Alcohol, Bikinis, Secularism, and Islam: Welcome to Tunisian Democracy

A TV debate between the leader of Tunisia's Islamist party and a Saudi Salafi scholar reveal some encouraging signs for the Arab Spring's first democracy

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Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of the Islamist Ennahda movement / Reuters

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Westerners often struggle to understand what is going on inside Islamist groups--newspaper headlines do not always tell the full story. There is an enlightened, mature, and global conversation happening among Islamist movements. The acceptance of wearing bikinis on beaches or the commitment to permitting alcohol in Tunisia, which many view as bellwether issues in Islamist thinking, is an outcome of that debate.

In a recent television exchange between Rachid Ghannouchi, Tunisian leader of the Ennahda party, and Saudi Arabia's leading Salafi scholar, Salman al-Awdah, we witnessed encouraging intellectual pronouncements that bode well for the Arab uprisings.

Was allowing the wearing of bikinis and the drinking of alcohol a compromise? Did this not defy the sharia? How can Ennahda claim to be modeled on Islamic values?

In response to such questions, Shaikh Salman provided jurisprudential support for Ennahda's stance. He explained how state enforcement of such rules creates oppression and difficulty, but considering what "society can bear" helps gradually introduce Islam to society.

This emphasis on "gradualism," or tadarruj,  has been the mainstay of the Muslim Brotherhood's strategy. For pessimists, this smacks of "creeping shariah." But the reality on the ground is more complex.

When leading Salafis provide Ghannouchi and others with scriptural cover for their liberal advances, we should welcome it. It tells us that aspects of Salafism and Islamism are not frozen in time, but are increasingly in flux. Islamists are responding to pressure from liberals, secularists, and the West--this pressure must continue as moderation progresses. Mockery and suspicion will not help. Constant dialogue, engagement, encouragement, and incentive will.

Traditionally, secularism has had a negative connotation in the Arab world, and particularly among Islamists. Who can blame them? It was the secular governments of Assad, Mubarak, and Ben Ali who imprisoned and tortured Islamists and produced jihadi ideologues in Egypt's prisons. But again, Islamists are surprising us. Ghannouchi, in this interview, spoke critically of the French model of secularism, but rightly distinguished it from the American, British, and German approaches to a secular state, which are far more accommodating of religion. Turkey's Islamist leader, Erdogan, has gone even further and praised secularism as a guarantor for religious freedom.

Amid such encouraging news, there are three problems looming:

First, will this work-in-progress continue in Tunisia in Ghannouchi's absence? How much of this development is linked to his intellectual weight and achievements? Will the right-wing of Islamist movements outmaneuver this emerging, sensible center ground?

The Democracy ReportSecond, while we are seeing relative progress in the quality of intellectual debate in Tunisia, and among Shaikh Salman's vast following in Saudi Arabia, we have not seen anything similar in Egypt. In fact, there's been no shortage of signs of extremism from Egypt's Salafists. Unless similar discussions and advance occur publicly in Egypt, the most populous Arab country, then liberal thinking may end up on the fringes of the Arab world.

Third, in a word: Israel. Islamists cannot claim enlightenment and moderation while committed to annihilation of their Jewish neighbor. Yes, criticize many of Israel's flawed policies (deservedly), but extend to it legitimacy as a Middle East state. Without this, we risk conflagration of regional conflict where moderates can fast become extreme.

This article originally appeared at, an Atlantic partner site.