1. Netterstrøm discusses a few of the ways in which scholars have tried to understand Islamist groups and their relationship with democracy. What is the moderation paradigm, and what critiques does Netterstrøm have of it?2. How and why did Ennahda end up compromising in Tunisia, according to Netterstrøm?3. What does this case tell us about the larger issues of fundamentalist religious groups and democracy, do you think?4. What were the two paths taken by Somalia and Somaliland, according to Krug?5. Why does Krug think a large part of the problem for Somalia is foreign intervention? What do you think of her argument?


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After the Arab Spring
The Islamists’ Compromise
in Tunisia
Kasper Ly Netterstrøm
Kasper Ly Netterstrøm is a doctoral candidate at the European University
Institute in Florence, Italy. He has lived in Tunisia and has made several
extensive visits there since the revolution in 2011.
etween October and December 2014, Tunisia completed both a parliamentary balloting and a two-round presidential election in orderly
fashion and under free and fair conditions. Several weeks of negotiations later, a broad array of political parties came together to form a new
government. With this achievement, Tunisia became the only country
in the Middle East and North Africa to have turned its “Arab Spring”
experience of 2011 into a real transition to democracy. Behind this success story lay a constitutional process that took thirty months following
the fall of long-ruling dictator Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali in early 2011.
The process was rocky. There were crises and interruptions. At several points, the task of bridging the different opinions in the constituent assembly seemed impossible. In the end, however, a spirit of compromise prevailed and the assembly passed a new constitution on 26
January 2014. Remarkably, the large Islamist party known as Ennahda
(Renaissance), backed the new basic law even though it enshrined many
principles that Ennahda had previously opposed.
The constitution declares near its outset, for instance, that Tunisia is
a “civil state” (dawla al-madaniya)—language that creates a presumption against religious interference in the state. The constitution guarantees a panoply of universal human rights—including freedom of expression and strong protection for women’s rights. Crucially, there is no
reference to Islamic law (shari‘a), but only a reference to the “teachings
of Islam” (ta’alim al-Islam). In mentioning “teachings” but not “law,”
the constitution effectively excludes any legal role for the Islamic religious corpus.
Most importantly, the constitution grants the right to “freedom of
conscience and belief” (hurriet al-damir). In the Muslim world, this
Journal of Democracy Volume 26, Number 4 October 2015
© 2015 National Endowment for Democracy and Johns Hopkins University Press
Kasper Ly Netterstrøm
principle is truly revolutionary. Unlike a collective right of groups to
practice their respective faiths (also known as “freedom of worship”),
freedom of conscience acknowledges that each and every individual has
the right freely to choose his or her faith. It means the right to change
one’s religious affiliation, or to abandon religious belief and practice
altogether. Not only Islamist ideologues but also most traditional Islamic authorities strictly condemn the idea of any Muslim leaving Islam,
whether for another religion or for atheism.
On this key point as on others, the new constitution is in stark contradiction with Ennahda’s original Islamist ideology. As Yadh Ben Achour,
the chairman of the constitution-drafting commission, has noted, this is
“the great paradox. These modernist achievements have been won even
though the Islamists were in the majority in the assembly.”1
For a long time, the social sciences have tried to understand Islamist
parties and movements, and how they evolve. Ennahda’s acceptance of
the constitution is one of the most remarkable examples of a transformation by an Islamist party, and therefore is of great importance. Founded
in 1981, Ennahda can look back on a decades-long struggle for survival.
During that time, it developed different wings distinguished by their
dominant experiences—exile, imprisonment, or underground activism.
When the Tunisian Revolution came, these elements drew suddenly together and found themselves facing tough ideological questions with
immediate practical significance. The Tunisian constitutional process is
the story of how the Islamist party handled this historic challenge.
The Paradigm of Islamist Moderation
The term “Islamism” was coined in the late 1970s by French political scientists who were trying to understand the Iranian Revolution and
other instances of Islamic activism that were then on the rise.2 At that
time, movements such as Ennahda did not refer to themselves as “Islamist” but called themselves “Muslim.” Eventually, however, the academic term “Islamist,” popularized by Western media, was taken up by
some of the actors themselves. Ennahda, for example, currently refers to
itself as an Islamist party.3
Islamism invokes the ideological tradition founded by Jamal-Eddin Al-Afghani (1838–97), Hassan al-Banna (1906–49), Abu’l-A’la
Mawdudi (1903–79), and others in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. It also identifies with the political movements that have
carried on this tradition, foremost among them the Muslim Brotherhood
and its various sections and sister parties throughout the Arab and Muslim worlds. Islamism is the idea that Islam is not just a religion, but also
a political ideology. It is the belief that all aspects of society can and
should be organized according to the fundamental texts of Islam. As one
can speak of a “socialist economy” or a “liberal economy,” Islamists be-
Journal of Democracy
lieve that there is also an “Islamic economy,” not to mention an Islamic
educational policy, social policy, environmental policy, and the like. As
a famous Muslim Brotherhood slogan puts it, no matter what the issue,
“Islam is the solution.” This solution is—in theory—always based on
an interpretation of the Koran and the practice of the first four caliphs
(also known as the “rightly guided caliphs”), the last of whom died in
661 C.E.
Islamism is not a conservative ideology that takes the existing society
as a model. Islamism rejects the actual tradition of governments within
the Muslim world such as the Ottoman and Safavid empires, dismissing both as “un-Islamic.” Islamism is an a priori ideology that wants to
transform society according to a set of predefined ideas. In this regard,
Islamism has many similarities with socialism and communism.
Scholars split over how to perceive these movements and parties.
Orientalists and neoconservatives see Islamist parties as essentially undemocratic and unable to reform. Bernard Lewis, for example, writes
For Islamists, democracy . . . is a one-way road on which there is no
return, no rejection of the sovereignty of God, as exercised through His
chosen representatives. Their electoral policy has been classically summarized as “One man (men only), one vote, once.”4
Those inclined to view Islamism as a form of identity politics, such
as Dale Eickelman and James Piscatori, portray it as more nuanced and
positive. In the French debate, these opposing positions are represented
by Gilles Kepel’s view of Islamism as a radical movement versus François Burgat’s claim that Islamism must be understood in light of the
struggle against colonialism and the authoritarian regimes in the region.
It is also worth noting that this debate extends beyond the academic
sphere. In the West and the Muslim world alike, the question of Islamists’ “true motives” is a recurrent topic of political discussion and
dispute. Many of the protests against the Ennahda-led coalition in Tunisia were, for example, fueled by the opposition’s fear that Ennahda
wanted to establish an Iranian-style theocracy.
As a consequence of the electoral success of Turkey’s Islamist-rooted
Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the U.S. government’s post9/11 democratization agenda, the academic debate in recent years has
moved on. Rather than trying to discern Islamism’s “true nature,” the
focus is now on how Islamist parties and movements can become more
moderate. This has sparked fresh efforts to identify the factors that might
change Islamists’ behavior. Vali Nasr and Fareed Zakaria stress economic development, while Stathis Kalyvas and others emphasize organizational structure.5 The most prominent theory of all, however, is the
“inclusion-moderation hypothesis” made popular by Jillian Schwedler.6
Kasper Ly Netterstrøm
It holds that inclusion in the political process will make Islamist parties
more moderate. The literature on this idea is large and varied, but there
are enough common concepts and
explanations to let us speak of an
“inclusion-moderation paradigm.”
Islamist movements may
An important feature shared
make concessions against
many studies that fit this paratheir will, purely for tactical
digm is the distinction between
and pragmatic reasons, but
tactical and ideological moderaonce these compromises have tion (sometimes also referred to as
been made, they may affect
“behavioral” versus “substantial”
the ideological position of
moderation). While the former is
the Islamists.
concerned only with gaining power, the latter is a process in which
an Islamist party genuinely changes its ideology. Islamists might adopt new policies and leave the ideology intact, or they might revisit their ideology and as a consequence
formulate new policies.
Most studies within the moderation paradigm claim that Islamist
movements experience political learning and are thus led to revise their
ideological stances. Exactly how this happens is a matter of dispute.
Schwedler highlights debates and decision making within Islamist parties, while Berna Turam stresses everyday interactions with other parties
and organizations.7 In either account, moderation appears as something
of a deliberative process. Although Jürgen Habermas is not named, there
is an almost Habermasian conception of how values change. The Islamists make up their mind in a neutral sphere and then make a political
move. The ideological evolution happens outside the political realm.
The inclusion-moderation paradigm deserves credit for going beyond
the old debate and raising such topics as the inner workings of Islamist
parties and the causes of ideological reform. Authors working within
the paradigm have also contributed valuable policy advice. Yet this literature also suffers from some recurrent problems. Its close relationship
with democracy promotion in the Middle East has imparted to it a strong
normative bias and produced some problematic conceptualizations.
First, the very concept of moderation is normative. To be “moderate”
does not make sense in itself. One can only be moderate in relation to
something else, and the moderation literature rarely makes that “something else” explicit. Most studies of Islamist moderation discuss in detail the different factors leading to moderation, but devote little space to
defining what it means to be “moderate.” Many studies present only an
operational definition of moderation and ignore the concept’s normative
content. Others do state how they define moderation theoretically, but
fail to discuss critically the employment of the term itself. This is obvious if one looks at the different definitions of moderation that are put
Journal of Democracy
forth. Schwedler, a leader in the field, defines moderation as “a move
away from exclusionary practices.” In their study of Morocco’s Party of
Justice and Development (PJD), Eva Wegner and Miquel Pellicer define
it as “increasing flexibility towards core ideological beliefs.”8
Both definitions replace moderation with another relational concept.
“Flexibility” or “moving away from exclusionary practices” do not
bring us much further than moderation. These definitions have the same
implicit normativity as moderation. If Islamist movements were to show
“flexibility” by becoming more violent than their initial ideological position would seem to predict, would that then count as “moderation”?
Or if Islamist movements were to move away from “exclusionary practices” by no longer excluding armed jihadists, would we consider that
an act of “moderation”?
In her study of Jordanian Islamist movements, Janine Clark avoids
this pitfall by defining moderation ideologically as “greater acceptance
and understanding of democracy, political liberties, and the rights of
women and minorities.”9 Similarly, in their comparison of Islamist and
communist parties, Suveyda Karakaya and A. Kadir Yildirim define
moderation simply as “change in positions on democracy, the economic
system, and the political role of Islam.”10
Studies such as these, with their content-based definitions of moderation, are more honest about that concept’s normative nature. Yet
if “moderate” is simply another way of saying “more democratic” or
“more secular,” why speak of “moderation” at all? If it effectively
means “more democratic,” why not just say that? “Moderation” rests
on a value judgment; it has no analytical function, and can only serve
to blur a study’s normative character. There is nothing wrong with asking how Islamist movements can become more democratic or secular,
but then this should be clearly stated and not hidden behind the vague
concept of “moderation.”
The second problem with the inclusion-moderation paradigm is its
distinction between tactical and ideological moderation. Despite its
intuitive appeal, this distinction risks distorting our understanding of
Islamist movements. Positing a sharp distinction between tactics and
ideology implies that ideological moderation is the only true form of
moderation. If Islamists fail to hold internal philosophical debates prior
to revising their political agenda, we cannot count them as having “moderated.” If they make concessions out of pragmatism and political necessity, these concessions are necessarily viewed as tactical and therefore
superficial and temporary. In the eyes of moderation theory, Islamists
who have made tactical concessions will reverse them at the first chance
they get. Here the moderation paradigm falls back into the previous discussion about whether Islamists have a hidden agenda or not.
The problem is that political compromises and concessions often
come before changes on the ideological side. Islamist movements may
Kasper Ly Netterstrøm
make concessions against their will, purely for tactical and pragmatic
reasons, but once these compromises have been made, they may affect
the ideological position of the Islamists. Too sharp a focus on distinguishing tactical from ideological moderation, in other words, threatens
to obscure the possible ideological effects that political compromises
may have on Islamist movements. Sidestepping this danger, Carrie
Wickham’s study of the Egyptian Wasat Party traces the manner in
which tactical concessions can influence a party’s initial ideological position, thereby breaking down the sharp distinction between tactical and
ideological moderation.11
The third problem with the moderation paradigm is that it treats power always as a means and never as an end. Of course there is truth to the
idea that Islamists want power in order to enact their political program.
Yet the motives that drive political actors—Islamists included—are far
more diverse than simply implementing an ideological program. For the
study of Islamism, focusing solely on power as a means makes it hard to
explain why Islamists sometimes fail to act according to their ideology.
If ideology is the Islamists’ sole motive, scholars have no choice but to
see all Islamist concessions and compromises as “temporary” or “tactical”—otherwise there would be no way to explain them.
Predisposed to Compromise?
With these thoughts about the moderation paradigm and its weaknesses in mind, we can now turn to the Tunisian case. According to
the paradigm, a process of ideological learning should have preceded
the Islamists acceptance of secular constitutional principles. Was this
the case? If one asks the Islamists, they will say that it was. They will
note that they put their commitment to democracy, freedom, and human rights in writing as far back as the 1980s. Likewise, they will emphasize their pragmatism and their experience at working with other
This is not completely wrong. Since the 1981 founding of Ennahda’s
predecessor, the Mouvement de la Tendance Islamique, legal recognition and not an Iranian-style revolution has been the main goal. The
party has also been able to shift course. For example, in 1985 it strongly
opposed President Habib Bourguiba’s Personal Status Code, which gave
women new rights, demanding a referendum on the subject. Five years
later, anticipating free elections during what turned out to be a shortlived political opening instituted by Ben Ali (who had ousted Bourguiba
in a 1987 coup), Ennahda accepted the Personal Status Code. In 2005,
Ennahda joined the Mouvement de 18 Octobre, a common platform that
Tunisian opposition parties adopted to protest the Ben Ali regime. This
was not the only time that Ennahda worked with other parties; it has a
history of compromise and pragmatism.
Journal of Democracy
This proves that Ennahda can adapt to varying political realities. It
does not prove that it was ideologically committed to freedom of conscience, the abandonment of shari‘a, or other controversial issue positions in advance of the constitutional process. On the contrary, in
the very book that many Ennahda members refer to in order to justify
the party’s commitment to democracy, the movement’s leader Rachid
Ghannouchi takes a clear stand against freedom of conscience. In this
1993 work, he writes that a Muslim’s leaving Islam (“apostasy”) is a
crime akin to sedition and rebellion:
Apostasy is a crime . . . related to the preservation of Muslims and the
structures of the Islamic state against enemy attacks. . . . It is a political
crime comparable in other regimes to a crime of leaving by force the
state’s rule and attempting to destabilize it. It should be addressed using
appropriate measures, proportionate to the importance and the danger that
it represents.12
Likewise, shari‘a is essential to Ghannouchi’s idea of “Islamic democracy.” He envisions a system of competitive elections, but they are to
take place within a political order whose foundation is shari‘a. The role
of the elected government is to deliver ijtihad (interpretation) of Islamic
law and to devise (shari‘a-compliant) legislation for areas that shari‘a
does not cover. Ghannouchi does not advocate full-fledged democracy,
but only a limited democracy covering what is not already laid out in
preexisting Islamic law.13 Interviews with local Ennahda representatives
confirm this picture. Most members wanted desperately to get a reference to shari‘a into the constitution, and freedom of conscience was
something that the party—cadres as well as members—deeply opposed.
Ennahda’s concessions in the constitutional process cannot be explained
in terms of ideology.
Ennahda officials might today frame the compromises that they made
as in accord with Islamist ideology and their previous statements. Like
any other political party, Ennahda tries to portray itself as coherent and
logical. And yet, just as it did regarding the Personal Status Code in the
early 1990s, Ennahda has reversed its position on shari‘a and freedom
of conscience. We must therefore go beyond the Islamists’ own justifications.
Party Leaders and Their Interests
In order to grasp what drove Ennahda to accept key secular principles
in the constitution, we must look at the party’s organization. Ennahda
began as a religious movement; only in the early 1980s did it also become a political party. For that reason, and due to the Islamist belief that
religion should dictate politics, Rachid Ghannouchi is both a religious
authority and a political leader. Over the years (including a long spell
Kasper Ly Netterstrøm
in exile), Ghannouchi has managed to further refine this role. His ext …
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