Meherzia Labidi is an elected female parliamentarian from Tunisia. She wears a hijab and is a practicing Muslim. And she has a message of hope.
In an interview with Today’s WorldView while on a visit to Washington, the 53-year-old Labidi extolled the lessons of her nation’s struggle toward democracy. Tunisia was ground zero for the popular uprisings that shook the Arab world in 2011. A secular dictatorship came crumbling down and space opened up for long-suppressed movements — including Labidi’s Ennahda party, a moderate Islamist faction — to enter political life.
Now, six years later, Tunisia seems a lonely island in a sea of turbulence. Its fledgling democracy huffs and puffs along while other Arab countries have succumbed to war, sectarian strife and counter-revolution.
Moreover, while Tunisia once had a president in Washington who believed, at least in principle, in the aspirations of the Arab Spring, the new occupants of the White House do not. President Trump made clear before the election that he was no fan of the chaos created by the pro-democracy upheavals in the Arab world. Since taking office he has only reinforced his support for secular strongmen like Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, a former general who came to power in a 2013 coup. Where there was once talk of democracy blossoming in the Middle East, now there is only an all-consuming focus on the war with the bogeyman of radical Islam.
The Trump administration also casts Islam, writ large, as a threat. Trump’s inner sanctum includes figures like national security adviser Michael T. Flynn, who has deemed Islam a “political ideology” rather than a religion, and Frank Gaffney, a once-fringe Islamophobe who peddles conspiracy theories of a Muslim Brotherhood takeover in America.
“They essentially, like termites, hollow out the structure of the civil society and other institutions for the purpose of creating conditions under which the jihad will succeed,” Gaffney told the New York Times this week.
This vision of political Islam could not be further from the one embraced by Labidi and many Tunisians.
“Ennahda doesn’t tell Tunisians how to be good Muslims,” said Labidi. “We are not a party telling people what to eat, what to dress or how to pray.”
Instead, she explained, “we are a party that takes inspiration from Islamic values. And these values meet universal values — justice, solidarity, respect of human dignity, liberty.” They don’t seek theocracy, but a “civil state” where the differences between Islamists and secularists can be bridged and reconciled in a stable, pluralist democracy.
It hasn’t been an easy process. Tunisia’s political parties have scrapped over the country’s future since protests brought down former dictator Zine Abidine Ben-Ali in January 2011. There have been assassinations, renewed street demonstrations, various stages of political paralysis — and the country still struggles with the blight of militant Islam.
“We had confrontation, we had polarization. We were struck by terrorism,” she said. “But we had political leaders who are visionary and audacious, who risked dialogue, instead of going to the dynamic of confrontation.”
A national unity government is now in place, with Ennahda comprising one of the biggest blocs in a parliament that has more women members than the global average. Labidi has been a champion of women’s rights, showing that there is no immediate contradiction between her party’s religious leanings and its application in governance.
Labidi, who for a time was the most senior elected woman official in the Arab world, spoke of her experience as the vice president of Tunisia’s constituent assembly, the fractious body tasked with drafting the reborn republic’s constitution.
“One of the first documents we had on the table, translated from English to Arabic, was the American constitution,” she said. That’s a message that should be heard in a Trump administration largely skeptical about the Middle East’s democratic stirrings.
Labidi is expected to meet officials at the State Department — but not the White House. I asked her what she would to say to an administration that seems less intent on reaching out to Muslims than keeping them away. “We ask for dialogue and an opportunity to listen to us,” she said. “They will discover that we are closer than they imagine when it comes to cherishing liberty, democracy and working to preserve life and togetherness.”
No matter the violence and crushed dreams that followed the Arab Spring, Labidi is convinced that the region cannot slide back to the days of authoritarian rule. “We have changed from the era of accepting dictatorship to another era of acting, of saying listen to us,” she said. “There is something irreversible in the minds of Arab populations. We have chosen freedom.”
Labidi also lamented Trump’s travel ban on refugees and citizens of seven Muslim-majority states. “It’s a very depressing feeling when you travel to a destination and you fear that you may be rejected not because of what you have done, but because of what you are,” she said. “The only winners are the instigators of terrorism.”
Yet for all her worries, Labidi said, she still sees the United States as a source of inspiration. “I don’t believe America will give up supporting democracies,” she said. “No, not even if someone applies the brakes for a while. There is something special about this country.”
Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor at TIME, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.
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