North Africa’s Islamist Parties Provide Important Lessons in Secularization

The Trump administration is reportedly preparing to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a foreign terrorist organization. This would be a major mistake – not only would such a designation miss the anti-violence stance of many Muslim Brotherhood leaders, it would also undermine its potential for pragmatic evolution.

The experience of other Islamist parties in the region – such as the Tunisian Ennahda party or the Moroccan Party of Justice and Development (PJD) – highlights the importance of political inclusion as the path towards secularization, not just moderation, among Islamist groups.

Since their ascendance to power at the end of 2011, Ennahda and the PJD have made a noticeable shift in their ideological platforms. Their Islamic identity has been sharply diluted over time to become more consensual towards controversial issues such as cultural pluralism and freedom of expression. Having begun life as Islamist parties, both have now distanced themselves from the labels of ‘Islamism’ and ‘political Islam’ altogether.

The relatively new pragmatism of the PJD and Ennahda shows that Islamist movements are just as capable of adapting their ideologies according to different situations in which they operate as non-Islamist parties. In the cases of Ennahda and the PJD, having the space to participate in the national political landscape as legal parties led not only to moderation but also to their secularization.

Ennahda’s Rached Ghannouchi greets supporters. Photo: Getty Images.

This goes beyond mere moderation, which refers to the idea of renouncing violence and an acceptance of political participation. The Egyptian Brotherhood, until the military coup in 2013, fit the definition of moderate – but Ennahda and the PJD are both moderate and secular. Secularization happens when an Islamist party abandons its Islamizing discourse, separates its religious and political activities, and explicitly engages in political activity based on rational calculations rather than religious objectives.

The process of Islamist ‘secularization’ started in Morocco in the aftermath of the 2003 Casablanca terrorist attacks, after which Islamists were put under pressure by the regime and were accused by the other secular parties of being morally responsible for the attacks. At the time the PJD was on the verge of being dissolved because of allegations of its mixture between religion and politics that was interpreted by its opponents as providing ‘propitious’ climate for ‘religious radicalism’.

To respond to those pressures, the PJD made a strategic move: separating the party from the religious movement that had created it, the Unity and Reform Movement (MUR). This division was a strategic adaptation that was meant to allow the PJD to maintain its legal recognition.

However, the division was not a total separation between party and movement, but more of a division of labour that concerned three sectors: activism, speeches and leadership. The PJD and MUR established a complementarity agreement that placed the PJD in charge of the political struggle, leaving the MUR in charge of da’wah (preaching) and education.

A decade later, the Ennahda party in Tunisia was also seduced by the idea of separation between the party and the religious movement. In March 2015, Ennahda invited leaders from the MUR and PJD to discuss the Moroccan model of separation between da’wah (preaching) and politics, and a few months later adopted the same division of labour.

In both cases, this was meant to be a tactical moderation, but it has become an ideological one. Once separated, political Islamists in both parties shifted their whole ideological platforms to become more moderate and mainstream in order to respond to societal changes (economic liberalization, economic growth, electoral loss and changing voter preferences) and consequently to gain greater popular support. The PJD and Ennahda’s participation in government since 2012 has further catalysed the push towards secularization – needing the support of secular allies to stay in government, they gradually distanced themselves from their Islamist roots. Both parties have now called explicitly for the separation between religion and politics.

This is a major shift. In 1997, ‘Islamization’ was the epicenter of the PJD’s electoral programme, and before it entered government, it weighed in often on social issues – for instance, criticizing music festivals as being a tool of moral corruption and a way to distance youth from their Islamic identity. But in office, the PJD has steered away from ideological clashes – a decision by the Ministry of Interior to ban the burqa in January went unremarked upon. A PJD leader has told me that this decision was meant ‘to provoke the government formation by creating an ideological contradiction with our secular partners and this is the reason why we did not answer to such provocations’.

Ennahda has also learned it is in their interests to keep ideological quarrels away. In its latest national conference in summer 2016, Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi expressed his keenness ‘to keep religion far from political struggle’ and called ‘for complete neutrality [between religion and politics]’.

The evolution of Ennahda and the PJD provides important lessons that the Trump administration should learn from as it seeks to fight extremism. While the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood did not behave with the same degree of adaptation while it was in power, its exclusion from the political milieu following the removal of President Mohammed Morsi in 2013 has only weakened the pragmatic elements within the movement. Designating it a terrorist entity would only further remove it from the influence of conventional politics.

Mohammed Masbah is currently a junior research fellow at the Crown Center for Middle East Studies in the United States. He is a political sociologist whose work centers on Salafism, political Islam, authoritarianism and youth movements, with a focus on North Africa.

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