Islamists’ Ideas on Democracy and Faith Face Test in Tunisia

Twenty-two years later, when Mr. Ferjani returned home, he understood the task at hand: building a democracy, led by Islamists, that would be a model for the Arab world.

“This is our test,” he said.

If the revolts that swept the Middle East a year ago were the coming of age of youths determined to imagine another future for the Arab world, the aftermath that has brought elections in Egypt and Tunisia and the prospect of decisive Islamist influence in Morocco, Libya and, perhaps, Syria is the moment of another, older generation.

No one knows how one of the most critical chapters in the history of the modern Arab world will end, as the region pivots from a movement against dictatorship toward a movement for something that is proving far more ambiguous. But the generation embodied by Mr. Ferjani, shaped by jail, exile and repression and bound by faith and alliances years in the making, will have the greatest say in determining what emerges.

Their ascent to the forefront of Arab politics charts the lingering intellectual and organizational prowess of the Muslim Brotherhood, a revivalist movement founded by an Egyptian schoolteacher in a Suez Canal town in 1928. But intellectual currents that once radiated from Egypt now just as often flow in the other direction, as scholars and activists in Morocco and Tunisia, perched on the Arab world’s periphery and often influenced by the West, export ideas that seek a synthesis of what the most radical Islamists, along with their many critics here and in the West, still deem irreconcilable: faith and democracy.

More often than not, they are asking societies for trust that, given the experiences of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution or the Islamist-led coup in Sudan in 1989, authoritarian leaders and secular forces are reluctant to offer.

Mr. Ferjani, a 57-year-old self-taught intellectual as exuberant as he is pious, acknowledges the doubts. In one of several interviews, he declared that history — a word he uses often — would judge his generation not on its ability to take power but rather on what it did with power, which has come after four decades of activism.

“I can tell you one thing, we now have a golden opportunity,” he said, smiling. “And in this golden opportunity, I’m not interested in control. I’m interested in delivering the best charismatic system, a charismatic, democratic system. This is my dream.” 

A Chance Encounter

Nothing in Mr. Ferjani’s childhood really set him on the path to realize this ambition. Born in Kairouan, a town reputed by some Muslims to be Islam’s fourth holiest city, he was not especially pious as a child. His father, a shopkeeper, never managed to provide enough for his family. He remembered going three days without food once, and wearing cheap sandals to school. “Poverty, we tasted it,” he recalled.

By his own account, he was unruly and rambunctious until he turned 16. That year, Rachid al-Ghannouchi, an Arab nationalist turned Islamist who had studied in Egypt and Syria before returning to Tunisia, took a job teaching Arabic in Kairouan. Mr. Ghannouchi would stay only a year before setting out to eventually form the Islamic Tendency Movement, then the Ennahda Party, but he left a legacy with his students.

“He was always talking about the world and politics,” Mr. Ferjani said. “Why as Muslims are we backwards? What makes us backwards? Is it our destiny to be so?”

The questions posed by Mr. Ghannouchi have shaped successive generations of Islamists, a term that never captures their diversity. The theme was examined in the work of Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose notion of missionary work proved so successful over 50 years.

It was there, too, in the works of Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian thinker whose writings resonated long after he was hanged in 1966, helping give rise to a militant Islamism that bloodied the Middle East. Later, “The Hidden Duty,” a text that laid the groundwork for the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981, tried to resolve the issue. So did Mr. Ghannouchi, who endorsed pluralism and democracy, even as revolution raged in Iran. NYT