Rachid Ghannouchi visited Washington recently and brought some welcome relief from the steady stream of bad news flowing out of the Arab world these days.
The leader of Ennahda, Tunisia’s Islamist movement, arrived in the wake of the approval of a new Tunisian constitution on January 26, a document meant to consolidate the North African country’s 2010 revolution and keep it moving towards a more democratic future. The document guarantees freedom of conscience and belief, as well as equality between the sexes.
Ghannouchi’s moderate political views are widely credited with helping shape the consensus between secular and Islamist groups that made this milestone possible. The constitution was overwhelmingly endorsed by 200 members of Tunisia’s Constituent Assembly, with only twelve voting against it and four abstaining. The assembly had representatives from twenty-two political parties.
For a long time, Ghannouchi’s Islamist credentials made him suspect in Washington. But official US attitudes towards Islamist parties have softened, and on his recent trip Ghannouchi met with several senior policymakers, including Deputy Secretary of State William J. Burns. He also saw Ben Rhodes, Deputy National Security Advisor and Assistant to President Barack Obama.
On Capitol Hill, Ghannouchi met with four Congressmen and three Senators and visited more than twelve research centers and think tanks. For the most part he was warmly received and praised for favoring dialogue with secularist-oriented political peers.
In a brief interview at Georgetown University, Ghannouchi said he was pleased with Washington’s openness towards Ennahda and its support for Tunisia’s revolutionary process. “We look forward to further development in relations between Tunisia and the United States because the success of the democratic transition in Tunisia . . . is in the interest of the international community and the United States,” he said.
Ghannouchi added that he hoped Washington “will invest in supporting democracy as [much as] it invested in the past in fighting terrorism.” He complained about a US State Department travel advisory warning Americans about the “unpredictability of the security situation” in Tunisia. This, he noted, “doesn’t encourage foreign investment.”
Ghannouchi’s public remarks, which stressed the compatibility of Islam and democratic values, were as comforting to Westerners’ ears as they are distasteful to jihadist extremists who regard such blending as apostasy. And for those who think that all Islamists think alike, Ghannouchi expressed views not often heard from leaders of similar groups, such as Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas.
For example, on February 25 he told an audience of about eighty at Georgetown University that there was “no contradiction between Islam and modern life” and “democracy is the modern application of shura [consultation].” The main role of an Islamic government, said Ghannounchi, “is not to impose Islam on its people. It’s to give service to the people and guarantee their security . . . and let people choose their religion without any interference in their private life.” Secularism, he added, when understood as not favoring one religion over another, “can coexist with Islam.”
On the topic of Tunisia’s new constitution, he said that while it proclaimed Tunisia a Muslim state, it also declared it a “civil” one “based on citizenship and equality and the will of the people.”
When some postgraduate students in the Georgetown audience pressed Ghannouchi on his views on Shari’a and why it was not explicitly mentioned in the new Tunisian constitution, he replied that Ennahda did not insist on having Shari’a included in the document “because the Tunisian elite does not agree on the meaning of this notion.”
The constitution, he said, stated that “the Tunisian state is an Arab and a Muslim state, so it’s enough. Why add a concept that doesn’t have the same meaning to everyone?” He added: “Shari’a is a source of values. It’s not a set of laws.”
Asked about the regional situation, Ghannouchi said he believed that “democracy is the future,” but that “most Arab regimes are not able to be reformed” and will need total overhauls instead. And in this period of change, he added, it was very important to build coalitions of “moderate Islamists” and “moderate secularists” in order to avoid polarization, which “is the real threat to democracy . . . In a period of transition, 51 percent is not enough. The government has to represent all trends.”
Ghannouchi was also guest of honor at a dinner co-hosted by the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy and the National Council on US–Arab Relations. The event was called “Celebrating the New Tunisian Constitution.” He told the 150 or so assembled guests: “The Tunisian experience has proven to those doubting the intentions of Islamists that Islam and democracy are compatible.”
Khalil Al-Anani, an Egyptian scholar of Islamist parties currently at the Middle East Institute in Washington, said that Ghannouchi represents a “post-Islamist phenomenon” in which there is an effort “to create some kind of co-existence between individual beliefs and universal ones, and there is no contradiction between being a conservative Muslim and being open to accepting other values and ideas, that is, accepting pluralism.”
Ennahda is unique, Anani added, in that it doesn’t “attempt to turn Islam into a political project. It looks at Islam as a set of values and norms rather than as a political ideology.” This sets it apart from Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, which has no “reformist agenda,” he noted.
With elections to be held sometime before the end of this year, Tunisia faces a difficult path. Many young Tunisians appear to remain strongly attracted to the ultraconservative Salafist trend, which rejects Ennahda’s views, as well as to the more violent jihadi mindset, which is propelling hundreds of young men to join Al-Qaeda-linked fighters in Syria.
High youth unemployment increases the appeal of these ideas. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), university graduates in Tunisia face an unemployment rate of 33.5 percent, which is 10 percent higher than before the revolution. The good news is that outside help is arriving—the World Bank has committed 1.2 billion US dollars in loans and the IMF has approved a loan of 507 million dollars, Reuters reported recently.
Creating jobs with these funds could be the best way to ensure that Ghannouchi’s “post-Islamist” agenda remains alive and relevant.
All views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, The Majalla magazine.