What we can learn from Tunisia

Tunisian youths are teaching the world a lesson. Could be the end for autocratic Arab secularism?

Ali Ahmad January 19, 2011
Events in Tunisia have confirmed a simple but brutal fact about political power: no matter what ideology you hold, if you cannot feed your people, keep prices low, provide jobs and provide reason to be hopeful about future economic growth you will lose power and be kicked out by the power of popular protest.

Ben Ali was a secularist but he was a brutal autocrat and quashed civil liberties and human rights with a vengeance. The Tunisian story has some grave lessons for the Arab world but also for the wider Islamic world. Of course, Tunisia and Pakistan are two totally different cases, but some passing observations on the Tunisian crisis are worth noticing.

It was the utter collapse of economic prosperity exemplified in the self immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old university graduate without a job, trying to support his family. Bouazizi in desperation set himself on fire, due to his crippling financial and social position and this tragic act caught the imagination and attention of millions of Tunisians. Even Ben Ali visited the man in hospital.

The intense dissatisfaction by the masses of highly educated, ambitious young graduates has prompted a popular movement calling for social justice, the eradication of corruption and real democracy.

Tunisians have realised that a 'secular' politician cannot guarantee democracy and cannot give you jobs, stable economic growth and a low inflation. But there is another point we need to consider and that is the nature of the Tunisian opposition and whether democratisation and liberalisation can take place. Revolutions have occurred in the Arab world before but they have either petered out into secular autocracy or monarchical theocracies. Scholars and analysts have argued that Tunisia could be the exception since the unrest is led by a critical mass of educated, young and ambitious Tunisians who are desperate for reform and keen not to repeat the mistakes of their fellow Arabs. This could be the end for autocratic Arab secularism.

The interesting thing is that this sudden capitulation of Ben Ali, a staunch pro-Western dictator (who was adored by many European and American leaders) who opened up Tunisian markets to Western companies was due not to religion or politics but the levers of economic rationality. If you cannot make a living, and if the state is so corrupt and entrenched in despotism and nepotism the only solution is to revolt. The absence of economic prosperity for the Tunisian peoples prompted political reform and indeed will prompt religious reform as the Tunisian nation will try and construct a political framework which guarantees liberties and rights but crucially aims to empower all Tunisians regardless of creed by introducing a democratic process.

Finally, the nature of the Tunisian opposition cannot be fully determined at this point but there is an interesting figure who we will surely hear about in the future. Tunisian dissident Rachid al Ghannouchi is known to students of contemporary Islamic thought because he is a thinker who argues that there is no conflict between Islam and liberal democracy. Robin Wright writes in Islam and Liberal Democracy: Two Visions Of Reformation quoting Ghannouchi’s political thought:
Islam recognises as a fact of life the diversity and pluralism of peoples and cultures, and calls for mutual recognition and coexistence. . . . Outside its own society, Islam recognizes civilisational and religious pluralism and opposes the use of force to transfer a civilisation or impose a religion

Moreover, Ghannouchi is a proponent of gender equality, minority rights, electoral politics, free media and human rights whilst maintaining that he can justify all these principles by using religious philosophy and religious values (which is detailed in the book Rachid Ghannouchi: A Democrat within Islamism). In short, Ghannouchi proposes liberalism without secularism and that is what is interesting about his political party al Nadha (Renaissance). It seems as if Ghannouchi’s political manifesto has remarkable similarities with the AKP party in Turkey which has introduced some of the most liberal and democratic reforms not only in their own country but also in the wider Islamic world.

It is too early to say anything for certain but the Tunisian political experience could be part of a larger political trend, towards post-secularism and post-Islamism. That in the end Muslim societies do not care about vague terms like “secularism” and “Islamism” but rather care about principles to do with economic success, social justice and liberty, and that we can synthesise faith and reason to produce a powerful buffer against religious and secular autocracy.

It is becoming increasingly clear that the terms “secular” and “Islamist” are empty and superfluous labels we can do without in our political vocabulary. Instead we should focus on whether our political parties adhere to certain principles characteristic of liberal democracies, fostering an inclusive liberalism open to congruent religious ideas – fostering a pluralistic religious liberalism.

Most importantly the driving force of political and religious reform is simply economic rationality. The powerful and uncontrolled forces of the markets and desire for prosperity, growth and jobs are what ultimately drive the engines of reform. Crippling marginalisation can push a people to the brink and raise the calls for democratisation and liberalisation.
Ali Ahmad A medical student and freelance writer who tweets @AhmadAliKhalid
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necassarily reflect the views and policies of the Express Tribune.

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