Secular Neutrality and the Failed Political Experiment in Tunisia

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Recently Dr. Hatem al-Haj offered a perspective regarding how Muslims in Muslim-majority lands should approach the state. His argument is perhaps best summed up in the following paragraph that he wrote in a recent string of Facebook posts that have garnered a good deal of interest across different social media platforms:

“In our times, escaping from the downward spiral of discord and conflict requires an acceptance of a neutral system. The religious institutions should be liberated from the state and the state should be liberated from the control of any particular religious institution.”

Al-Haj’s appeal to secular neutrality as a way out of our current quagmire, on the surface, may seem reasonable enough for some Muslim observers. Upon reflection, I will contend in this brief article, it is quite problematic. Without engaging with some of the deeper problems that such an approach has from a purely Islamic theo-philosophical vantage point, there is a serious misunderstanding of the nature of neutrality and neutral systems on the part of al-Haj. He fails to account for the extent to which powerful actors will inevitably seek to challenge and control the processes that transpire in a so-called ‘neutral system.’ Even most liberals today—traditionally the modern flagbearers of political neutrality—have come to reject the idea of neutrality. Allen Patten (2012, p. 249), one of the few remaining liberals who still supports the idea—albeit in a substantially modified form—nonetheless admits that its support among liberals has been in steady decline:

“After a brief ascendancy in the 1970s and 1980s, the idea of liberal neutrality has fallen out of favor in recent years. A growing chorus of liberal writers has joined anti-liberal critics in arguing that there is something confused and misguided about the insistence that the state be neutral between rival conceptions of the good. Assuming we can even make sense of the idea of neutrality, these writers contend, it is a mistake to think that there is anything in liberal principles that commits the liberal state to neutrality. With a number of former neutralists softening their support for the idea, the rejection of neutrality is quickly becoming a consensus position, even amongst liberal political philosophers.”

Rather than some type of underlying Islamic discursive framework for resolving political disagreements and conflict, Al-Haj’s appeal to neutrality was an eyebrow-raising claim for many of his more traditional-minded followers. He recognized this himself and went on to defend his earlier thoughts in afollow-up post:

“This paragraph [the previous one quoted from al-Haj in this article] meant that a neutral process will be used for management of disagreement and conflict resolution, which is what politics is about. The process itself is ideologically blind and not prefixed in favor of a particular sect, institution, or group. It will then be fed by the religious, cultural, and intellectual milieu of the society to produce outcomes that reflect the values of those societies and enjoy compliance and acceptance. After all, a process is just a process; it does not dictate outcomes. You can fill a measuring cup with milk or wine. You can also, through mutual agreement, add ceilings to a process to suit your beliefs and values.”

This characterization of processes is well off the mark; a process is not just a process, tout court. Political processes never transpire ex nihilo. Processes are always driven by certain actors or sets of actors who have an ultimate end in mind that they wish to see the process result in. While a process may begin ‘ideologically blind’ it almost certainly will never end that way. In other words, the actors directing a process at some point will also aim to control the outcomes of that process, otherwise why even bother investing so much time and energy in creating the process in the first place? Perhaps the slow-moving coup of Kais Saied that is currently transpiring in Tunisia best illustrates this point.

In the bloody aftermath of the Arab Uprisings, Tunisia appeared to be the only directly affected country to successfully transition from autocracy to participatory democracy. While the immediate years following the overthrow of the Ben Ali regime were turbulent, nonetheless there seemed to be a general consensus that, overall, the new system—albeit flawed—was moving in the right direction. At minimum, basic democratic practices and individual rights were being upheld under the new constitution and everyone seemed to be getting a chance to participate. However, that all came to a screeching halt with Saied’s July 25, 2021 announcement that he was invoking Article 80 of the Tunisian constitution. Subsequently, he suspended parliament, waived parliamentary member immunity, and ordered the military to close parliament. In addition, Saied dismissed the independent Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi and jailed many other political rivals.

While all these extraordinary measures were supposed to be temporary, on August 24, 2021, Saied extended the suspension of parliament, in direct violation of the constitution, and on September 22, 2021, he declared his intent to rule by decree and ignore parts of the constitution that he did not agree with altogether. Saied’s grip over Tunisia has only gotten firmer over the past few months while Western responses to his slow-moving coup have been lukewarm at best. Over the last 7 months, no major world leaders have forcefully condemned Saied’s actions, and the tepid response from the Biden Administration and European Union to his power grab has created an opening for the usual suspects from the Arab axis-of-autocracy to meddle in Tunisia’s domestic affairs and offer support for the newest candidate looking to join their ignoble club. As recently as mid-February 2022, Saied was in Brussels hobnobbing with Egyptian dictator Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and EU elites such as the President of the European Parliament, Roberta Metsola, and the Spanish Prime Minister, Pedro Sánchez who, according to a February 19th report that appeared in the Middle East Monitor, was quoted as expressing his government’s “openness to everything that may develop bilateral economic and trade relations, and further encourage the Spanish companies to invest in Tunisia.” (MEMO, 2022, online). Such a comment seems to indicate that the major powers have come to accept the reality of Saied’s coup and are ready to work with him moving forward.

Saied’s strong-man move was clearly not only about breaking-up parliamentary gridlock and creating more functional institutions. From the outset, it was clear that the real target of Saied’s coup was the moderate, formerly Islamist Ennahda Party founded by Rachid al-Ghannouchi. Ennahda and Ghannouchi have been a thorn in Saied’s side since he took power in October 2019 and to this day remain his biggest long-term threat. While there are many moving parts and complexities within the ongoing drama of Tunisian politics, what is clear is that the so-called ‘neutral space’ that Tunisia’s secular democratic constitutional structure aimed to create was quickly filled by a power-hungry president, propped up by his even more powerful regional friends who have made it very clear that they will spare no expense in making sure that any vestiges of political Islam in the Arab world are destroyed. Saied has effectively laid out the blueprint for how future autocratic-minded Arab leaders of so-called neutral systems can neutralize Islamist Parties in a socially acceptable way.

While in power, Ennahda failed to really deliver anything of substance to the people of Tunisia whose standards of living were stagnating. This was due partially to their own mistakes, but even more so because of ‘neutral’ actors ganging up and doing everything they could to hold the party and their vision back. The lesson to be taken from all of this is that in our current world, one in which open Islamophobia is now rampant in countries that a couple of decades ago were seen as bastions of Islamic fundamentalism, it has become increasingly apparent that Islamic/Islamist parties will not be permitted to function in any meaningful way within Middle Eastern secular constitutionally driven political systems. Secular-minded parties and their leaders in fledgling states undoubtedly at some point, either through flattery or force, will fall prey to the ever-present temptation of lavish aid packages from places like Egypt and the UAE in return for geopolitical acquiescence and a commitment to rooting out political Islam.

Ghannouchi and Ennahda tried to play nice and now are paying the price. If Islamic political movements really want to succeed, they will need to control at least some of the key organs of the state, including the courts and military. Politics still is ultimately about power and influence; there is no shame in admitting this. Dialogue is good but has its limits. And sadly, Ghannouchi and his followers are finding out what those limits are right now on Saied’s terms. There is no reason to believe that an Islamic political party or politically engaged Muslims will ever be successful in any so-called neutral discursive space. When has this ever happened before? Neutral public space simply does not exist in the Muslim world (nor anywhere else for that matter), nor is there any reason to believe that it will anytime soon. Muslims who seek Islamic modes of governance and meaningful political participation need to make controlling the parameters of the discursive space a priority, which means crafting and controlling institutions that are Islamic in nature and giving priority to Islamic values. Otherwise, the story of Tunisia will play out over and over again, and the umma will only further be marginalized.

References

MEMO. (2022). Tunisia president: ‘Measures taken to save the country.’ Middle East Monitor, February 19. Available at: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20220219-tunisia-president-measures-taken-to-save-country/

Patten, A. (2012). Liberal neutrality: A reinterpretation and defense. The Journal of Political Philosophy, 20(3), pp. 249–272.

Joseph Kaminski
Joseph Kaminski
Joseph J. Kaminski is Research Associate and Symposium Coordinator at the Ummatics Institute. He received his PhD in Political Science from Purdue University in 2014 and currently is an Associate Professor affiliated with both the Political Science and International Relations Departments at the International University of Sarajevo in Bosnia and Herzegovina. His current research interests include, Religion and Politics, Comparative Political Theory, and New Approaches to Islamic Public Reason. He also is the author of The Contemporary Islamic Governed State: A Reconceptualization (Palgrave, 2017) and Islam, Liberalism, and Ontology: A Critical Re-evaluation (Routledge, 2021). A more complete list of his scholarly outputs can be found at: https://ir.ius.edu.ba/people/joseph-jon-kaminski