Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Evangelical-Islamist Encounters, Part III: Democracy in Tunisia

Chris Seiple


October 19, 2012

By Chris Seiple

This is the third in a series of articles examining the political challenges facing the Middle East and North Africa.

The Arab Spring began in Tunisia, when a 26 year-old man, Mohamed Bouazizi, burned himself to death in December 2010 to protest the 23 year-old dictatorship there. Today Tunisia is ruled by a three-party coalition, which includes the National and Socialist parties, but is led by the Islamist Ennahdha party.  Ennahdha’s spiritual leader—Sheikh Rashid Ghannouchi, an “Islamist Mandela” who had returned in early 2011 from 20 years of exile in the United Kingdom—was one of the first Islamist thinkers to write that Islam and democracy are compatible. Tunisia has a vocal Salafi minority, and the country is now amidst the give-and-take of drafting a constitution that should be presented to parliament early next year. 

I have heard “Sheikh Rashid” speak twice in intimate settings. The first time, he told our gathering that future governance systems should not be oriented toward winning, but toward 51 percent compromises that enable governance. Notably, he also reminded Muslims that they had a common cause with the West in the fight against terrorism because the terrorists had killed more Muslims than non-Muslims.

Last month I witnessed him speak directly to the Salafis gathered from across the MENA region. Despite their theological and political differences, the Salafis were rapt, respectful of his jail time, wisdom and presence. Speaking without notes until midnight, Ghannouchi, an Islamist, told the Salafists:

• God created freedom, but evil tries to bind it; our scriptures show that the fight for freedom is always between the prophets and the rulers (consider Moses). Freedom allows for creativity.
• The U.S. is not monolithic and has the same presence of good and evil as everywhere else in the world.
• We are happy to meet the evangelical Christians who widen our knowledge of the world, and it brings me joy that you are sitting with Muslim groups…this meeting could not have taken place in Tunis just a couple of years ago because most of you would have been thrown in jail and tortured.
• Muslim political parties must talk about freedom, which for too long has been monopolized by secular groups…freedom allows religious groups to speak into all spheres of life.
• My advice to you: remember the awful experience of despotism. Enjoy freedom and hold onto it. Never let despotism return, and never be tempted by it.
• Don’t fear freedom. It is not the enemy of Islam. Islam prospers with freedom. Remember, Islam suffered the most under despotism, not freedom.
• The key to handling freedom is the capacity to manage conflict in a peaceful manner, without violence.

During the Q&A, one Salafist suggested this piece of wisdom: “It is better for Salafists to enter the political process slowly, or they might become a threat to the process.” 

The good news in all of this is that the Islamists and Salafists are competing for political power, mostly without violence. We should all pray that this model deepens and expands.

So what are the implications of this intra-Muslim dialogue for both American political parties as they consider policy in the region? After preaching against stereotypes, please allow me to indulge in two of them to illustrate a larger point. Democrats are allegedly good at perceiving nuance, but not so good at promoting U.S. values and interests in a clear and consistent manner. Leading from behind serves no one when soft power is too soft and not sufficiently intermixed with hard power. Republicans, however, are allegedly good at promoting interests and values, but struggle at perceiving the world as it is. Leading from the front serves no one when hard power is too hard and not sufficiently informed by soft power.

Obviously, these are general statements, but they are meant to demonstrate a simple point: It takes great wisdom and humility to apply the appropriate mix of soft and hard power to each situation.

I think that most Americans want this kind of leadership, right now, as they struggle with two interrelated questions. Most immediately: What can be done to prevent terrorism? Second, and clearly a part of the answer to the first: What can be done to influence and shape this Islamist-Salafi discussion toward respect for the rights of ethno and/or religious minorities and women? 

My answer to both of the questions is the same: We have to take the time to understand the actual situation, build relationships with the actors involved, and, over time, earn the right—and the respect—to speak into those relationships and, as a result, influence future situations. This isn’t rocket science; this is how to win friends and influence people. 

Meanwhile, another way to put it is to ask this question: To whom will terrorists likely listen most? An American constantly talking about all of our similarities with no understanding of the natural differences in values and interests, some of which are irreconcilable?  An American bellowing free speech from afar in cookie-cutter fashion? Or, a fellow Islamist, who already has a seat at the table, making the theological case for why freedom of conscience is consistent with Islam?

Here’s the bottom line: Perceiving without promoting—and promoting without perceiving—is to be irrelevant and idolatrous. One without the other is merely about us. We need political leadership that does both.

—Chris Seiple is the President of the Institute for Global Engagement.

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