National Press Club

Islam scholar advocates merging Islamic values with democracy for success in Tunisia

March 20, 2012 | By Lorna Aldrich |

Tunisia represents the best hope for a successful transition to democracy in the Arab world, provided it succeeds in merging secular democracy with Islamic values, according to Radwan Masmoudi, president and founder of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy. He spoke at a March 20 Newsmaker.

Although free elections in October, 2011, produced a coalition government headed by the moderate Islamic party An-Nahdha, Masmoudi said he worries that an increase in activity by radical Islamic groups could hinder progress.

He expressed concern over an increase in radical Islamic, Salafist, activities in Tunisia, which he claimed are financed from outside the country, largely from Gulf countries. Religious Tunisians returning from exile in the Gulf countries intensify the trend, he said. The simple message of following and believing in God appeals to youth because discussion of religion had been proscribed for the 23 years before the revolution, he said.

He took issue with an article in The Washington Post ( that he believes wrongly implied Tunisia suppressed press freedom. The Post reported actions against a movie that showed a cartoon figure of God and a newspaper picture of a partially nude woman.

Making freedom of expression the absolute top priority for secular forces would alienate them from the majority, he said.

“If we want democracy to succeed and be accepted by the majority of the people in the Arab World, we must detach it from an ‘anything goes’ paradigm, in which pornography, nudity prostitution and other such things fall under the umbrella of freedom of speech or freedom of the press,” he said.

Tunisia’s economic situation exacerbates the issue because the very youth who instigated the revolution face widespread unemployment, he added. He estimated an unemployment rate of 20 to 25 percent. The country's tourist industry, second only to agriculture in importance, has “suffered a big hit” since the revolution, he said. He said that 400,000 Tunisians work in tourism, a large number for a country of 10 million people. Strikes and sit-ins have closed factories temporarily and further hindered the economy, he said.

Another challenge facing the country is the continuation of people favoring the previous regime in administration, the media and the judicial system, Masmoudi said. He cited the example of prosecutors placing 460 businesspeople on a no-fly list, which he said the government would like to reduce to 50 to 100 people. The prosecutors claim the independence of the judiciary is being challenged, he said.

He listed several reasons for hope about Tunisia: a small, highly educated and homogenous country; entrenched women’s rights and equality for the past 60 years; a strong and diverse economy; a developed infrastructure; low poverty and illiteracy rates; and moderate Islam mixed with a moderately secular government.

Masmoudi expressed frustration that the United States would spend so much money in Iraq and Afghanistan, yet withhold the $5 billion dollars a year for four or five years that he says Tunisia “desperately needs.”

His final words were, “Please help Tunisia.”