Thursday, November 17, 2011

Nahda's Caliphate Concept

This dispute over whether Tunisia's Nahda party has a secret radical agenda briefly revealed in a leader's comment about a caliphate is all about nothing:
"Talks on forming a coalition government halted briefly this week after a secular party questioned the motives of its moderate Islamist partner amid intense jockeying for power.

"The trouble began when Le Maghreb, a Tunisian newspaper, reported that Hamadi Jebali, secretary general of the Islamist Ennahda party and pick for interim prime minister, had likened post-Ben Ali Tunisia to a new caliphate.

"The secularist Ettakatol promptly suspended talks on forming a government, sending Ennahda scrambling to reassure its partners and public opinion of its commitment to democracy...

"'Mr Jebali was talking to Islamists in the audience, people who think about the caliphate,' said Said Ferjani, a member of Ennahda's political bureau. 'Mr Jebali said that if they want a caliphate, it's what's happening now: democracy.'

"Ettakatol has accepted that explanation and agreed to restart talks, said Abdellatif Abid, a co-founder of the party and member of its political bureau."

The caliphate is actually a Qur'anic concept according to which humans are the regents of God on Earth, and probably did not become a title for an individual ruler until the Umayyad dynasty. In modern Islamist thought, the definition has gained new salience in calling believers to take upon themselves the task of setting the world to right. This is such a common usage that, particularly during a semester in which I'm teaching a course called "Islam and Politics in the Modern Middle East," I thought of it immediately when I heard of the controversy, and therefore certainly believe Nahda's explanation. That does not mean, however, that Arabs who are suspicious of public religious movements, and there are many among Tunisians who came of age under Habib Bourguiba, would immediately recognize that just because they're Muslims. A comparison in American politics would be when a conservative Christian candidate speaks of God "calling" them to do something, and more secular people believe they think God is really talking to them.

(Crossposted to American Footprints)



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