Revisions of Ennahdha Islamic Movement in Tunisia, a Principal Transformation or Circumventing contemporary Difficulties?

In 2016 Al Nahdah Tunisian Islamic Movement surprised both internal and external public opinions, especially when it announced its interest in devotion to politics, and giving up proselytization activities to be undergone by civil societies. It also announced its intention to separate organizational aspect and proselytization one that relates to what the movement calls ‘Revisions’, which some movement members considered to be a historical step forward. Two years after the announcement was declared, a great deal of ovation was spotted. This essay sheds light on this announcement of the movement in an attempt to answer some questions:

What is the update of these revisions?

Have these revisions turned into real steps, or it is still a mere theorization?

Were these revisions based on principal conversions or just a bend in the face of a storm of local, regional and international changes that occurred at the time of theses revisions?

Al Nahdah Islamic Movement in Tunisia, from An Islamic Group to A Political Party

The secrecy that had characterized the history of the Islamic movement in Tunisia since its emergence made it difficult to trace the date of its actual emergence. Obviously, the movement has not been abruptly established in a definite place, time or out of a certain foundational conference. However, most historians and activists of the movement agree that it was established in late 1960s and in early 1970s, a historical era through which political Islam was active and prevalent throughout the country.  

During that era, this Islamic movement emerged with an organizational structure under the name “Islamic Group” at that time. Since then, the Islamic movement has started to organize its young members into circles and small groups attending governmental Quran learning societies in some of the mosques of the capital city. Those groups and circles were inspired by Egyptian Muslim Brothers and the writings and preaches of its founder and one of its senior references, Hasan Al-Banna, Sayed Qutub and the leader of Pakistani Group Abi-Al-A’la al-Mawdudi at an early stage, who mostly claimed for the establishment of the Islamic State in accordance with its hard-lined interpretation of “Sharia”, radical Islamatization of society all over the World.      

Ever since its establishment in early 1990s, this movement enrolled, a wide spectrum of hard-lined believers who deemed Islam as a “Religion and State System” regardless of their sectarian and doctrinal visions of transformation approach. However, the Tunisian Islamic Movement was a merger of traditional Muslim Brothers adapting the doctrinal and political approach of Muslim Brothers derived from Sayed Qutub’s thoughts ascendancy and religious ignorance,      

and a minor Salafist group affected by the Salafist movement which appeared early in the 1970s in Egypt and the Arab Gulf led by both Shiekh Nasser Al-Albani and the Egyptian Islamic Society, and a rational Islamic group that defected from the Salafist movement  late in 1970s under the leadership of both Salah Al Deen Al-Jourshi and Hamida Al-Nifer as well as some Sufi groups and  other Shiite groups, known as Imam’s Line, were combined in that merger shortly after the victory of the Iranian Islamic revolution led by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The merger made it difficult for the Islamic movement to define a transformation approach in confronting the state and society. However, the movement was mostly dominated by a majority of Muslim Brothers who were affiliated with Sayed Qutub’s trend which claimed for insurgence against rulers who are deemed infidels. Furthermore, the trend claimed for Jihad against them in order to establish the Islamic State.         

The founder of NIMT, Rashid Al-Ghannoushi states the vision of the movement clearly within his explanation of the ideological elements constituting the movement when it was founded, giving what he called ‘Brotherhood Salafist Religiosity Coming from the East i.e. Egypt. He deemed this as the most important rank. In this context, he says religiosity is a compromise of Salafi approach which is against heresies prevailing within doctrines and the sectarian imitation in the field of jurisprudence. He advocates the return to the original references, the Holly Quran and the Sunna. This approach is mainly based on the priority of strict scripts over mind and social and political thought represented by Muslim Brothers which is, in turn, based on affirmation of both Islam comprehensiveness and God’s absolute ascendancy principle and social justice. This approach is also educational, focusing on piety, remembrance of God’s Mightiness, reliance on God, Jihad, collectivity, universality of Islam and ascendancy of true believe in Islam.      

It is an approach that combines doctrinal ethical aspect at the expense of social and political aspects. It measures groups and situations by a doctrinal criterion that divides people into brothers and enemies apart. His approach is mostly repulsive to other cultures, situations, and even Islamic schools mostly recurrences. Thus, it is a mono-vision approach, and is almost a tightly introvert system.    

However, the Islamic Group with its Muslim Brothers-affiliated course and Salafi doctrine immediately converted into a political party in 1981 when Tunisian Regime opened the door for formation of political parties. Leaders of the Group submitted a request for establishment of ‘Islamic Movement Party, but the authority rejected their request. So, the newly born movement transformed into a sort of binary organization torn between a public, but not licensed, political party and a secret Islamic organization that is as much as closer to leftist parties.     

Although the movement announced, in its establishing statement in June 1981, renunciation of violence, and the adaption a political approach struggle, but it simultaneously worked alongside on Jihadi strategy in order to come to power through a secret-task system specifically operated to perform military and security missions that aim at overthrowing the state, and to establish the alleged Islamic State on the long run. The Islamic Group separated its two routes, the declared and popular activities from secret ones, and it worked on pervasion of both military and security institutions. The pervasion of the secret movement expanded within the army and security forces until it managed to conduct a military coup to topple president Habib Bu-Rugiebah and establish the Islamic State on 8th November 1987. However, the attempt failed, and Zain Al Abideen Ben Ali soon took power, and released the coup- planning group which was known as ‘Security Group’ at that time. However, a late leader of the movement Munsif Bin Salem uncovered details and participants in the coup in his diaries.

Shortly after Zien al-Abideen Bin Ali came to power, the Islamic trend got involved in reconciliation with Bin Ali. The movement changed its name Al Nahdah Movement, and Bin Ali was inclined to eliminate the secularity of the state. Responding to their demand, president Ben Ali adapted some prima facie amendments like the Ministry of Religious Affairs and the broadcasting of the call for prayers on official T.V. channel. However, soon conflict broke out again between the movement and the authorities after Bin Ali had found out a secret organization related to the Islamic Group in 1991.       

During the period from early 1970s to early 1990s, the conflictual aspect was the prevailing thought of the movement in Tunisia where the movement intended to make a radical change within the state and community according to its hard-lined theory of Islam, but the ordeal of prison and exile had changed many concepts Al Ghannoushi and his companions were undertaking against the Tunisian regime. This experience washed-out a lot of their illusions, after they had found themselves confronted with entitlements of the power, state and the regional surrounding.   

Separation of Proselytizing from Politics and Organizational Reviews

In its tenth conference held in May 2016, Al Nahdah Movement announced it devotion to political activity, and leaving proselytizing activity for civil organizations. The movement also decided a full separation of its political system from its proselytization activity. At that time, Rashid Al-Ghannoushi said: “We want religious activities to be independent from political one, and this demand will be in favor of politicians for they won’t be convicted of utilizing religion for political purposes. This demand will also be in favor of religion, for it won’t be taken as a hostage by politicians’.

Al-Ghannoushi’s statement reveals that the motives of separation did not stem from the inner will of the party, but they were a mere reaction to secular entities opposing the movement as these entities have always convicted the movement of employing the proselytization propaganda, mosques and religious references to gain votes, and to build up a political reserve through monopolization of religious voters. This trend of separation between proselytization activities and political ones within the organizational framework of the movement in Tunisia reveals a sort of an obvious merger between the two aspects the movement had denied over years.

Nevertheless, two years and a half after the announcement was issued, this movement has offered neither an approach nor a political and ideological formula that could clarify the organizational separation between the proselytization aspect and the political one. Furthermore, the documents – including the organizational chart – that were published lately on the official website of the movement in which separation was announced, remarkably criticized the internal organization of the movement and the reform recommendations over years. However, those documents neither clarified nor referred to the website of both the proselytization and the religious department of the movement in the future, how this separation would be performed and how the department would be dismissed from politics. Thus, the announcement was mere a hollow statement for local consumption, and it lacked the least practical steps.

If the movement seeks an organizational separation, it will be necessarily limited to two models:

1- The two separate organizations will be merged in one project like the Turkish model, whereas the Norsi Movement known as Service Movement, was a proselytizing organization allied with Justice and Development Party (AKP) until 2013 serving a common project which is the Islamatization of Turkey, and confronting the secular trends. The two parties seek to achieve the same project, though they are two separately independent organizations in terms of leadership and decision-making.

2- It lies in the liberation of the proselytization of the movement from any political objectives or interests like the Moroccan method where the Movement of Unification and Reform split from Justice and Development Party, and the movement transformed into a civil society organization with purely religious objectives, whereas the party was devoted to politics, and the powers of decision-making and funding entities of the two sides were totally separated apart.

if we irrationally assumed that Al Nahdah Movement has succeeded in finding new organizational formula in which its political activities are completely separated from its proselytization activity in terms of decision making, funding and objectives, it would be confined to its public crucible ; this conservative public base will spontaneously vote for Al Nahdah Movement as the movement profoundly adheres to Islam, and the movement will try to gain this board electoral base through religious propaganda and religious references, specially through electoral entitlements in which polarization between the movement, on the one hand, and secularist forces including leftist and liberal ones, on the other hand will be stronger than ever.

Practically speaking, the separation between proselytization and politics is a trend that will make the movement more of a secularist movement because separation between religion and politics is the essence of secularism which Al Nahdah Movement fears to say it openly, least it will lose both its popularity and internal cohesion, and the extremist current within the movement rejects such a separation, since it deems it as concession to its opponents and a reverse of its principles.

Al-Ghannoushi, leader of the movement, always avoids describing separation process as a secularization process, and that is clarified this in when he said: “Al Nahdah is democratic and political civil party with modern Islamic cultural and religious values. We are in a party interested only in political activities. We are leaving political Islam to join Islamic democracy, and we are democratic, but we don’t define ourselves as apart of political Islam.” This signifies that Al-Ghannoushi wants to straddle the two aspects in a way his movement will be neither political nor Islamic nor secular, and he intends to advocate a newly subtle concept i.e. “Democratic Islam” for which he provides neither specifications nor the way to transform into political Islam or the divergences lying within.

Nevertheless, the failure to clarify separation process between proselytization and politics on part of Al Nahdah Movement does not necessarily negate the existence of transformations the movement has witnessed in term of organization and objectives. The movement, which started in 1970s with the project of undermining and abolishing the withstanding state, and to replace it by the Islamic State in order to reach an overall comprehension of the project of the national and regional state. The movement transformed from a politico-religious group as an extension of Muslim Brothers trend into a political party burdened with local concerns. It transformed from a blocked group, relying on ideological purity into a widely open party, looking for electoral gains, and accepting the memberships of unveiled women and non-Muslim citizens, and members who were formerly activists working with other secular and leftist parties.

Principal Transformation or Circumventing contemporary Difficulties?

These ideological and organizational transformations the movement witnessed, in other word, the movement announced have not been new innovations of Islamic groups over the last few years. In late 1990s, the Islamic Jihadi groups in Egypt adapted a review approach which included transformation. In July 1997, the Egyptian Islamic group declared a one-sided ceasefire, and in 2002 the group issued a doctrinal and thoughtful reviews documents through which the group gave up the concept of overthrowing the regime by force. The Egyptian Jihadi organization issued similar revision documents that were released by the former Jihadi Observer Sayed Imam Al Shariff who was known as Dr. Fudl Abdul-Kader bin Abdul-Aziz, and the document was entitled: “The document of Jihad Guidance in Egypt and the Islamic world”.

As early as 1997, the armed wing affiliated to the Islamic Salvation Front in Algeria adopted a transformation review approach, and its members were integrated within the Algerian community. The Front also stopped taking arms against the State as well. In 2009 the Combatant Libyan Group issued profound reviews of its Jihadi doctrine, and it announced integration within the State of Libya. The group leader Abdul-Hakim Balhaj announced reconciliation with the Libyan state, and these adopted reviews, that were titled: “Reform Studies on the Concepts of Jihad”, Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, and the way of judging people, were supported by many scholars of Muslim Brothers like Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, Salman al-Odah and Ali al-Salabi.     

However, the current Al Nahdah Movement can’t be compared to other Islamic Jihadi groups in terms of though and organization. The reviews conducted by Islamic movements are basically confined to both regional and internal contexts due to objective changes rather than autonomous intention, and the features of those overall reviews can be presented as follows: 

1- Most reviews conducted by Islamic groups, whether they are political or Jihadi, occurred when those groups were experiencing afflictions and political crisis and when their leaders were under detention, so these reviews were a sort of tactics to exit the crisis rather than they were actual reviews endeavors, that is they were mere tactics rather than profoundly strategic deeply-intended endeavors for transformation.

2- Previous experience over years have proven those reviews too fragile to withstand political changes. For instance, the Libyan combatant group published reviews in 2009 in which it admitted the legitimacy of the Libyan regime, and it stated that Mu’ammar al-Kazzafi had been a legitimate ruler and that disobeying him was not allowed by Sharia. Less than a year after the reviews were issued, the group members went back to take arms against the regime, and consequently reviews faded away.    

Consequently, the historical context of the announcement of Al Nahdah Movement that included thoughtful and organizational reviews reveals that those reviews were mere endeavors to circumvent difficulties those movements had passed through rather than principal endeavors stemming deep reconsideration. Those endeavors can be listed as follows:

  • The movement’s exit from authority and its electoral defeat in 2014, and the ascend of its opponent Tunisia Appeal Movement;
  • Profound transformations that occurred in Egypt after 2013, the collapse of Muslim Brothers’ propaganda and the fear of repetition of the same scenario with Al Nahdah Movement;
  • The advent of a new administration of United States of America, and the ascending of the president Donald Trump that is unconcordant with the Islamic groups, contrary to Obama’s administration which encouraged the ascending of Islamic groups to power after the Arab Spring revolutions surged up.
  • Social and political sidelining has caused imbalance of powers, especially on the levels of elites. Although Al Nahda Movement is still enjoying some publicity, it is becoming weaker among educational, political, administerial and media elites.  

The proof that those reviews were not more than a bow to the storm, and they don’t represent a new trend of though within the movement. This can be easily elicited from the aggressive attitude of Al Nahda Movement towards a report made by ‘Freedom and Equality Committee’ and submitted it to the president. In that report, they called for reviews of a set of woman-related rules. Although the commission based their amendments of the laws on Islamic scripts, Al Nahada Movement deemed the reviews to be a violation of the texts of the Holy Quran. They claimed that the proposed amendments comply with the verbal purport rather than the real intention of Islamic legislations.

Conclusion

In short, the Islamic Movement in Tunisia has passed through several transformations of thought and organizational structure since it emerged in 1960s. It transformed from religious group into a political party, and from major project of establishing the Islamic State into minor regional scale of the national state, and into participation in the existing state system. However, the governing mind of the movement remained looking upon Islam as the valid religion for all times and places and as an alternative to modern state. The movement looks upon politics as an extension of religion. Those visions created animosity between the movement and other groups which deemed the movement as monopolizing cultural heritage possessed by the entire community, and turning it out for its political and authoritarian favor and interests.

With the advent of 2016, the movement decided to put an end to those convictions, and it announced separation between proselytization aspect and political one. It also announced its conversion from political Islam to “democratic Islam”. The announcement made the situation more complicated and subtler, therefore the announcement remained just a statement that could not be actually crystalized.  Al Nahda Movement appeared to have employed the announcement for advertisement purposes to give the impression that it that it had been transformed. The announcement was employed for internal and external media consumption, and to circumvent internal and external difficulties the movement has been passing through.


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