Secularizing Islamists? – Lessons Learned from Moroccan and Tunisian Politics

Written by | Thursday, March 9th, 2017

The experience of the Islamic political parties in North Africa shows that they are, just like non-Islamic parties, capable of change and adaptation to changing circumstances. The Tunisian Ennahda party or the Moroccan Party of Justice and Development (PJD) are both excellent examples of political inclusion, of taking the path towards secularization, and not just moderation. Since their ascendance to power in 2011, both parties have significantly shifted their ideological background and diluted the initial Islamic identity with pluralism and freedom of expression. Therefore, the Trump administration’s idea to label the Muslim Brotherhood as a foreign terrorist organization would be a mistake that would undermine its potential for pragmatic evolution.

The relatively new pragmatism of the Brotherhood’s Moroccan and Tunisian counterparts demonstrates that Islamist movement can change and take part in the national political landscape as legal parties. This development goes far beyond moderation, it can actually lead towards secularization, which happens when an Islamist party abandons its Islamic ideological platform, separates the religious and the political and engages in rationally calculated politics.

The process of Islamist ‘secularization’ started in Morocco in the aftermath of the 2003 Casablanca terrorist attacks, after which the regime put pressure on Islamists, who had been accused by the other secular parties of being morally responsible for the terror attacks. To address these developments, the PJD separated the party from the religious movement that had created it – a strategic move that helped it maintain its legal status. Yet, the division was neither complete nor perfect separation between party and movement, but more of a division of labor across three sectors: activism, speeches and leadership.

Once separated, the re-emerged parties shifted their ideological underpinning to become more moderate and to respond to societal changes such as economic liberalization and growth or electoral loss. As a result, both PJD and Ennahda gained greater popular support and further catalyzed the push towards secularization. Moreover, they have gradually distanced themselves from their Islamist beginnings and now explicitly call for the separation between religion and politics.

The evolution of Ennahda and the PJD provides important lessons that the new US administration but also the leaders in Europe should learn from as they seek to fight terrorism. Although the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood did not show the same transformation while it was in power, its labeling as a terrorist organization would undermine the pragmatic elements within the movement and position it on the margins of the political spectrum.

‘North Africa’s Islamist Parties Provide Important Lessons in Secularization’ – Commentary by Mohammed Masbah – Chatham House (The Royal Institute of International Affairs).

(The commentary can be downloaded here)

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