This week, Tunisia's Jasmine Revolution became the first Arab Spring state to enter Phase Two of the revolutionary process, as Islamist Ennahda formed a government tasked with writing a constitution, ending cronyism, maintaining securit, and expanding the economy. Tall orders, especially demanding for a society transitioning from a dictatorship to ... to something else.
Sincerely linking democratic and Islamist seems implausible if not impossible to many people around the globe. They have good reasons: Iran's malign regime, Taliban Afghanistan, 9-11's massacre and a crime that should anger everyone who values free expression, the barbaric murder of artist Theo van Gogh in Holland.
However, the impossibility of Democratic Islamism (erect the capital letters, tentatively) is precisely what al-Qaida and other militant Islamist extremist organizations want the world to believe, especially the world's Muslims, whether they live in Pakistan, Holland or Paris, Texas. Militant extremists, including the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's Iranian brand, proclaim the only legitimate governments -- anywhere -- are those controlled by devout Muslims committed to a rigid interpretation of Islamic law and the enforcement of that interpretation. Iran holds elections, sham elections, but the mullahs and their Revolutionary Guards run a clerical dictatorship.
In the wake of their October election victory, Ennahda's leaders insistently assured Tunisian liberal democrats, religious minorities and leftists that they would not impose sharia law and clerical rule on Tunisia's secular society. May Tunis' bars sell beer and wine by the liters; the more bikinis on the Mediterranean beaches, the better. Tourism brings hard cash to Tunisia, and economic expansion (creating real jobs) was a central revolutionary demand. Moreover, Ennahda, which won a large plurality of seats in the Constituent Assembly, would lead a coalition government where members of the secular opposition held powerful cabinet positions.
Are Ennahda's leaders liars, with a Taliban Tunisia their stealth political objective? Or is their claimed commitment to the often fuzzy but infinitely more prosperous and just process called constitutional democracy real?
No one will know the answer with any certainty, including Ennahda's leaders, until we find out if Ennahda can lose an election and peacefully cede ruling power to a secular party. That moment is likely four or five years in the future.
Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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