Don't Be Afraid of the Big Bad Tunisian Islamists

The final results of the elections for Tunisia’s constituent assembly were released last week, confirming moderate Islamist party Ennahda’s victory with roughly 40% of the council’s seats. While these results have been expected since the elections were held on October 23, the definitive numbers have been cause for concern amongst Western observers and liberal Tunisians alike.

These fears are hyperbolic and make the mistake of equating Ennahda with violent extremists and radical fundamentalists in other Middle Eastern countries, like the Muslim Brotherhood in 20th century Egypt and the Wahabbis in Saudi Arabia. Rather than succumbing to this alarmist view, a robust, supportive response by the U.S. in the form of bilateral cooperation with Tunisia will be a necessary first step in improving its image in the region and building strong relationships with new states.

An Islamist victory in Tunisia doesn’t necessarily represent a reactionary response to former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s nominally “secular” dictatorship, nor is it a step down a path of restricted civil rights and persecution for non-Muslims. “Moderate Islamism,” a term that some Tunisian secularists warn is a misnomer, has a goal very different from that practiced by the Salafis, for instance, who desire a return to the practices of the early Islamic community in the Arabian Peninsula. The sharia, in many interpretations, is less a code of law than a set of guiding principles for Muslims, and Ennahda has repeatedly stated that its interpretation of Islam in politics would be tolerant and serve to promote an open society.

The revolutions in Tunisia and elsewhere sent a clear signal that authoritarianism would no longer be tolerated; it is unlikely that the Tunisians’ first move will be to throw away the gains of the revolution and submit to authoritarianism with an Islamic flavor. Ennahda’s landslide victory was due in part to its Islamist identity, but this alone cannot explain its success. Rather, its platform of job creation, economic revival, and reducing inequality is what resonated with Tunisians from all backgrounds.

Failing to distinguish between a political party that identifies as Islamist and fundamentalist or extremist organizations operating outside the law would be a critical misstep for U.S. foreign policy and threaten to further alienate moderate Muslims in the region. The U.S. needs to be careful not to view the Islamist victory in Tunisia as a step towards radicalism in North African politics. Rather, Ennahda’s position in a multi-party democracy sets a positive example for other post-revolution Arab states.

Self-determining democracies with foreign policy views that may or may not align with America’s are understandably less comfortable and less predictable than the dictatorships that the U.S. had previously supported, but in order to break with that history, it has to show that it is open to cooperation with governments working to reduce corruption, rebuild economies, and promote human rights, even if they do so from an Islamic standpoint. Ennahda needs to be given the benefit of the doubt that it will follow through on its promise, supporting pluralism and religious freedom within an Islamic context.

Luckily, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s remarks last week were a step in the right direction, with her assertion that what parties call themselves “is less important to us than what they actually do” being especially applicable. Figures from outside of the Obama administration, most notably Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), have also been calling for closer economic and political ties between the U.S. and Tunisia, steps that would go beyond rhetoric and express to the Tunisians and to their neighbors that America stands behind democracy and reform more than it opposes political Islam.

The Arab public is understandably suspicious of American motives and skeptical of the United States’ support for the revolutions. It will be all too easy for hostile commentators to spin a cold reception of these results as either anti-Islam or anti-democracy in the Middle East. As long as elections continue to be free and fair, with neither the Islamists nor secularists attempting to monopolize the country’s politics, moderation and pluralism will prevail. American economic and political support will go a long way in strengthening these fledgling democracies and encouraging them to follow through on their commitment to transparency, justice, and a free and prosperous civil society.

Photo Credit: Magharebia