Harvard University professor Malika Zeghal discussed the changing fortunes of Islamist political parties in Tunisia and other Middle Eastern countries in her lecture "Islamist Movements and Parties in the Process" at Smith this Monday.
Known collectively as the "Arab Spring," a series of democratic revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East have empowered populist Islamist parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and al-Nahdha in Tunisia. Zeghal'slecture, based on interviews with Tunisian political leaders, explored the identity of al-Nahdha, before and after their success in Tunisia's 2011 revolution and open elections.
"The revolution is in many ways opening up the political arena to [al-Nahdha]," Zeghal said. "[It is] a confident, pragmatic player in the political game. It has a strong presence on the ground."
In the March 2011 elections, al-Nahdha received a clear plurality of 89 seats in Tunisia's 217-seat legislature. At 41 percent, it is the largest share of any party.
While secularists have expressed concern that al-Nahdha and other Islamic groups' ascendancy will represent a return to Shariah law and threaten secular reform in issues such as women's rights, other political scientists predict that increased participation in politics will reduce the religious or radical character of Islamic political groups, a theory of moderation through political inclusion.
In Zeghal's view, "the process of moderation remains difficult to evaluate." Instead of moderation through political inclusion, she believes al-Nahdha exemplifies moderation through political exclusion. When the ruling government suppressed the party throughout the '80s and '90s, action against authoritarianism pushed al-Nahdha to become more democratic.
While the Islamist al-Nahdha party was suppressed by the ruling secular government before 2011, Zeghal contended that Islam has always been an important part of Tunisia's government.
"It is important to underline that the Islamist project was de facto integrated into state policies," Zeghal said. "The Islamist project has always been part of the debate taking place in post-colonial times."
According to Zeghal, al-Nahdha insists on defending family values and social policy in coordination with a free-market economy. They see secularism as tied to authoritarianism and repression of religion.
"The separation of religion and politics is not acceptable for Islamists," Zeghal said. Instead, they adopt a model of the state as a central institution that regulates and guarantees Islam.
Although Tunisia is known as a fairly secular country, the constitution decrees Islam the state religion. Zeghal said the question of what it means to have a state religion is at the heart of any possible changes in Tunisia.
"The difference can appear very minute between the Islamic state and Islam as the religion of the state, but I think it translates very well the difference between Islamists and secularists," she said.
Zeghal interviewed new political leaders who downplayed the role of the "Islamic state." One interviewee said it was a symbolic gesture meant to appease fundamentalists, while another representative described it as "only a matter of identity, no less, no more."
Accodring to Zeghal, al-Nahdha's history of suppression has given its leaders a paradoxical, contradictory understanding of the relationship between religion and the state.
"On the one hand, they want to liberate religion from the authoritarian state's grip, and at the same time preserve Islam as the religion of the state," she said.
In Tunisia, Zeghal sees a desire to return religion to the public sphere and a new freedom to debate religious questions in public.
"Tunisian intellectuals on both sides are now free to think," she said. "Ideologically and intellectually, I think there will be a proliferation of narratives in the near future."
Zeghal is the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Professor in Contemporary Islamic Thought and Life at Harvard University. Monday's lecture was sponsored by the Betty Hamady Sams '57 and James F. Sams Fund and the Middle East Studies Program.