Islamic scholars advocate for Tunisian democracy

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Photo by Rachel Siegel.

On Tuesday afternoon, two Islamic scholars arrived on campus to discuss recent historical developments in Tunisia and the Arab world, focusing on the possibility of democracy in coexistence with Islam.

Abdelfattah Mourou, the vice president and co-founder of the Ennahda party in Tunisia, began the talk by drawing parallels from Tunisia’s history to its present circumstances. Alongside Radwan Masmoudi, president of the Washington, D.C.-based non-profit Center of Islam and Democracy, Mourou spoke to roughly 20 audience members about whether or not political democracy and the Islamic religion can co-exist within the government of a nation.

“The preponderate majority of answers implied towards the position assert that democracy and Islam are incompatible,” Mourou said. “However, the judicial and legal texts of Islam confirm that they can co-exist effectively.”

Mourou said that Tunisia, as one of the first nations to free slaves, has always been a country at the forefront of change. In the 1970s, for example, Tunisian youth participated in civil activism and eventually established a new discourse in the country that was progressive yet rooted in ancient Islamic principles. He added that Tunisia currently stands by its progressive stance and strives to create a stable democratic Islamic nation — but he cautioned that the road will be a hard one to travel.

Mourou asserted that the Islamic ideals of personal belief and society correspond with the principles of democracy. However, he reminded his audience that the Arab world is currently going through an intense amount of hardship, and stabilizing a democratic government in Tunisia will take time.

“There is no birth without pain, and the birth of a new nation and community as a whole will take a lot of sacrifice,” he said. “Nations that are triumphant are those that are most enduring and steadfast.”

Masmoudi, the second scholar, agreed with Mourou’s assessment that time is a necessity for progress in the Arab world.

Building a democratic system will not be fast, Masmoudi warned, adding that it will take maybe 10 to 20 years and people must be patient. New governments often make mistakes because they are starting from scratch, he said, since oftentimes the only people with government experience are the very dictators that new governments fought against to overthrow.

Masmoudi explained that it is easier to get rid of a dictator than to create a democracy. But he emphasized that he believes Tunisia’s small and homogenous population, strong infrastructure, protected women’s rights, educated middle class and strong constitution will enable the country to establish a stable Islamic government and thrive in the future.

“Democracy is not an option, it is a necessity,” Masmoudi reminded the audience. “What happens now defines what will happen in the next 50 years.”

After Mourou and Masmoudi’s final words, audience members at the talk described the discussion as lively and uplifting.

Abrar Omeish ’17 said she felt truly inspired.

“As an American born and raised here, the idea of Islam and politics was always questioned [to me], and I began to doubt whether the integration would work,” Omeish said. “But after hearing their speeches, I believe it can and will be possible.”

The talk, which took place at 3:30 p.m. on Tuesday, was sponsored by the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, the Yale Council on African Studies and the Council on Middle Eastern Studies.

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