islamist politics just politics for power for the Mullas? 

I agree that such concessions may indeed have to be made taking practical things into consideration; for this world is not inhabited by Muslims alone but others should also be taken into account. But that is where you say politics is not for the religious parties. Religious parties have to be “ideal”, and never compromise on their values - even if that values cannot be materialized in practice. It is there that the religion and state separates - it is the separation between theory and practice; it doesn't rather connote irrelevance of religion in politics. For that they have to stay away from politics and leave the dirty game to others.

In one way the results are a positive sign, as it shows that Islam is a great moral force even in this remote African country, but that doesnt mean those who didnt vote for Ennahda are indifferent to Islam. Obviously the masses are wary of many self-styled "secularists" in the mold of Kemal Ataturk who advocate shunning religious symbols like hijab and absurdities like that and tend to believe the Islamists offers a minimum guarantee to their own freedom of faith. But objectively speaking is Ennahda's policies anything different from the western secularism which does provide religious freedom to minorities including Muslims? Considering this isnt it better that religious parties stay away from politics  for factors including the above mentioned?

The election results also points that the secular Muslim intelligentsia are found wanting in influencing and ideologically convincing the masses about the merits of secularism and the ineptitude of religious politics in both Islamic as well as practical perspectives. It is high time they are more proactive and build a more robust ideological base for this crucial aspect on Islamic foundations itself, rather than just touting  trite half baked secularist ideas imported from the West, which is unlikely to appeal to the Muslim masses.

Karoly

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