Check out my new article at Foreign Policy’s Middle East Channel: “Ennahda’s Tight Rope Act On Religion”

This past Sunday, the Tunisian Islamist party Ennahda — fresh off its win in last month’s elections — came under fire following a rally in Sousse, Tunisia with Houda Naim, a member of Hamas. Besides Naim, Ennahda’s general secretary, Hammadi Jebali, who has been proposed as the new Prime Minister of Tunisia, made some controversial remarks about the return of the Caliphate. Jebali stated: “My brothers, you are at a historic moment…in a new cycle of civilization, God willing…we are in sixth caliphate, God willing.” This quickly raised alarm bells with Tunisia’s secular and liberal elements who had been warning prior to the elections about Ennahada’s purported double speak: saying one thing publicly while saying something more nefarious privately to its followers.

In response to Jebali’s pronouncement, Ettakatol, a party that won the fourth largest bloc of seats in the recent election and is in coalition talks with Ennahda, said the party was suspending its participation in talks on a governing coalition in the forthcoming Tunisian Constituent Assembly. Khemais Ksila, a member of the executive committee of Ettakatol, stated: “We do not accept this statement. We thought we were going to build a second republic with our partner, not a sixth caliphate.” While Lobna Jeribi, an Ettakatol Constituent Assembly member, proclaimed that Jebali’s statements raised major concerns that needed to be clarified before any coalition talks resumed.

This is not the first controversy that Ennahda has been embroiled in since they won a little more than 40 percent of seats to draft the constitution in the new Constituent Assembly. A little more than a week ago, Souad Abderrahim, a prominent female member of Ennahda, talking to Radio Monte Carlo Doualiya stated that single mothers are a disgrace to Tunisia, “do not have the right to exist,” there are limits on “full and absolute freedom,” and that one should not “make excuses for people who have sinned.” In both cases, Ennahda had to walk back the statements of both Jebali and Abderrahim, downplaying their significance.

Are these two recent examples a sign of double speak finally seeing the light of day in the aftermath of its election victory — or is it a sign of Ennahda’s political immaturity and lack of experience? The latter is more likely. Prior to and following the election there have been no signs of some type of hostile Islamist takeover by Ennahda that would then try and institute a radical interpretation of the shari‘ah.

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