Global Currents article

Cooperating Modernities in Tunisia?

In April, Columbia political scientist Alfred Stepan came out with an article in the Journal of Democracy on “Tunisia’s Transition and the Twin Tolerations.” If the article is right, Tunisia’s secularists and Islamists are participating in an encouraging pattern of political cooperation that bodes well for the country’s democratic development. There is good reason to be hopeful about the relevance of an emerging “Tunisian model” of secular-Islamist negotiation, not only for Tunisia’s future but for all those countries affected by the Arab Spring. Yet there is also reason for caution.

The “Twin Tolerations” and Tunisia

The “twin tolerations” are two simple political conditions governing the relationship between religious actors and political institutions, which Stepan first described in the Journal of Democracy in 2000 and in an updated version in the recently published volume, Rethinking Religion and World Affairs, which Stepan edited with Timothy Shah and Monica Toft.

According to Stepan, the “twin tolerations” are essential to any relationship between religion and politics in a democratic regime. They are: first, religious leaders cannot lay claim to veto power over democratically elected representatives; but, second, citizens are free to publicly organize around religious goals that do not contradict the constitution. These “twin tolerations” have enjoyed a wide resonance within the scholarly community because of their explicit implications for the Muslim world and their challenge to oft-held assumptions in political theory that exclude religious institutions, ideas and actors from the public sphere. And Stepan has just offered a fresh articulation of the power and relevance of the “twin tolerations” in an interview on the Immanent Frame.

Adding it to his list of other exemplars — including Senegal, Turkey, India, and Indonesia — Stepan spotlights the recent Tunisian experience as another successful democratic transition in the Muslim world that simultaneously respects the twin tolerations and creates a substantive role for religious leaders in the political framework of the nation.

The article is important, as the success of the Tunisian transition is important, for recognizing the alternative pathways available for democratization processes in religiously charged settings. One of Stepan’s strengths is that he highlights the pragmatic virtue of democracy as an accommodating set of decision-making rules. In Stepan’s account, Tunisian leaders from both the secularist and Islamist camps recognized this virtue and worked together to craft a successful transition by focusing their incipient energies on the establishment of clear rules for the new political game, rather than battling each other over their substantive political differences.

Part of Stepan’s goal is to challenge models of aggressive laïcité or assertive secularism. For years, such models were held up as the only possible response to integralist Islamist movements in North Africa and the Middle East. In this vein, Stepan pointedly contrasts Tunisia’s present transition with two other cases: Kemalist Turkey as well as Tunisia under Habib Bourguiba, who ruled the country for thirty years from 1957 to 1987. In both cases, Islam was aggressively removed from many corners of the public sphere and this, in part, spawned the rise of more radical Islamists.

A Note of Caution

There is a warranted desire among many scholars to praise the post-Jasmine success of Tunisia and recommend the model for other predominantly Muslim countries with recent histories of religious conflict. I think a model of religiously friendly democratization has great potential in the Middle East today. And Stepan makes a laudable case that secular and Islamist modernities can cooperate within a framework defined by the “twin tolerations.”

All the same, I want to highlight one difficulty with the use of Tunisia as a model for the region.  In fact, this same difficulty has the potential to undermine the relevance of what could be called the new Turkish model, in which the rise of the AK (Justice and Development) Party since 2002 has weakened the hold of secularist Kemalism and led to the emergence of a more religion-friendly as well as arguably more democratic Turkish republic.

The Dueling Legacies of Secularism

The difficulty concerns the ambiguous legacy of the secular reforms forced on both countries by their founding leaders, Presidents Ataturk and Bourguiba.  In Stepan’s account, Ataturk and Bourguiba are largely blemishes on the political records of their respective countries, in which religiously oriented political movements were violently and illegitimately excluded from the political arena. Rather than responding to this exclusion with hardline religious politics, however, the political leaders of the present-day AKP — which Tunisia’s present-day Ennahda emulates — rose to success by championing democratic reforms, clean politics, and inclusive political platforms.

The resulting lesson that many Islamists (and scholars in the West) take away from this response is that political parties with Islamist pasts can successfully integrate into democratic environments and should not be barred from them.

To many secularists in the Middle East, however, the lessons of Turkey and Tunisia are entirely different. In their view, the only reason Islamist-oriented parties have not established Islamic states in either country is that these parties had first been beaten into submission by powerful and successful secular states. One could make the case that these states were successful in the sense that both achieved relatively high levels of economic wealth and in the sense that their progressive push for gender equality and the legitimacy of non-traditional, less-religious lifestyles was widely absorbed.

This ambiguous legacy stems from the fact that Turkey and Tunisia were outliers in the Middle East and North Africa with respect to the intensity with which state leaders pursued laïcité-like policies. As a result, Tunisian and Turkish Islamists had to deal with much stronger secular opposition forces and less religious polities than almost anywhere else in the Middle East.

The contrast between Tunisia and Egypt is especially revealing. Egypt is a country whose state policies governing religion were never really secularist and which also never achieved a high level of economic growth. In Tunisia, where regularly practicing religiosity was reported to be at only 36% in 2010 according to the World Gallup Poll, Islamists garnered slightly more than 40% of the new regime’s founding elections in 2011. In Egypt, where practicing religiosity was reported to be at 61%, Islamists garnered 75% of the vote. Religiosity is by no means synonymous with support for Islamism. And religious political parties cannot assume the vote of religious individuals. But Islamist parties are right to expect that most of their support will be found among religious individuals. Theoretically, therefore, a more religious country presents greater electoral potential and fewer electoral constraints.

Other Lessons from Tunisia

This contrast does not mean that Tunisia or Turkey is an irrelevant or unimportant model for the Muslim-majority world. Emulation of Ennahda’s consensus-building instincts by Islamists outside Tunisia would be particularly welcome.

But the secular pasts of both Tunisia and Turkey force us to think hard about what exactly these cases teach us. There is still a temptation for many scholars to measure the success of Tunisia’s transition by gauging how much Ennahda is willing to shed its religious agenda. In this sense, the recent verdict against the owner of a television station that broadcast the film Persepolis, which some Muslims find derogatory to Islam, represented a major setback for democracy in Tunisia in the eyes of many Western observers, as witness recent Amnesty International reports. Ennahda formally condemned the film as a “violation of the sacred.”

But in other countries in North Africa and the Middle East, Egypt included, there will be even fewer electoral and demographic brakes on religiously oriented politics. The question for democracy, then, is not whether Islamist parties in any of these countries drop their religious agendas. The only question is how they will pursue them.

What will be important for the relevance of Tunisia as a model of religiously friendly democratization, therefore, is how Ennahda frames and responds to the tensions and challenges that will arise from its “Persepolis moments.” In other words, what does Ennahda decide to do with its religious tenor and orientation when it does not have to compromise on its religious goals?

If Ennahda and the AKP can develop an authentic brand of religious politics that keeps them and everyone else in the democratic game, they could represent a worthwhile model for the many other Muslim-oriented parties in the region. And in the process they might create a new model of Muslim democracy that does not involve the surrender of their religious identity, but keeps it integrally tied to a firm respect for constitutional norms, liberties, and rights.

Michael Driessen
Michael Driessen is Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at John Cabot University in Rome, Italy. He teaches courses on Religion and Politics and co-direct the University’s Interfaith Initiative. His research interests include the nature of public religions in Catholic and Muslim societies and the role of interreligious dialogue in contemporary global politics.

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