Eli Hovland: Islamic Democracy in North Africa

One of the principle reaction to the crisis of modernity in the Muslim world has been the emergence of Islamic democracy. Islamic democracy merges the ideas of democratic governments with principles of Islamic political, moral, and legal ideals. Two examples of this trend can be found in Morocco and Tunisia.

Morocco has seen a gradualist transition from absolute monarchic power supported by repression into a model of Muslim democracy. In 2004 with the death of the reigning King Hassan II and the assumption of the throne by his son Mohammed V the nation began the process of liberalization. The police state was dismantled under pressure from popular protests. Women were given greatly expanded rights, including a promise of full legal and social equality. Political institutions were established, including a parliament with a robust set of governmental powers relative to the monarchy. All of these advances were underpinned by the adoption of a constitution, which included constraints on monarchic power and protections of individual rights. These changes can be seen as undermining shari’i by resting the fundamental basis of law on the constitution rather than religious law and by promoting individual rather that communal ideas of responsibility and rights. These changes can be seen purely as an adoption of Western ideas by a Muslim nation that is not fully representative of the state of Moroccan reforms.

This reading of Moroccan reformism would put it fully within the accomidationist school of thought discussed in class. However, the Moroccan case also draws on elements fully developed from Islam, which would place the Moroccan approach to Islamic democracy somewhere between the Accommodationist approach, in that it acknowledges that many of the problems it faces arose from internal governmental challenges and the universalist approach that seeks to draw from both internal and external sources of reform. One Islamic element retained by Morocco is that fact that the monarch continues to hold power in part by their right as a direct decedent of the Prophet, rooting political legitimacy not only in religion but in the history of the First Islamic golden age. This claim to religious legitimacy by the sovereign is credited with increasing the stability and authority of the state and has served as a bed rock for the reform program.

Totten offers a few explanations for the growth of Islamic democracy in Morocco as apposed to the other Arab nations of north Africa such as Algeria and Egypt. The first explanation offered is the distance  of Morocco from the various centers of Islamic thought over the course of history. This distance Totten theorizes, combined with the mountains impact of delaying the spread of information, may have slowed the passage of ideas from the center to the periphery allowing them to cool and become moderated in the passage. Another geographic theory he puts forth is that the role of Morocco in governing Spain for serval centuries and its abundant ports made its political culture more receptive to outside influence, especially from the west.

An explanation not fully developed by Totten is the colonial history of Morocco, apart from several coastal enclaved annexed to Spain. The majority of Morocco escaped direct colonial domination until relatively late in the history of European exploitation of Africa. It was not until 1906 when France gained a dominate colonial role in Morocco more than 80 years after the French took possession of neighboring Algeria and more than 50 years after the British took a similar position in Egypt. Even once the French consolidated their position it was much less expansive than in Algeria, where colonial rule was absolute and Algeria itself was subsumed into metropolitan France. In Morocco the French established a protectorate leaving the major political institutions in tact. This fact has meant that the political institutions present in Morocco at the moment are more stable and possess greater legitimacy than those in many of its neighbors. This stability has been used to allow the institutions to experiment and push forward with reform.

Tunisia has found a different path to the development of a working system of Islamic democracy. After Tunisia drove its authoritarian president  Zine el Abidine Ben Ali from power in 2011 it was faced with a vacuum of political institutions and leadership. This vacuum was filled in part by the expiation of Islamist parties committed to the principles and institutions of democracy. Tunisia’s largest Islamist part Ennahda under the leadership of Rachid Ghannouchi was able to prove itself a flexible and responsible party of government and used its nature as a Islamist party to establish itself as the natural opposite of the secular and repressive regime of Tunisia’s immediate past. Ennahda flexibly however may have harmed its ability to implement its policy. As the voters had largely approved their parties role in framing the constitution on the basis of their difference from the previous regime the party did not hold full support for some of its core ideas, such as drafting a constitution that centered Tunisian law on the principles of Shari’a law. While it did not prove to be a wholly successful party of government the Ennahda government showed the Muslim and Western worlds that Islamists could be trusted with maintaining and conducting a transition to democracy. They also showed that the Islamist parties could be influenced and moderated by the normal channels of politics rather than requiring the be shut out of the political process for the sake of safeguarding democracy. This vision of Islamic democracy incorporates both fundamentalist and universalist perspectives. Statements cited by Piser that indicated Ennahda’s intention to create a sixth caliphate indicate a Fundamentalist world view, one that seeks a return to previous age of Islamic civilization. However the fact that Ennahda shepherded Tunisia’s transition to a constitutional democracy with a set of political institutions characterized by western influence suggests that a Universalist approach is also possible within their interpretation of Islamic democracy. 


Totten, Michael J. “Is Morocco the Model for Arab Democracy?” The Tower, Aug. 2013, www.thetower.org/article/is-morocco-the-model-for-arab-democracy/.


Piser, Karina. “How Tunisia’s Islamists Embraced Democracy.” Foreign Policy, 1 Apr. 2016, foreignpolicy.com/2016/03/31/how-tunisias-islamists-embraced-democracy-ennahda/.


Image note: The objects depicted are talismanic amulets produced by a Tunisian artist Rashid Koraichi currently owned by the Freer Sackler Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution  as part of their Islamic Art collection