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Ḥizb al-Nahḍah

By:
Susan Waltz, Joseph A. Kéchichian
Source:
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

Ḥizb al-Nahḍah

Formerly called al-Ittijāh al-Islāmī (Mouvement de la Tendance Islamique, abbreviated MTI), the political movement that adopted the name Ḥarakat al-Nahḍah (Renaissance Movement) in 1988 was the banned representative group of Islamist thought and political expression in contemporary Tunisia. The movement 's relations with the government of President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali was contentious, but it has survived successive waves of repression. In the aftermath of the Jasmine Revolution that toppled the Ben Ali regime, the interim government in Tunis granted the group permission to reconstitute a legal political party, Ḥizb al-Nahḍah, on 1 March 2011.

The contemporary Islamist movement traced its roots to the Qurʿānic Preservation Society (QPS), a cultural association founded in 1970 in reaction to modernist reforms promulgated in the 1960s, and to the Pakistan-based Daʿwah (The Call), which spread across the Maghrib in the early 1970s, “calling” Muslims to return to the faith. Out of this group emerged a nexus of activists who were satisfied with neither the cultural critique of the QPS nor the more personal approach of the Daʿwah, but who focused rather on the role of Islam in society and openly preached reform (tajdīd). As these sentiments sorted themselves out in the 1970s, young men with beards and women in the chador-like ḥijāb (veil) became a common sight in Tunis and other cities. By 1979, one group identifying itself as “progressive Islamists” and concentrating on the renewal of Islamic thought (ijtihād) had split off to pursue essentially intellectual matters. The energies of those who sought political action coalesced around Rashid Ghannūshī (Rāshid al-Ghannūshī) and Abdelfatah Mourou. Ghannūshī, who studied in Damascus between 1964 and 1968, returned to Tunis in 1970 after a year in France. Along with Shadiq Shourou, a jurist who was a fellow student at the Zaytunāh University in Tunis, Ghannūshī announced the formation of the MTI at a press conference in 1981, where they called for the reconstruction of economic life on a more equitable basis, the end of single-party politics, and a return to the “fundamental principles of Islam” through a purging of what was viewed as well-entrenched “social decadence.” Furthermore, MTI representatives announced that they were seeking recognition as a political party according to guidelines established by the government in the preceding autumn. That request was denied, and less than two months later most of the MTI 's leaders were imprisoned. Al-Ghannūshī and several of his followers were sentenced to eleven years in prison in Bizerte

Despite this repression—or perhaps because of it—the MTI survived and even gained strength in the early 1980s. It found allies in other Tunisian opposition forces, including the Movement of Democratic Socialists and the new Tunisian League of Human Rights, and its discourse took on egalitarian and republican overtones. Under pressure, the Tunisian government released MTI leaders in 1984, but its basic stance remained unchanged. The MTI 's second bid for legal recognition was rejected in 1985, and, in a symbolic gesture, the government outlawed the ḥijāb in state-run institutions. As the MTI 's condemnatory rhetoric once again gathered steam, Tunish intensified its efforts in the spring of 1987 to eradicate the movement, arresting more than three thousand of its alleged supporters. The party 's leaders were tried en masse before the State Security Court in August for ill-defined capital crimes, and several were sentenced to death in absentia. Ghannūshī was sentenced to a life term, but was released a year later.

The specter of politically motivated executions and uncontrollable social responses created a backdrop for the coup instigated by Prime Minister Zine el Abidine Ben Ali a few months later. Islamists were the primary beneficiaries of the liberalizing policies introduced by the new regime. As prisons were emptied, a multiparty system embraced, and the franchise restored to those who had previously been imprisoned, an atmosphere of détente raised hopes among Islamists that they would be allowed to participate in the political system. To comply with new rules prohibiting parties from capitalizing on religious sentiments, the MTI changed its name.

The renamed Ḥarakat al-Nahḍah reached a turning point in relations with the new regime in April 1989. Without legal recognition, Islamists were prevented from participating openly in Tunisia 's first contested legislative elections, but the independent slates they fielded nevertheless garnered 14 percent of the popular vote (30 percent in certain Tunis suburbs) and sent shock waves through the government. Al-Nahḍah 's pending request for recognition was denied, educational reforms aimed at curtailing Islamist influence were implemented, and the movement 's remaining leaders in Tunisia were taken in for questioning. Tensions were exacerbated by the war for Kuwait, which aggravated anti-Western sentiments, and the growing influence of the Islamists in neighboring Algeria. The death of one Islamist student, shot by government militia during a demonstration, sparked protests that inspired a new wave of arrests and further restrictions. Ghannūshī went into self-exile in London. An assault allegedly by Islamists on an office of the ruling Democratic Constitutional Rally (RCD) in February 1991, which killed one guard and injured another, heightened the political confrontation. Al-Nahḍah 's formal responsibility for that attack was never made clear, but together with the discovery in subsequent months of two alleged plots to overthrow the government, the event fueled a campaign of repression that resulted in more than eight thousand arrests. In 1992, 279 al-Naḥdah members were tried before military tribunals; leaders in the government 's custody were sentenced to life in prison.

It is unclear how much al-Nahḍah was affected by the far-reaching efforts to stifle it under Ben Ali. To be sure, its leadership changed, and Rashid Ghannūshī was still formally recognized as the head of al-Nahḍah in 1993. Shourou formally dissociated himself from the unauthorized party in 1991 following the attack on the RCD office. A new cadre of leaders emerged, and the government claimed to have uncovered a covert military wing. Meanwhile, Al Fajr, the al-Nahḍah publication that was to have illuminated its thought, was silenced.

Concerted pressures in the early 1990s made al-Nahḍah less visible; in particular, many young women ceased to wear the symbolic ḥijāb. There has been evidence all the same that the Islamist movement continued to enjoy popular support—perhaps more than ever in the wake of disappointment with the Ben Ali government. A membership once described as young and chiefly comprised of students has now aged, without obvious attrition. Students, particularly those in religious and technical institutes, continue to supply recruits, but the Islamist message of social and political resistance and reform resonated in the humanities and social sciences as well. The movement held particular appeal for sectors of society that felt relatively disenfranchised by the modernist regime, and economic pressures in recent years have only increased those sentiments. Parents and others of an older generation were now commonly identified as sympathizers, and the movement was largely supported from abroad by a broad network of Tunisian students. It remained the most significant opposition group in contemporary Tunisia until early 2011.

After Ben Ali was ousted, Ghannūshī returned to Tunisia on 30 January 2011. Rapidly unfolding political developments in the North African country meant that the party was coerced by die-hard supporters to “quickly carve out a place” in the Tunisian political scene by “taking part in demonstrations and meeting with the prime minister.” Still, progress was slow because Ghannūshī’s network was no longer credible and, equally important, because Tunisians were no longer willing to simply follow. Many were impatient with promises made by both opposition and official representatives. Others, especially women, were not ready to surrender significant social gains made during the Ben Ali years. Although al-Nahḍah was legalized on 1 March 2011, and ranked first in polls conducted at that time, its overall popularity stood at less than 30 percent, with the Progressive Democratic Party at 12.3 percent

See also GHANNūSHī, RāSHID AL-; TUNISIA.

Bibliography

  • Centre National de Recherches Scientifiques. Annuaire de l ’Afrique du Nord, 1979.Paris, 1981. Yearbook devoted to the special topic of Islam in the Maghrib, containing several articles on Tunisia.
  • Esposito, John L., and John O. Voll. Makers of Contemporary Islam.New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
  • Perkins, Kenneth J.. A History of Modern Tunisia.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
  • Tamimi, Azzam S.Rachid Ghannouchi: A Democrat Within Islamism.New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
  • Waltz, Susan. “Tunisia: The Fate of An Nahda and Ghannouchi.”APS Diplomat Redrawing the Islamic Map. 21 May 2001.
  • Waltz, Susan. “Islamist Appeal in Tunisia.”Middle East Journal40 (Autumn 1986): 651–670.
  • Zartman, I. William, ed.Tunisia: The Political Economy of Reform.Boulder, 1991. Contains several insightful articles on Islam in Tunisia.
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