Interview with Rachid Ghannouchi, a Democrat Within Islamism

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Interview with Rachid Ghannouchi, a Democrat Within Islamism

A talk with the Ennahda Movement’s Rachid Ghannouchi

By Nadia al-Turki Available at:

London Asharq Al-Awsat- Rachid Ghannouchi is the leader of the Tunisian Islamist, the winners of the recent Tunisian Constituent Assembly elections. The Ennahda Movement won an overwhelming majority at the first free elections following the Tunisian revolution, winning 89 of 217 seats, whilst Ennahda Party Secretary-General Hamadi Jebali, has been appointed Tunisian Prime Minister.
In an exclusive interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Rashid Ghannouchi discussed the recent controversy raised by his appearance at a seminar held by the Washington Institute for Near Eastern Policy, during which he allegedly said that 2012 will be the end for Arab monarchies, a statement he strongly denies making. He also addressed the fears that have been raised regarding the rise of the Islamists, and the fears that have been raised regarding their future intentions, particularly with regards to human rights, women’s rights, and the Tunisian tourist industry. Ghannouchi also spoke about Tunisia’s political scene, foreign policy, and his hopes for the future of the country.

Rashid Ghannouchi is a writer, politician, and one of Tunisia’s most prominent Islamists. He is known for being one of Tunisia’s most famous political dissidents, and he spent a number of years in prison, both under [Tunisian president] Habib Bourguiba, as well as ousted Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, after he founded the Islamist Movement of the Islamic Tendency party in 1981, a precursor to the Ennahda movement. Following his release from prison, he fled to Europe, returning to Tunisia on 30 January, 2011, after 22 years in exile.

The following is the full text of the interview:

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Many observing the situation in Tunisia are afraid that the Ennahda party’s moderate political rhetoric is nothing more than a ruse to allow your Islamist party to come to power, following which you will monopolize power. How do you respond to such allegations?

[Ghannouchi] Let me begin by greeting the Asharq Al-Awsat readers. Now, let me stress that any accusation of double-dealing needs to be accompanied by evidence, for one is innocent until proven guilty.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you intend to change the articles of the Tunisian constitution with regards to women’s rights and women’s role in society? You previously said that any constitutional changes regarding the role of women would only strengthen women’s rights, so how do you respond to this issue?

[Ghannouchi] This charge is being repeated by our opponents and represents an accusation of our intentions that goes beyond the realm of politics, because politics is judged by words and actions, not intentions. Since the Ennahda party came to the political arena in 1981, we have confirmed our commitment to grand principles such as democracy, human rights, [political] pluralism, rejection of violence and coups as mechanisms of [political] change, as well as our complete commitment to equality between the sexes. This is something that we have stressed in all of our speeches and rhetoric, and it is clear to anyone who has studied our statements in a scientific manner. We are committed to these principles, and this is something that we have repeated a thousand times.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is your view of Tunisia’s relations with the Middle East and the Arab Gulf?

[Ghannouchi] Tunisia is part of the Arab world, and is keen to establish good relations on the basis of fraternity, joint cooperation and non-interference in the internal affairs of others. We only want the best for all our Arab brothers, and we are working with them to develop our bilateral relations.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] What about the questions that have been raised about your repeated personal visits to Qatar, and the consultations that are taking place there? There are fears that this represents interference in Tunisian sovereignty, whilst questions have also been raised about the nature of your personal relationship with Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi? Would you characterize al-Qaradawi as the “spiritual godfather” of the Tunisian revolution, as some claim?

[Ghannouchi] As for my visits to Qatar, these are normal visits taking place in the context of fraternal relations [between Qatar and Tunisia]. Qatar has contributed significantly to the Arab Spring, which began in Tunisia, through the cross-media support these revolutions received from Al Jazeera [based in Qatar]. We look forward to developing our relations with all our [Arab] brothers, therefore our visits have not been limited to Qatar; we have also visited Algeria, Libya, Morocco, and Egypt…whilst other such visits are in the process of being organized. We do not reject any invitation [to visit] any Arab country, for we believe Tunisia’s relations with the Arab world to be most important, and someone who loses his brothers will not have much gain with others.

As for al-Qaradawi, he is the head of Islamic jurisprudence today, the president of the International Union of Muslim Scholars, which is an organization that I have the honor of having a prominent position in, and I consider him to be one of my great teachers. He [al-Qaradawi] was and continues to be a strong supporter of the Arab Spring, and a strong voice in these revolutions. I do not think the man has any political ambitions, not in his own country, nor in any other country; rather he is doing his Islamic duty to provide advice and scientific knowledge which God entrusted to the Islamic scholars in supporting what is right and in order to combat injustice everywhere.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Many believe that Tunisia is following in Turkey’s footsteps, with regards to its political system, and the role of Islamists there. Will Tunisia be influenced by the Turkish political system, and if so, how?

[Ghannouchi] Turkey is a large Muslim country that has a long Islamic history, and today it is returning – thanks to the Justice and Development party – to its historic position in the region, combining the dreams of the reformers since the 19th century in Cairo, Istanbul, and Tunis; between Islam and progress. This was after Turkey succeeded in establishing a pioneering democratic experience. We have had close links with the Islamic experience in Turkey since the 1970s, and these were consolidated thanks to the similarities in the historic context of the two countries, Tunisia and Turkey, although each has its own special circumstances. There has truly been an exchange of influence between the two [political] experiences [of Turkey and Tunisia], for anybody who observes Turkey’s Islamic experience is aware of the status of the ideology of the Ennahda movement there, and indeed my own personal ideology, in this experience. An example of this can be seen in the fact that my books are more popular in Turkey than they are in Tunisia, and most of them have been translated into Turkish, whilst they were banned for more than 30 years in Tunisia, until the blessed revolution occurred and this ban was lifted.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] The statements attributed to you and published by the Washington Institute for Near Eastern Policy, about 2012 being the end for Arab monarchies, were strongly condemned by certain parties, who viewed this as a violation of state sovereignty. You previously told Asharq Al-Awsat that these statements were “fabricated”, and you accused “Zionist parties” of being responsible for this, but whose interests are served by this? You also said that the Washington Institute has a well-known history of supporting Zionism, in which case why did you even agree to attend a seminar there?

[Ghannouchi] I visited the US at the invitation of “Foreign Policy” magazine, which has invited 100 figures the magazine considered the most influence in the world this year. On the sidelines of this invitation, I held conversations with a number of think-tanks – and there are many in Washington – which have different political orientation; right-wing, left-wing, moderate, extremist, conservative, etc. Traditionally, dialogue conducted under such circumstances is not for publication and are not recorded, particularly if the objective [of this] is to provide an opportunity for dialogue between the [political] elites and the specialists working at the think-tanks. All of the think –tanks I held discussions with held to this tradition, with the exception of the Washington Institute for Near Eastern Policy, which not only published what was said – which resulted in us complaining about this and them issuing an apology – but they also distorted my statements and took it out of context. The purpose of this is clear, namely to harm Tunisia’s international relations, particularly with our brothers in the Arab world. This resulted in our completely denying these comments, and publishing the original text of my statement on my Facebook page.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] How do you view Tunisia’s relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, following the uproar that occurred as a result of these statements?

[Ghannouchi] We hope to have good relations with all regional countries, and particularly the Gulf States, for the Gulf States are the second most important group of states following the Arab Maghreb States with regards to our Arab relations. That is why the political program of the Ennahda party seeks to lift visa restrictions on Gulf visitors to our country. Saudi Arabia is the heart of the Gulf, and so the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is the gateway for whoever wants to have good relations with the Gulf. We only want the best Saudi Arabia, for it is the qibla [direction faced during prayers] of the Muslims

[During my comments to the Washington Institute for Near Eastern Policy] I said that all Arab states are in the process of reform, and we hope that [the Gulf States] take the easier and less costly path, avoiding social upheaval whose consequences are not reassuring. This is what we expect from the reformative initiatives undertaken by the [Gulf] rulers themselves in response to the demands of their people. An example of this can be seen in the [reform undertaken by] Kingdom of Morocco. We hope that the reforms put forward by the King of Morocco, if these continue, will ensure Morocco escapes the social upheaval that it would do best to avoid.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] You have not issued any clear position regarding Tunisia’s future relations with Israel, and whether there is any possibility of Tunis normalizing relations with Tel Aviv or not? The world, particularly the Arab world, is keen to hear your view on this issue.

[Ghannouchi] We are part of the Arab League, and the Arab League does not recognize Israel so long as the Zionist entity fails to recognize the rights of the Palestinians and restore their occupied territories. Although the Arab League has accepted the two-state solution, whilst the Palestinians – since Arafat to Abbas to Hamas – have recognized this…however the Zionist entity continues its aggression and cancerous settlement-building policy in order to destroy what remains of Palestinian territory. This question should not be asked of the Arabs, but of the other side [Israel], who must respond to the demands of the Palestinians who have been subject to brutal occupation and destruction. We do not deal with assumptions, and every action has a reaction, and so we support the Palestinians right to have their land returned to them and have the injustice that they have suffered for more than half a century lifted from them. During this time, the world has failed to lift a finger to even impose the UN resolutions that the Zionist entity continues – till this day – to refuse to implement.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Some observers believe that the Tunisian government – led by the Ennahda party – intends to draw up a new map with regards to Tunisia’s relations with the West, and that the US and Britain may benefit from this? Is this true?

[Ghannouchi] We confirmed, in our electoral program and campaign, that we must base our relations upon our geographic reality, and that includes our relations with Europe, our near neighbor. We also confirmed that we will not only preserve our partnership with the European Union [EU], but we will also work to increase this partnership which Tunisia signed in the mid-1990s. We will also seek to expand and diversify our foreign relations, and we will seek to move and advance the stalled project, namely that of Arab Maghreb unity, which represents one of our priorities. We will also seek to develop our relations with the Arab world, particularly the Gulf States, whilst also extending our relations with Africa, as we are part of the African continent. In addition to this, we will seek to expand our relations with Asia, particularly with India, China, Malaysia, and Indonesia.

The gateway to Europe will remain open and we are committed to this, but we will open other gateways as well. Tunisia has a lot of doors open to it, and its foreign policy will not be drawn up by Ennahda party alone, but in harmony with its [political] partners. This is our view as the Ennahda party, and speaking on behalf of the [Tunisian] government.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is your position on the Syrian revolution?

[Ghannouchi] We support all those revolting against injustice, and the worst injustice that can be seen in the world today is taking place in Syria.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Although the Salafists represent a minority in Tunisia, they have begun to agitate against a number of traditional and ordinary Tunisian social phenomenon; what is your position, as an Islamist party – albeit a more moderate one than the Salafists – on this issue? How will you deal with them in the future?

[Ghannouchi] The Salafists are part of the Tunisian people; they faced what all members of Tunisian society who confronted tyranny faced. This group faced the worst suppression [from the former regime] after the Ennahda party; indeed their members have taken the place of the Ennahda prisoners. They are our people, and we have been prevented from carrying out our duties towards them [during the previous era]. If some of them are known for extremism, this is a response to the state’s suppression, and the harsh laws, and so their reaction must be equal to the [original] action.

The Salafists in Tunisia are not a single party or trend, there are a number of Salafist trends, and we expect that with the absence of suppression and the provision of an atmosphere of dialogue and freedom, the phenomenon of extremism will decrease, and that the Tunisian religious outlook, that is known for moderation, will prevail in the end, and that all political trends in society will exist within a compassionate national unity framework.

The Salafists are definitely part of our society, and I have seen many Salafist youth. We grew up in the 1970s in a hostile atmosphere, for [former Tunisian president] Bourguiba was an enemy of Islam, and so he suppressed the Islamists, and so we grew up to understand extremism…but after 10 years of dialogue with him [Bourguiba] we reached a point in the middle of the road, after he moved in the direction of religion, and we moved in the direction of moderation. Tunisia’s Salafists will certainly follow the same course, particularly with regards to the presence of freedoms [following the revolution]. We are defending their rights for freedom of expression in mosques…despite our differences of opinion on some of their views, as well as our differences of opinion with our brothers in the Hizb ut-Tahrir. Despite this, we have defended their presence, and rejected the campaign against the veil, even though we do not support those who believe that wearing the veil represents a religious duty for women. We have defended their presence from the gateway of freedom. So why should they not be allowed to object to women appearing in swimsuits on beaches?

Isn’t a woman free even to be contrary to Islam or even to identify with models that possess attributes of modernity? Are we not supporters of women’s rights? We must give women the right to choose their lifestyle, and we must deal with women with a policy of mutual respect. The uproar raised by secularists, and which ended with the closure of secular media outlets, was all because a girl wearing the veil was refused her right to education, and this is intolerance akin to that of Jacobite France…particularly as we see women wearing the veil attending universities in Britain and America, and nobody has any problem with this.

This is an artificial problem, and the era of dominating people is over, whether this in the name of modernity or in the name of Islam. Caliph Umar [Bin Al Khattab] once said “how can you enslave people whereas they were born free?” Questions of belief and expression of belief are personal issues that have nothing to do with others, and it is the individual who is responsible for this. As for the state and its institute…their task is to provide services to the people, not impose edicts regarding their beliefs or lifestyle.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Protests have continued in Tunisia since the Ennahda party came to power, demanding freedom of expression and guarantees for women’s right. Do you believe these protests are organized by certain parties for political purposes, or is this just the fears of the people?

[Ghannouchi] We cannot definitely say it is one or the other; for the media continued to raise fears about the Islamists for more than a quarter of a century; they were portrayed as the demon attacking society, confiscating its freedoms and destroying its gains, particularly in the fields of law, the arts, and women’s rights. Although the Islamist trend succeeded in convincing a majority of people in Tunisia that such black propaganda is false, and the evidence is the large number of votes won by Islamist movements, men and women, and the presence of 42 female Ennahda party MPs in parliament, which is evidence that the Tunisian women have trampled this black propaganda underfoot after they saw that it is the Ennahda party that guarantees their freedoms, not our political opponents. Despite this, there is a minority that still maintains this same propaganda, some of whom innocently because our rhetoric has not reached them or perhaps because we have a weakness in the media field, and others are maintaining this propaganda on purpose in order to distort our image for their own benefit…in order to spread fear and intimidation, and even incitement to violence as well as inciting burning of factories, cutting off of roads and disruption of public facilities, as is happening now in the mining and industrial region of Gabes (southern Tunisia). This does not change the general picture of the country, and the atmosphere is one predominated by optimism, and around 92 percent of Tunisians are optimistic about the future, whilst 96 percent of women in Tunisia are optimist about the country’s future. The country is in a state of security, and as I always say, Tunisia is beautiful, and it has become even more beautiful with the absence of Ben Ali.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] With Islamist movements coming to power in Morocco, and soon in Libya, according to many reports, as well as Egypt, according to the first two phases of parliamentary election, do you have any ambitions of establishing an Islamic “caliphate” particularly as Tunisian PM Hamadi Jebali raised this issue recently?

[Ghannouchi] I personally have no ambition for any [Islamic] caliphate, emirate, or any other –ate. The Islamist movements are operating within territorial countries, not within the framework of a caliphate state. They are committed to the legal and constitutional frameworks of these countries, and every country is working to preserve its national unity and the country’s development and progress. At the same time, these countries are working to increase the overall level of relations with its fraternal countries, to a level greater than cooperation and interdependence and mutual interests, and reach progressive levels of Maghreb, Arab, Gulf, and Islamic unity. There are organizations of unity that remind us that we are one ummah [Muslim community], despite the divisions of our states and countries, and these institutes achieve something of the dream of unity, like the Arab Maghreb Union, the Arab League, and the organization of the Islamic Conference. They are present, but they are almost devoid of any true unity. Therefore it is legitimate for us to reconstruct these unions and organizations by looking to the Maghreb, Arab, Gulf and Islamic markets, and coordinating on all levels, political, cultural, and educational. Is this a crime in the era of European, Asian, and Latin American union?

[Asharq Al-Awsat] A number of economic reports have recently been issued about tourism in Tunisia, and Tunisia has been heralded as being one of the hotspots for European tourists in the future. Do you have any reservations about Tunisia’s tourist industry? Are there any redlines for the Ennahda party with regards to Tunisia’s tourist sector?

[Ghannouchi] Tourism represents an essential resource for our economy, and Tunisia is a country that is open to the outside world. Islam is not a religion of isolation, but a religion of openness to the world. Indeed, even in the Quran it is said to Muslims “travel through the earth” [Surat Muhammad; Verse10]. Therefore, we will work to develop Tunisia’s tourist industry and rid it of the crisis that has been affecting it, with regards to poor services and poor tourist choices. We intend to diversify our tourist industry, and become an attractive destination for tourists from our neighboring countries, like Algeria, Libya, and the Gulf States, as well as Japanese and American tourists.

Our policy will focus upon diversifying our tourist industry, with regards to what is on offer as well as what kind of tourists we are seeking to attract. Tunisia has been limited to being viewed as a tourist destination for those wanting to visit the beaches…but we want to diversify our tourist attractions, and provide other tourist services, for we have a lot to offer, including desert tourism, cultural tourist attractions, as well as even educational and environmental tourist attractions.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Your son in law, Rafik Ben Abdessalam, has been nominated to be the new Tunisian Foreign Minister. What is your opinion to those who say this is a case of nepotism? Isn’t this a very sensitive issue, particularly as nepotism was one of the major features of the ousted Ben Ali regime?

[Ghannouchi] I believe that the questions raised about this are not appropriate, and such questions are being raised from the door of political opposition. Political appointments and others must not be based on whether one is – or isn’t – a relative or friend, but rather based upon the candidates abilities and capabilities. So one should not be prevented from obtaining – nor guaranteed – a political position based upon their family connections, but rather based upon their capabilities and efficiency; whoever is most capable should be given the position.

We hope that our ministers are efficient and capable in all regards, and we accept discussions on this level only; otherwise the issue of one’s family becomes a means of persecuting others…and family members might find their career path restricted, and find themselves prevented – when they are successful – of attaining certain positions because they happen to be family-members of this leader or that leader, in which cases ones family connection could be viewed as a curse. This issue was raised within the Ennahda party, and it received support from some and opposition from others, however one of our female party members – responding to the opponents – asked: in that case, must a minister divorce his wife [to avoid his family connections being a source of harm]?

Best Regards

With Dr. Azzam Tamimi (a British Palestinian, the director of Institute of Islamic Political Thought) at Trafalgar Square, London

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