Colonialism, nationalism, secularization

From the criticism al-GhannushT directs at the secularization process, we can appreciate how far apart his conception of democracy stands from Western forms of democratic government. In a complex study devoted to the problem of secularization, al-GhannushT analyses this process from a historical perspective, highlighting all its ambivalences in relation to colonial domination and the postcolonial governments and Islamic resistance movements that came in its wake.

The colonial powers that ruled over the countries of the Maghreb introduced in these countries modernization measures informed by an explicit aim to undermine the values and traditional institutions of Muslim society. While the ummah, the Muslim society established more than fourteen centuries earlier, was based on a principle of liberty and voluntary cooperation and was governed by a nonrepressive authority, the colonizers attempted to suppress the values of compassion, brotherhood, and cooperation so as to promote a materialistic and individualistic outlook.

In fact, as al-GhannushT argues, the governments that took power in the newly independent states in the postcolonial period maintained a continuity with the earlier forms of colonial power: “Secular elites in these societies, who claim to be the missionaries of modernity, have inherited the role of the colonialists and have inherited their thoughts as well as their means and methods of dealing with the masses which they view as primitive and backward” (GhannushT 2000, 99). The indictment that al-GhannushT levels at the postcolonial governments contains some damning language, claiming that the “modernization” pursued by these governments consisted in an effort to “nationalize” society by imposing a “national identity” on other identities, such as Arabism or Islam, and by attempting to reshape popular mentality in the mould of so-called modern life.


As Hans Kelsen (1955,38) made this point: “To legislate, and that means to determine the contents of a social order, not according to what objectively is the best for the individuals subject to this order, but according to what these individuals, or their majority, rightly or wrongly believe to be their best—this consequence of the democratic principles of freedom and equality is justifiable only if there is no absolute answer to the question as to what is the best, if there is no such a thing as an absolute good.”

But this aim could only be pursued through the repressive machinery of the state, which authoritatively asserted itself in society, violating civil liberties, controlling the educational system, and impressing itself onto social institutions and religion. But is it “the West,” GhannushT (2000, 100) argues, that “bears moral responsibility for creating and maintaining undemocratic secularist regimes in North Africa in the name of promoting modernity. One wonders,” therefore, “whether the West should pride itself on having accomplished a modernity that has ended in police states whose regimes legitimise repression in the name of democracy and human rights and in the name of defending civil society against an alleged ''obscurant fundamentalist onslaught.’” In reaction against these autocracies, which al-Ghannushl considers to be expressions of a pseudosecularism or “pseudo-modernity, Islamists today seek genuine modernity, one that emanates from within, one that is in response to local needs and that is in conformity with the local culture and value system” (ibid.). With regard to the Tunisian reality and the Tunisian regime, “the most radically secularist in the region” (ibid., 98), he writes: “We, the Tunisian Islamists, value human dignity and civil liberties, accept that the popular will is the source of political legitimacy and believe in pluralism and in the alternation of power through free elections” (ibid., 100). In these considerations, which lay bare the responsibility of the West and the illegitimacy of the Arab world’s autocratic regimes, we can find some of the deep sentiments that have sparked the Arab Springs.

In his closing remarks, al-Ghannushl reveals all the complexity of Islamic reformism in its uneasy relationship to the idea of democracy. For on the one hand he highlights the achievements of the secularization process, noting that

secularism in the West has succeeded [...] in awakening the Western mind from its theocratic slumber [...]. man’s inalienable rights to life, to freedom freedom of expression and to participate in administering public affairs were recognized. The sovereignty of the people was recognized, and [...] peaceful alternation of power was accomplished. For the first time too, a constitutional framework to inhibit despotism [...] was formulated and this state power was restricted by the rule of law. (Ibid., 122-23)

But on the other hand, “secularism is self-contradictory” (ibid., 122), for in the process of transitioning towards a secular polity, the human being has lost sight of the values of altruism and humanity and has been reduced to an assemblage of material needs. Even so, he argues,

until an Islamic shura (consensual) system of government is established, the second best alternative for Muslims is a secular democratic regime which fulfils the category of the rule of reason, according to Ibn Khaldun. Under such a system of governance, it is agreed to respect the fundamental rights of all people without discrimination and without commitment to a religious frame of reference. [...] A democratic secular system of government is less evil than a despotic system of government that claims to be Islamic. (Ibid., 123)

In short, from the standpoint of al-GhannushT’s Islamic reformism, the Western form of democratic government can only be a stepping stone on the way to an Islamic form of government. This is the path that Tunisia embarked on when the Arab Spring led to the downfall of Ben Ali’s autocratic regime, for in the aftermath of this event, the al-Nahda (or Arab Renaissance) movement endorsed democratic procedures only as a means of forming a government whose goal was to Islamize Tunisian society.

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