The Tunisian uprisings of December 2010 are often depicted in negative terms, as lacking leadership, ideology, and political organization. Nahda (the Tunisian Islamist movement that, after decades of exile and repression, won 40 percent of the seats in the elections of October 2011) members are now accused of working to turn Tunisia into a “sharia state,” in which religious freedom, women’s rights, and freedom of expression would cease to exist. While the fears of individuals and groups who disagree with Islamists have to be taken seriously, discussion of current changes needs to be based on a real engagement, not on caricature.

The rallying cry of demonstrators, “irhal” (“leave”) is the best expression of what made the revolts so specific. Tunisians did not take to the street for the recognition of an essence (We are all “Islamists” or “proletarian” or “anti-French”). The ideal that emerged from the “irhal” movements is of the “whatever” individual, in Giorgio Agamben’s terms. “Whatever” here does not mean indifferent or deprived of substantial value, but rather of “being such that it always matters.” An insistence on equality, an irreverence towards any form of authority (sultat), and a suspicion of all types of privileges suggest that what Tunisians are now calling for is a “solidarity that in no way concerns an essence.” Claiming to speak in the name of Islam, laïcité, democracy, human rights, or the caliphate does not grant you privilege any more in Tunisian public debates. It does not give you support from the public. It simply gives you a right to argue “whatever.” No politician, activist, or intellectual is immune from the risk of being silenced by a sneering, angry, or weary “irhal.”

In this context, a major challenge for Islamists is to articulate a political and cultural project that is both consistent with their own principles and in tune with this polyphonic and somewhat opaque “coming community.” Tunisian and foreign secular organizations insistently call out Islamists on the issue of religious freedom, with the hope of exposing their duplicity or unveiling their double-speak. But religious freedom has actually a very limited part in Islamists’ current conversation, not because it is perceived as a divisive issue, but because it is viewed as unproblematic and irrelevant. A central concern within Islamist circles today is not of whether a sharia state must be established, but whether Nahda should primarily be a cultural movement (haraka) of reform or a government party (hizb).

When asked about religious freedom, most Nahda leaders give one of the following three explanations of why it needs to be protected. First, a theological rationale: there is no compulsion in Islam. Second, a historical-nationalist rationale: Tunisian culture is built on a very ancient history of cultural diversity that encompasses elements of Phoenician civilization, the Roman Empire, African traditions, Judaism, Christianity, and others. Finally, a political rationale: Islamists have experienced repression and torture under the regimes of Habib Bourguiba and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. They know the importance of respecting freedom of expression and do not intend to submit any other group to the same type of arbitrary repression.

Nahda leaders do not argue over whether Tunisia should respect religious freedom or turn into a sharia state. While some of them, such as the philosopher Abu Yaareb Marzouki, argue that the maqasid al-sharia (objectives of sharia) could have been included in the preamble of the constitution, simply as a cultural reference, most Nahda members pay limited attention to this type of discussion. At the core of the movement’s project is cultural authenticity, not religious conformity. Philosopher Ajmi Lourimi, a member of the Bureau Executif of Nahda and a Levinas scholar, describes the current crisis in Tunisia as an “epistemological problem.” The main challenge for Tunisians—and people from the Maghreb, more generally—is to deal with the “inferiority complex” caused by colonization. “We need to work so that all citizens gain a sufficient level of culture and collective awareness, to make sure that there will be no going back,” he explained at a recent meeting organized in Tunis by the ReligioWest program.

Tunisian Islamists’ insistence on the imperative of cultural authenticity represents a moral narrative of modernity that is analogous to the Western narrative of modernity analyzed by Webb Keane, in which the category of sincere belief plays the central role. Just as Dutch missionaries defined interiority and sincerity as the core standard and site of modernity and true religiosity, Nahdawis insist on the re-appropriation of cultural authenticity as the defining standard of modernization and development. A return to what is imagined as authentic Tunisian tradition is presented as the condition of modernization. Collective consciousness and cultural reformation are here the active agents of progress, rather than individual conscience. But the idea of cultural authenticity serves also to mark a separation between what is deemed archaic (postcolonial laïcité but also alien forms of religiosity expressed within the Muslim world such as the Saudi or even Egyptian ones), and what is modern (unity, reconciliation, synthesis).

Tunisian Islamists have always had very little to say about religion. If they see religious freedom essentially as a non-issue, it is partly because they do not see religion as a problematic intellectual category, but simply as an obvious part of reality (waqa’) and life (hayat). Islamist intellectuals’ view on religion and politics is primarily informed by the writings of Rashid Ghannouchi, who has long considered that the key line of confrontation in Tunisia is not between religion and politics, but between society and the state. The crucial challenge is the protection of society from the state, not the protection of individuals from groups, or of true belief from heterodox practice. Tunisian Islamists hold an optimist view of society as a self-regulating and virtuous collective organization. Granted enough freedom, education, and economic opportunity, society will invent self-regulatory mechanisms that will lead to the development of piety and virtue, and allow non-Muslims to live according to their own beliefs. Now that Islamists have won 40 percent of the seats at the assembly and hold a prominent position within the transition government, their discourse has remained consistent with these previous preoccupations. The key questions for them are how to elaborate safe institutional mechanisms that will prevent the return of corruption (fasad) and despotism (istibdad), and how to establish social justice. In fact, Islamists are, in some sense, more secular than secularist groups. They advocate a high wall of separation between religion and the state, while secularist organizations and parties demand a close monitoring of mosques and religious institutions by the state.

The project discussed and promoted by Tunisian Nahdawi leaders today can be described as a historicist, hermeneutical project of cultural reformation. It is based on a teleological view of the direction of Tunisian history and the place of Islam in this history. After the ruptures of the colonial moment, and of the authoritarian regimes of Bourguiba and Ben Ali, now is the time when Tunisians can regain consciousness of their history and re-appropriate their past to better progress towards modernity. “The priority,” Lourimi insists, “is not Islamization of society, but modernization.” Key intellectual figures and leaders of Nahda such as Ajmi Lourimi, Abu Ya’areb Marzouki, and Ghannouchi, describe the current context as a moment of dialectical synthesis that comes after a long period of estrangement and division. Their call for unity, reconciliation, consensus—of national healing—is not strategic double-speak; it draws upon a deeply rooted Islamist sense of history in the postcolonial Maghreb. Mehdi Mabrouk, the current Minister of Culture, a sociologist, ex-member of the secular party PDP (Parti Démocrate Progressiste), and now close to Nahda (but not an official member) insists on Malekite heritage, Tunisian patrimony, and genealogy. During the Tunis ReligioWest meeting, Mabrouk stressed the need for unity and synthesis: “We need to find our Immanuel Kant, someone who will reconcile skepticals and dogmatics. We cannot stay in a state of division.” Over the past months, Mabrouk repeatedly dismissed allegations that the Islamist led government plans to engage in a plan of “Islamization of culture.” He condemned those who resort to accusations of takfir to silence artists and artistic production.

Mabrouk did trigger heated debates within the Tunisian and Arab artistic scene when he argued against the inclusion of a couple of sexy Lebanese female artists in the programming of the next festival of Carthage, a national cultural festival that takes place every summer. But, interestingly, he did not justify this decision with reference to Islam, but to good taste and high culture. This is not the “dictature of the proletariat anymore,” he explained half-jokingly; there needs to be a “diktat of good taste.” This combination of nationalism, social conservatism, and elitism resonates with most intellectuals and leaders of Nahda, who reject both miniskirts and salafi outfits as expressions of alienation, romantically longing for the return of the Tunisian traditional jebba (robe). However adamant or undiplomatic the Minister’s statement may seem, it is much closer to, say, the position of the French Ministry of Culture on American movies and pop music, than it is to a theocratic form of cultural repression. Ultimately, among the public, statements of this type are welcomed as subjects of satire and derision, rather than as real sources of concern. When Mabrouk further explained what he meant by the “diktat of good taste,” citing Jauss and Adorno, the young journalist who was interviewing him gently made fun of him, and reminded him of the success of El General, the most famous Tunisian rapper. Here generational divides are as important—if not more so—as the so-called division between Islam and secularism.

For Tunisian Islamists, obstacles to a collective reappropriation of national identity do not come mainly from the West or the North, but from Saudi Arabia, the Gulf, or even Egypt and Turkey. While most Nahdawi leaders refrain from engaging in overt critique of salafi groups or of the Islamist politics of neighboring countries, they strongly emphasize the originality and wealth of Tunisian cultural heritage, citing Tunisian Islamist reformers from the early twentieth century such as Tahar Haddad and Mohamed Fadel Ben Achour. In addition to this nationalist emphasis on Tunisia’s own historical resources, Nahdawi intellectuals and leaders call for a comprehensive hermeneutical reformation. This, they argue, is more than a mere issue of random ijtihad: Islamists, in collaboration with their supporters, need to develop a new methodology to reinterpret the past and see the present. “We need more than splinters of ijtihad, more than tinkering with the texts, we need a unified methodology,” argues Sami Braham, an intellectual “compagnon de route”—but not an actual member of Nahda. While most of them more or less openly admit that an integralist view of how Islam can inform political and current events is now passé, they also recognize the need for elaborating an Islamic ethics, not simply as the negation of alternative worldviews, but in positive terms.

The way Nahda leaders and intellectuals define Islam today, as the source of an ethical and cultural project of collective introspection and reformation, echoes the way in which Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce talked about the Christian identity of Europe in 1942. In his essay “Why we cannot help calling ourselves ‘Christian,’” Croce did not argue that “we” are Christians, or that “we” must call ourselves Christians. The phrasing of his title was an acknowledgement that Christianity as an unquestioned set of norms and institutions was dead. But the pamphlet was also an attempt to demonstrate why Christianity could still have something to say to, and about, Europe. Christianity here was not opposed to secularism, atheism, or Islam, but to the fascist and imperial politics of 1942 Europe and to the complicity of the Christian institutional church with this politics. Croce’s “Why we cannot not” is not a demand, but a proposition—almost a plea. It combined hope for a better future with nostalgia for a time when people were “all the more intensely Christian than they [were] free.”

A similar combination of nostalgia and hope can be found in the discourse of contemporary Islamist thinkers and politicians. Longing for a golden age of Tunisian history and culture sustains a hope for emancipation from an era defined by postcolonial politics, authoritarian secularism, and state Islam. No matter how fierce Nahda’s opponents are, there is wide support for Nahda’s message and project, one that can be summarized in the same terms as Croce’s statement: “We cannot not call ourselves ‘Muslims.’” Such a performative statement stems from a realization of the inadequacy of the ideology of shumuliyya (integralism) to Tunisian society, but also from the conviction that Islam still has something to say about that society. The reference to Islam and the Muslim appellation are indeed polysemous, and may appear as empty signifiers to many. But this is precisely what defines Nahda’s project; the reference to Islam is conceived as constraining, performative, and self-reflective, rather than as imposed by some external force or institution. Only through this reference to Islam, Nahdawi argue, will Tunisians be able to re-appropriate a sense of their own history. Ultimately, what matters is retrieving control of their history, more than adopting Islamically-correct ways of being and governing. “Our existence depends on God,” writes Gianni Vattimo, “because here and now we can’t speak our language nor live our historicity without answering to the message that the bible has transmitted to us.” Ajmi Lourimi, an admirer of Vattimo, says something similar when he insists on the need for Tunisians to regain a consciousness of their history. The reference to God and Islam matters primarily as the enabler of “our” existence, “here and now.”

Why We Cannot Help Calling Ourselves Christian.”