Magazine article The Christian Century

In Tunisia, Popular Ennahda Party Tests 'Moderate' Islam

Magazine article The Christian Century

In Tunisia, Popular Ennahda Party Tests 'Moderate' Islam

Article excerpt

NEARLY A YEAR after Tunisia set off the Arab Spring of popular revolt, the face of political Islam in this fledgling Muslim democracy is a 47-year-old pharmaceutical executive who favors tailored suits and stiletto heels.

Souad Abderrahim's main political experience was as a student union leader more than two decades ago, but the political neophyte is now cheered at rallies and trailed by the media as a leader of Ennahda, the Islamist party that has become the main political force in this North African country.

Abderrahim holds a seat in the country's new Constituent Assembly, charged with creating a democratic political structure following the downfall of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who ruled Tunisia for nearly a quarter century.

The mother of two said she felt compelled to emerge as a spokeswoman to curtail fears that Ennahda would curb women's rights or mix conservative religion and politics. "When I saw the phobia on the streets about Ennahda as a hard, backwards party, I felt it was important to be with them and shed light on this false image," she said.

The Tunisian uprising triggered the Arab Spring protests that upended politics from Libya to Yemen, and Tunisia's subsequent steps toward democracy are being closely watched as a model for other countries.

"Tunisia today is the major test of the Arab Spring," says Mansouria Mokhefi, head of Middle East and North Africa programs at the French Institute of International Affairs. "The direction it goes depends on the success or failure of Tunisia."

That's why the spotlight is on Ennahda, which styles itself after Turkey's ruling center-right Justice and Development Party. Its inclusive message and corruption-free image have attracted a wide following across all levels of society.

Will it make good on its promises to uphold Tunisia's pro-Western, secular foundations and women's considerable rights? Or, as some critics maintain, is Ennahda hiding a more radical agenda?

The answer, analysts say, may shape the future of political Islam that is gaining ground in countries such as Egypt, Morocco and Libya.

"Whether it will be moderate Islam as appears the case in Tunisia and Turkey or another form is unclear," Mokhefi said. "But it's an inevitable, unstoppable march by Muslims, young and old, toward what they feel is a reappropriation of their identity."

Abderrahim is not a typical face of political Islam, or even Islam itself. Declining to wear a headscarf, she has emerged as a passionate and articulate defender of women's rights. …

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