Tunisia: the advent of liberal Islamism - an Interview with Rashid Al-Ghannoushi
30 January 2011
On Sunday 30 January Rashid Al-Ghannoushi, the 69 year old leader of the Tunisian Islamic movement, returned home after a long exile in London. The international media has interpreted Al-Ghannoushi's return as the most potent symbol yet of the dramatic changes that have taken place in Tunisia in recent weeks.
Al-Ghannoushi is widely regarded to represent the most liberal and progressive strand in Arab Islamist politics. Born in 1941 in Qabis province (southern Tunisia) he received higher education in Cairo, Damascus and the Sorbonne in Paris. In 1981 Al-Ghannoushi founded the Al-Ittijah al-Islami (Islamic Tendency) which was renamed Hizb al-Nahda (aka Hizb Ennahda) or the Renaissance Party in 1989.
Al-Ghannoushi has been at the forefront to resistance against authoritarian regimes in Tunisia from the early 1980s. His return to Tunisia looks set to bring about important changes not only in his native country but North Africa more broadly and perhaps even further afield. Coupled with wider developments in the region (notably the unrest in Egypt) it may mark the point at which Islamists are gradually allowed to fully participate in the politics and governance of North African states.
Mahan Abedin conducted this interview in London on Thursday 27 January 2011.
Were you surprised by the speed of the apparent revolution in Tunisia?
I expected a revolution to occur in Tunisia, but not of the speed that we witnessed.
You were expecting change for a long time?
There have been uprisings in parts of Tunisia in the past two to three years, especially in Gafsa and Ben Gardan in the south. Several months ago I wrote on Al-Jazeera net that this chain of dissent will eventually cohere and erupt in the capital city. I have argued for a long time that the Tunisian regime can't reform from within; it has to be changed from without.
On that note, it appears that the old guard is pulling out all the stops to cling to power. Are we witnessing a true revolutionary moment or a carefully managed and contrived change?
It is a revolutionary moment. When you talk to people in Tunisia you feel that a real revolution has occurred. The people are ready to sacrifice their lives to safeguard the achievements of recent weeks. The people want to see an end to all the symbols of the RCD [Constitutional Democratic Rally] party and the former regime.
Given the complex dynamics at play - for example the role of the army and the security forces and the external dimension namely the desire by the Western powers to contrive reforms under the existing regime rather than risk the emergence of a new system - are you hopeful that meaningful change can come as quickly as you would wish?
The Tunisian street can't be appeased with small and half-hearted gestures. The Tunisian street is active and is keeping the elites under intense pressure. Until now the Tunisian elites have failed to reflect the people's will, namely to construct a democratic regime without the RCD apparatus. Another problem is that the international order has intervened on behalf of continuity in Tunisia. They want to change the appearance of the regime and not its essence.
What is your personal situation; have you been granted an amnesty to return?
Yesterday [Wednesday 26 January] I went to the Tunisian Embassy in London to collect my passport. For 22 years I have been protesting outside the Tunisian Embassy, it was only yesterday that I was allowed inside. The people in charge of the embassy received us warmly but in the evening they phoned my son to say that my amnesty hasn't been approved. They said that if I go back to Tunisia I'll be doing so at my own risk.
You haven't visited Tunisia for 22 years?
The fact that they are implying that you may be arrested upon your return indicates that the old security clique is still powerful, don't you agree?
I don't think they will arrest me. They are very weak and need legitimacy from the people. It is the people who are on the offensive. Even if they do arrest me it won't advance their cause.
Why haven't you gone back already?
I have been obliged to go into exile by the dictatorial regimes. Now that the regime in Tunisia has collapsed or is on the verge of collapsing I am going back.
Are you making preparations to go back?
I am going back on Sunday [30 January]. My flight leaves at 8.30 in the morning.
Why haven't Islamists played a prominent role in the street protests? The people on the streets appeared to be of the trendy variety; left-wing beards and fancy veils dominated the scenes.
Islamists can be trendy too! The Tunisian Islamists are different to Islamists in other parts of the Arab world. They have been fiercely harassed and repressed for decades and as a consequence they are reluctant to show themselves or to adopt an Islamist appearance. For the past 22 years they have kept their Islamic identity in their hearts as opposed to wearing it on their sleeves in the form of headscarves and beards.
On a more serious note, you are adamant that Islamists played a leading role in the street protests that forced Zine El Abidine Ben Ali from power?
No one can pretend that this revolution has been led by Islamists or Communists or any other group for that matter. This is a popular revolution and all the trends in Tunisian political society are present on the scene. At the same time it is clear that the Islamists are the biggest political force in Tunisia. The former regime suppressed all groups and in this transitional period all the groups are concentrating on rebuilding themselves.
You are widely regarded as a reformist in the international Islamist current. In your interview with Al-Jazeera on 22 January you appeared to categorically reject the Islamic Caliphate in favour of democracy. Is this the culmination of your reformist Islamist thought?
This is the authentic and realistic position. The notion of Khilafah (Caliphate) is not a religious one as some groups claim. It reflects a period of time.
Is your embrace of democracy strategic or tactical?
It is strategic. Democracy is crucial to dealing with and reconciling different and even conflicting interests in society. Islam has a strong democratic spirit inasmuch as it respects religious, social and political differences. Islam has never favoured a monolithic state. Throughout their history Muslims have objected to the imposition of a single all-powerful interpretation of Islam. Any attempt to impose a single interpretation has always proven inherently unstable and temporary.
Of late Islamism has been more focussed on moral issues and identity politics, as opposed to taking concrete steps towards securing social justice. I refer to staple social justice demands, like affordable housing, cheap food and job security. Is Al-Nahda in a position to address these issues both at a theoretical and practical level?
The origin of most Nahdawis [supporters of Al-Nahda] is in the rural areas of Tunisia. We understand social justice very well.
You used to have a left-wing outlook and rhetoric in your earlier days, especially the 1970s and early 1980s. Is that still the case?
In my youth I was a Nasserist. Islam is against injustice and the monopoly of wealth and resources. The notion of Brotherhood in Islam has profound socio-economic implications in so far as it points to the equitable distribution of economic resources. In the economic sphere Islam is closer to the left-wing outlook, without violating the right to private property. The Scandinavian socio-economic model is closest to the Islamic vision.
Is there any tension between the internal wing of Al-Nahda and the exiled leadership?
No. There are differences of views but you can't describe it as a clash between those inside and those outside the country.
What is your current position in this movement?
At the Al-Nahda conference of 2001 I was elected by a majority of 53% of the delegates. At the last conference in 2007 I was elected to the position of President of Al-Nahda by a majority of 63% of the delegates. Back in 2007 I declared that this would be the last time I stand for the leadership of the movement.
What is Al-Nahda's vision for the future of Tunisia?
Tunisia needs a coalition government. No single group can rule on its own. The former regime destroyed or severely undermined the organisational capacity of all political groups and we all need time to rebuild our strength.
That is the short-term scenario but in terms of the long-term what is your vision for the country? Do you envisage Western-style Liberal Democracy or a more indigenous form of democracy?
The best model I can think of is the one adopted by the [ruling] AKP [Justice and Development Party] in Turkey.
From a constitutional point of view, do you aspire to a Presidential system or a Parliamentary one?
Tunisia needs a Parliamentary system where power is more directly invested in the people. A Presidential system risks inviting authoritarianism as occurred under Bourghiba and Ben Ali. We need a system that distributes power across the country at all levels.
How do you position Al-Nahda in the wider global Islamist experience?
Al-Nahda represents the mainstream of the Islamic movement in so far as we struggle to overcome a range of religious, ideological, political and institutional obstacles to bring about democracy to the Muslim world. The movement is at the forefront of this trend not only in the Arab world but also in the broader Muslim world. An-Nahda has devoted a lot of effort to developing Islamic political theory. We stand for Islamic democratic thought, Islamic democracy if you will.
In that case you are an ideological ally of religious intellectuals like the former Iranian President Seyed Mohammad Khatami who expended a lot of effort to popularise the theme of Islamic democracy at the highest level of international politics.
Yes I belong to that trend but unlike Khatami I don't believe in Velayat-e-Faqih [Rule of the Jurisconsult].
Islamic Democracy sounds appealing in theory but the trouble is we don't know what it looks like in practice. Let's focus on one important aspect of political theory, namely the perennial quest for social justice. Traditionally Islamists have understood social justice in a narrow sense as a form of charity and not in a deep and contextual sense that takes into account all the prevailing dimensions and dynamics. Do you envisage Al-Nahda and other Islamists making a historic breakthrough in this field?
Al-Nahda hasn't had the opportunity to develop and explain its views. Since 1981 the movement has struggled to survive in the face of fierce repression. Nevertheless, if you review our literature from the past three decades you'll notice that the topic of social justice comes up again and again. We have worked closely with the trade unions in Tunisia even though these bodies were under strong secular left-wing influence, especially in the 1970s and 1980s. By working with the trade unions we realised how close our views on social justice were to theirs. It was amid this process of interaction that we came to the conclusion that Islam - at least in the public sphere - is synonymous with justice and the quest for justice. Consequently we encouraged our people to join the trade unions.
You mentioned the Turkish AKP example earlier. What has been the impact of the AKP experience on Islamists worldwide, but particularly in the Arab world?
I believe my thoughts have influenced the AKP. My books and articles have been widely translated into Turkish. A few months ago when I visited Istanbul I was approached by many people on the streets, so much so that I joked why should I go back to Tunisia when I can start a political campaign here! The successful AKP experience has influenced Islamists everywhere. The other examples of Islamists in power, for example in Iran, Afghanistan and Sudan, are not associated with success.
On that note, what is your critique of the Muslim Brotherhood?
The Muslim Brotherhood is a very big body and it is not easy to change or develop such big organisations, especially when they are assailed and oppressed by repressive regimes. Nevertheless, the Brotherhood has undertaken reform; they have accepted the multi-party system and they play a pivotal role in the trade unions. These days their leaders emerge from inside the trade union movement not from the Al-Azhar [Seminary]. This is very important.
However, the Muslim Brother's last party programme contained some points which I openly criticised. For example, I criticised their statement that Copts and women should be barred from running for the presidency. I also criticised their idea that a body of Ulama should oversee the parliament. But after the attack on the Coptic Church in Cairo the Secretary-General of the Muslim Brotherhood, Ibrahim Mounir, agreed to review the Brotherhood's policy towards the Copts. It appears that the Muslim Brotherhood now accepts the notion of citizenship as the basis of running all political affairs, including election to the highest office.
Are you worried by the rise of apolitical and regime-sponsored Salafism in Tunisia and further afield?
There are many categories of Salafis, some of whom are in the service of the dictatorship regimes. They would like to be on friendly terms with all the regimes, even the overthrown regime of Ben Ali. These groups are exploited by sections of the Mukhaberat [intelligence services].
Are you worried by this trend?
No. This trend has no popularity because they are aligned with the regimes. The Muslim and Arab peoples are in revolt against these regimes. The only category of Salafism which may have a social base is Jihadi Salafism. The Jihadi Salafis' relative popularity is based on their opposition to the ruling regimes. There isn't necessarily a popular base for their views on religion and politics.
Do you envisage the Tunisian example sweeping across the proverbial Arab street?
The Arab regimes face implosion from within and change from without. This isn't necessarily a consequence of the Tunisian Revolution but a natural outgrowth of decades of oppression and misrule. There is a similar set of socio-economic and political conditions in all the Arab countries and the dynamic of change appears unstoppable.
On that note, what are the key political lessons of the Tunisian Revolution for Islamists?
The main lesson is that Islamists have to work with others. They should totally abandon the view that they can rule on their own. Furthermore, Islamists should relinquish the ambition to monopolise Islam and appear as the only voice of Islam.
But does your view resonate in situations where Islamists have come into armed confrontation with the ruling regimes thus triggering a vicious cycle of polarisation, radicalisation and repression? I refer specifically to neighbouring Algeria.
Even in Algeria Islamists are increasingly coming to the conclusion that violence isn't the answer. Violence entrenches the security state and dims the prospect for the type of reforms envisaged by Islamists.
Mahan Abedin is an academic and journalist specialising in Islamic affairs.