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Moderate Islam: en-Nahda


Social sciences institute ‘Nicolò Rezzara’ of Vicenza, in co-operation with University of Palermo, organised the “Second Mediterranan Dialogue – religion, pluralism and democracy: the expectations of the Mediterranean youths“. Speakers of different religious background, from a number of Arab countries, attended the event.

In Rome, I met Imen Ben Mohamed, a young MP from Tunisia, who spent most of her life – including her university studies – in Italy. Imen is one of Mohamed Mohamed daughters. Mohamed, who belongs to en-Nahda, was forced to flee in 1991, because of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali‘s regime hostility towards the movement. He reached Italy in 1996 as a political refugee. In 1999, he reunited with his family. At the time, Imen was 14. In Rome, she studied International Co-operation for Economic Development at University of Rome Tor Vergata. Imen has always been very active from a social and political point of view. In Italy, she worked on identity and integration issues and co-operated with the ‘Young Italian Muslim‘ society. As many of her relatives, she is involved with en-Nahda from a young age.

En-Nahda is a moderate Islamic party born in 1981 and banned from Tunisia’s politics in 1989. That year, its associates ran for election as independents and gathered  10 to 17 percent of the vote. In 1991, President Ben Ali declared the movement illegal and arrested some 25,000 activists. Many other were forced into exile.

En-Nahda became an opposition party when Bourguiba made the Presidency an office for life. It’s always been a well-structured and organised party. Its success at the 1989 election suggested the regime that it was a troublesome presence. That’s why Ben Ali was so resolute in banning it. In exile, too, en-Nahda kept its structure and organisation. It was largely thanks to the activities of women who managed to keep political links standing.

Imen didn’t return to Tunisia for many years. She visited her country only in 2008,

Thankfully, I didn’t encounter particular difficulties. Sure, when I arrived they questioned me. However, my sister Fatima went through many more obstacles when she came the year before.

The Tunisian Spring, the Jasmine Revolution, started in December 2010. Imen was able to participate through social media, like many Tunisians living abroad. On January 14, 2011, Ben Ali’s regime fell. In March 2011, en-Nahda was legalised and returned to legitimate political life, as did its leader, Rashid al-Ghannushi. Imen ran for en-Nahda primary election and, once she obtained the candidature, she ran for one of the three Italian seats available for the Constitutional Assembly (2011). En-Nahda obtained two of those three seats. One went to Imen. Again, in 2014, she won the primary election and obtained a seat in the Parliament.

We have a seat available every 60,000 Tunisian citizens residing abroad. France has two districts, north and south. Each one has five seats. Italy has three and Germany one. Two more seats are reserved for the rest of Europe and America. Two go to the Arab countries. In total, it’s 18 seats.

Eighty-nine out of the 217 members of the Constitutional Assembly belonged to en-Nahda. The movement allied with the secularists.

There’s plenty of room for a productive dialogue between secularists and Islamic movements, in Tunisia. This is largely thanks to the moderate religious interpretation of Zaytuna’s scholars [Zaytuna is the main Islamic studies centre in Tunisia]. For example, our Personal Status Code is the most advanced among the Arab-Muslim countries. Furthermore, there’s a consensus around something important and sensitive as freedom of religion and belief.

Imen stressed that social cohesion and national unity were paramount in Tunisia.

I think we need to discriminate between the Maghreb and the Levant. The Levant is characterised by great pluralism and diversity. This is a richness. Identity is built on several layers: national, religious, sectarian, ethnic. Sometimes, these layers are exploited for the worse. This creates potential conflicts like those in Iraq, Yemen or Syria. The Maghreb is more homogeneous – Maliki Sunni Islam prevails. Even though we have different identity layers (Arab and Berber, Muslim and Jew), too, they are complementary. A Tunisian is first and foremost a Tunisian. […] The Mediterranean Sea is a crossroads of different cultures and religions, and it’s the birthplace of the three great monotheistic religions. It’s a region of great diversity. However, today the Mediterranean is an area of conflict,

said Imen. She talked about religion as a contribution or an obstacle to democracy during the debate held at the University of Palermo.

We had a long chat and she told me about the role and the feelings of the young people who participated in the Tunisian Revolution. They were the greatest boosters of the Tunisian Spring.

Young people dreamt of democracy, of economic welfare, of political participation… It’s thanks to these young people if the revolution happened.

However, many young people were excluded from political participation and their economic situation didn’t improve. Youth unemployment is very high. Political, economic and social marginalisation led to the radicalisation of some. That is how the high number of Tunisian foreign fighters is best explained. Imen said there are 3,000 but estimates vary.

They are attracted by a strong ideological message. However, they are also allured by economic advantage. Let’s not forget how much money gravitates around ISIS!

Imen continued,

I wouldn’t go as far as saying that the Tunisian revolution betrayed those young people. That’s not fair. However, it disappointed them. They wanted an economic change, an immediate improvement in their conditions. Things don’t change that fast, though. There’s still a lot of work to do. My Party’s priorities are economic development and security. They depend on each other. In Tunisia, we went through a political transition. Democracy is extremely fragile and can’t survive without an economic transition. This is what we need and this is why we ask Europe to help us out.

Imen represents a generation of young Muslim for whom inter-religious and inter-cultural dialogue is daily routine. A well-educated generation that knows first-hand the inner-workings of integration between northern and southern shores of the Mediterranean and those of pluralism and diversity. She represents moderate Islam and its capacity of opening space to democracy, including – that’s self-evident – women’s participation to public life. She showed me the great potential of the Tunisian experience, also as a bridge between north and south of the Mediterranean. However, she never concealed the objective difficulties of a project in fieri, and the danger of the Tunisian dream crumbling on itself.

The original version of this article was published in Italian on L’Indro on October 21, 2015


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