Political Islam in Tunisia the History of Ennahda

Political Islam in Tunisia the History of Ennahda
by Anne Wolf
(New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2017) 269 pp.

Reviewed by Salih Yasun, PhD student at the Department of Political Science at Indiana University

Anne Wolf’s “Political Islam in Tunisia” discusses the historical evolution of political Islam in Tunisia through an intersecting paradigm of domestic, historical, and regional factors, Islamic texts and precepts, and competition among different factions reflecting long-lasting debates on Islam, modernity and development. The book, while providing many unknown insights through a rigorous archival and field research, also brings a novel approach to understand domestic politics in Tunisia by presenting a competitive framework among different discourses on Islam based upon an institutional paradigm embedded in a structural framework. Structural factors shape the discourses on Islam, whereas institutions present critical junctures and path dependencies that enable political agencies to influence the structure.  

The non-exclusive and non-accountable institutions of the regime led to the initial rise of an organized Islamist movement among the youth in the 1960s. Islam embedded in conservative values not only provided an umbrella for bonding in a community increasingly alienated in a Westernized environment, but also a point of reference that promised solutions while other alternatives such as Arab Nationalism and socialism seemed to be in a downfall. The structural advantage of the movement was that its message based on justice and equality within a religious framework resonated with the masses frustrated with the shortcomings of the regime.

Factions representing different orientations rose to prominence at different time periods within the initially ideologically incoherent movement. A faction that emphasized a more activist and ideologically driven stance, boasted by the enthusiasm of Iranian revolution, rose to prominence in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The regime employed its sources at hand to oppress the movement and to monopolize the discourse on Islam by limiting its outright expressions in the public space and rejuvenating loyal religious institutions. The regime’s oppression was a critical juncture that initially limited discourses emphasizing a democratic approach to gain prominence within the movement. Some within the movement resorted to violent acts, which further intensified the regime crack down, forcing many members to exile as activities moved to underground in Tunisia.

The de-politicization of political Islam in Tunisia and the activities of the exile community had multiple unintended consequences. First was the rise of Salafism due to suppression of critical thinking, the increasing availability of Salafism materials from abroad and the persistence of inefficient governance. Second was the rise of a more democratic wing within Ennahda in exile, which managed to shift the agenda of the party to an emphasis of democracy and human rights and to reconcile with other activists. 


The regime, feeling more threatened by the rise of Salafism than Ennahda, suppressed the Salafist movement and relaxed its restrictions on Ennahda hoping that a controlled political framework could prevent some individuals from resorting to extremism while also blocking a direct challenge to its survival. This institutional choice further generated a path dependency as the Jasmine Revolution brought an external shock to the Tunisian political framework. Ennahda skillfully expanded on the limited space afforded by the regime to become the largest party in the 2011 Constituent Assembly Elections and made compromises in drafting the Constitution and transfer power peacefully. Meanwhile, the reach of Salafism expanded as the level of freedom increased whereas socio-economic conditions lacked a substantive level of improvement.  

The political agencies exerted some institutional power over how people approached the canonical sources of Islam. For instance, Ennahda leader Ghannouchi’s embracing of democracy and human rights through an Islamic framework contributed to the process of moderation within the movement (p: 98). However, the approach of the book based on a secular-religious demarcation remains limited in conceptualizing the institutional power of agencies. Some of Bourguiba’s reforms, such as the Code of Personal Status, which derive their sources from Islamic jurisprudence are presented as secular (p: 28-30). 


Similarly, the book refers to a dogmatic and a pragmatic wing within Ennahda to differentiate between different approaches to democracy (p:63, 138). Yet, those willing to reconcile often had their reasoning grounded in an Islamic framework, and some who were skeptical of reconciliation approached the issue in pragmatic terms (p139, 159). Detailing out the reasoning of agencies and the nature of their institutional power could have enabled the author to explain discourses more effectively.

The book compares Ennahda’s governing experience to the early success of AKP in Turkey and argues that the inability of Ennahda in producing a credible socio-economic program is due to its vague ideological doctrines (p: 165). Yet, AKP’s early success was due to its ideological weakness, which enabled the AKP to choose policy prescriptions in an unconstrained manner and follow through the IMF prescriptions of the predecessor regime. Similarly, the doctrinal weakness of Ennahda can enable it to develop strategies and craft policies independent of their applicability to Islamic resources. This can widen up the space for compromise and collaboration, which would help the government to develop more efficient policies and Tunisia to become a stable democracy.