Why Ennahda, Tunisia’s Islamist Party, Shed Its “Political Islam” Label

Why Ennahda, Tunisia’s Islamist Party, Shed Its “Political Islam” Label
Supporters of the Islamist party Ennahda during a rally in Tunis, Tunisia, Feb. 16, 2013 (AP photo by Amine Landouls).

On Thursday, Rachid Ghannouchi, the founder of Tunisia’s Ennahda, told the French newspaper Le Monde that his party—long defined and projected as Islamist—would be “leaving political Islam behind.” Rather than Islamists, Ghannouchi says, Ennahda is a party of “Muslim Democrats,” echoing a paper that a party legislator recently published for the Brookings Institution.

The move requires some clarification: Ennahda is not stripping Islam from its identity. Rather, the group will formally delineate between its political and religious activities. Its leadership will focus exclusively on politics and technocratic issues, whereas its other members will remain free to engage in the civic and religious spheres.

Ennahda’s emergence on Tunisia’s political scene in 2011 marked a turning point for the group and for Tunisian politics. Ennahda had been banned under former dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali; many of its members were tortured or exiled, deemed a threat to Ben Ali’s steadfastly secular regime. In October 2011, nine months after Ben Ali’s ouster, the Islamist party won a plurality of seats in the National Constituent Assembly, which was tasked with drafting a new constitution.

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