Tunisia shows there is no contradiction between democracy and Islam

TUNIS, TUNISIA- OCTOBER 23: Men on a scooter pass one of the many walls that are designated election poster sites around the country. Elections is Tunisia are to begin in late October and the country is at a cross roads politically. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

As Tunisia prepares to hold its second free and fair election on Sunday — and continues its transition from despotism to democracy — my country offers a stark contrast to the extremes of terrorism and military intervention seen elsewhere in the region. Tunisia stands as proof that the dream of democracy that spurred the Arab Spring lives on.

Despite what some believe, there is no “Arab exception” to democracy, nor is there any inherent contradiction between democracy and Islam. The Middle East can indeed achieve stability and peace through a process of democratic reconciliation and consensus. But the road will be long and involves the challenging work of building institutions, healing old wounds and forging compromise around shared values. The path that Tunisia has taken can guide others.

Domination by those in power has been at the root of many failures in our region’s history. That is why the Ennahda, or Renaissance, party has not sought a monopoly of power in Tunisia. In the 2011 elections, Ennahda, which I lead, won the largest share of the vote by a significant margin but nonetheless called for a national-unity government, entering into a coalition with two secular parties. The party then voluntarily transitioned to a consensus, technocratic government with the goal of ensuring the successful completion of the transition to democracy.

Sacrificing party interest in this way was a small price to pay for national unity. A 51 percent vote may be enough to give a new government legitimacy in established democracies such as the United States. But in a place like Tunisia, where the foundations for democratic rules are still being constructed through a delicate process of consensus-building, acting with such a narrow majority risks polarizing the people.

Crucially, Tunisians have committed to the establishment of a pioneering model of political partnership between moderate secularists and moderate Islamists. Bringing together the center in this way helped us adopt a constitution in January with the backing of an astounding 94 percent of the national assembly. The constitution, widely considered to be among the most progressive in the Arab world, enshrines equality and guarantees the rights of every Tunisian woman and man.

Unlike in Libya, Egypt or Iraq, Tunisia’s new political system has turned away from exclusion; rather, we put our faith in the ballot box. We have also endeavored to avoid any mistreatment of those who oppressed, wrongly imprisoned and tortured others under the old system by establishing a Commission on Truth and Dignity, which provides a judicial process guided by human rights and rule of law to help us turn the page on the past.

Tunisia’s state institutions have also played a significant role. The military has committed itself to the democratic transition, and civil society groups, trade unions and business chambers have contributed to our dialogue. Tunisians also are fortunate to have strong women who have participated tirelessly in this process: 41 of Ennahda’s 89 members of parliament are female. They have the highest participation rates in parliament, head constitutional drafting committees and lead consultations with civil society.

While we are proud of our progress, we know that Tunisia still faces immense challenges. Violent extremists see our democratic values of moderation, consensus and gender equality as a threat to their vision; structural reforms are required to transform our economy from the personal fiefdom it once was to one based on rule of law, free enterprise and innovation. We need support to navigate these challenges. We appreciate President Obama’s positive citation of Tunisia in his speech before the United Nations in September, but support for our democracy must come both in words and action. The West cannot return to the era when it perceived an illusory trade-off between stability and democracy. Long-term stability cannot exist if our people are disenfranchised, our institutions monopolized and our youth disempowered. The choice between stability and democracy is false.

The results of free and fair elections must be respected. Some worry about the victory of democratic Islamic parties like Ennahda, mistakenly grouping them with radical extremists. But putting all Islamists in the same bucket, or linking Islam itself to violence, only serves the aims of terrorists who consider democracy to be un-Islamic. In the past, such an Islamists vs. secularists division was propagated by authoritarian regimes to distract from their own suppression of pluralism and all forms of opposition.

Tunisia hopes to prove that Islam and democracy can coexist in the Middle East. That we, too, yearn for freedom. That we, too, can develop a progressive, inclusive system. That our people can put the interests of their nation above personal political interests. But we need the West to invest in our democracy — not just for our sake but for all those with a stake in a more secure world.

Rachid Ghannouchi is founder and chairman of Tunisia’s Ennahda party.

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