Ghannouchi says political Islam on track

In an interview with Al Jazeera, the Tunisian politician rejects criticisms and discusses his case against Robert Fisk.

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Ghannouchi signs his latest book, "Democracy and Human Rights in Islam" [Yasmine Ryan/Al Jazeera]

Doha, Qatar – Rachid Ghannouchi was the first influential member of the Islamist movement that emerged in 20th century to argue that democracy and Islamic governance were compatible.

From his exile in the United Kingdom, the Tunisian politician’s writings on political pluralism over the past two decades were to have a profound influence on the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and other similar movements across the Muslim world.

Ghannouchi co-founded Ennahdha in 1981. He was re-elected as the movement’s leader at its congress in July, defeating more conservative challengers and rejecting “extremism”.

In recent months, Ennahdha has come under attack for what many perceive its lack of commitment to freedom of expression and attempts to dominate the country’s political life, as well as its often ambivilant relationship with increasingly violent Salafist activists.

Even President Moncef Marzouki, whose Congress for the Republic party has been one of Ennahdha’s main secular allies, recently compared the Islamist movement’s practices to those employed by the ousted president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. 

Ghannouchi was in Doha for a conference organised by Al Jazeera on “Islamists and the Arab Revolutions: Challenges of Democratic Transition and State Re-Building,” where he was promoting his latest book.

Al Jazeera’s Yasmine Ryan spoke with the Islamist leader about how his party’s commitment to political pluralism and human rights are being put to the test by its political might.

Yasmine Ryan: It has nearly a year since the elections that brought Ennahdha to power for the first time in October 2011. How would you evaluate your party’s performance so far?

Rachid Ghannouchi: In the name of Allah, blessing and peace be upon the messenger of Allah.

We feel more confident with the passage of time, we gain more experience.

We deal with problems while feeling more confident, we keep overcoming serious problems. The Troika [the governing coalition between Ennahdha and two secular centre-left parties] has remained intact during this period, and that is a difficult task in a coalition government.

We are making progress in resolving problems while co-operating with other parties, and we believe that the future will be more promising.

YR: You were one of the first thinkers who argued that political Islam was compatible with democracy. Now that you’re putting those ideas to the test, are you experiencing any contradictions or challenges?

From left to right: Hassan al-Turabi of Sudan, Sheikh Hamad bin Thamer Al-Thani, Al Jazeera chairman of the board,  Rachid Ghannouchi, and Sheikh Ahmad Bin Jassim Al-Thani, director-general of Al Jazeera Media [Yasmine Ryan/Al Jazeera]

RG: Today, I signed my book, “Democracy and Human Rights in Islam,” which I had written before the revolution. My ideas and convictions were not opportunistic, but my sincerely felt ideas.

For more than a quarter of a century, I have continued to affirm that democracy and Islam are integral, not conflicting principles. Democracy thrives with Islam and Islam thrives with democracy. They [Islam and democracy] are intimate and co-existent couples and friends. Therefore, we Islamists do not face any difficulty or religious taboo when we advocate an Islamic democracy.

YR: In your talk, you stressed the need for Islamists to seek allies on the left and in secular parties. But the Troika is increasingly strained, and even Marzouki, one of your closest allies, recently said that Ennahdha is trying to dominate Tunisian political life in the same way that the RCD [Ben Ali’s now disbanded party] did. Do you think there’s some truth to what he said?

RG: Dr.Marzouki is our president. He has criticised Ennahdha, but in the same statement, he had reaffirmed his alliance with Ennahdha, and his continuing commitment to the coalition. If he were to restart this process, he would have engaged in this alliance because he viewed it as a strategic alliance between moderate Islamists and moderate secularists.

People criticise one another; this is normal. We consider this criticism to be inappropriate, and that his criticisms were unjustified. Allies do, however, have the right to criticise one another.

YR: When I interviewed you in March last year, you said that Ennahdha would not alter women’s legal status in Tunisia. You said you would leave the 1956 Code of Personal Status as it was. Yet in August this year, Ennahdha proposed controversial constitutional changes that would make women “complementary” to men. Doesn’t this vague wording open the door for the erosion of women’s rights? And haven’t you gone back on your word? 

RG: These are our permanent unchanging principles; that there will be no change in this matter [the status of women]. The concept of complementarity does not contradict the concept of equality”, as they are a reflection of equality. Complementarity means that women complement men, and men complement women. Because they need one another, they supplement each other.

This is one of the implications of equality. The draft constitution itself has reaffirmed in other areas the principle of equality, we have constantly insisted on the principle of equality. But the meaning of integration indicates the family, another meaning other than equality, which is the need to take care of family life.

YR: On Monday, the news broke that Qatar would expel Sakhr El-Materi [Ben Ali’s son-in-law, who fled to the Gulf state after the Tunisian uprising and was convicted of corruption and property fraud in absentia]. Is he being sent to Tunisia? Will he serve out his prison sentence?

RG: I don’t know his whereabouts, but the Tunisian authorities will track him down anywhere for recovering the people’s assets. Sakhr El-Materi, a young man who is less than 30 years old, had become the wealthiest person in Tunisia. The source of his wealth is mysterious. Ben Ali was not a wealthy man, which means this is the wealth of the Tunisian people and should be recovered by the people who have suffered a great deal of problems because of the plundering carried out by Ben Ali’s family, including Sakhr El-Materi, regrettably.

YR: Ennahdha has an ambiguous relationship with the Salafist movement. Why are the authorities not doing more to protect people from the recent acts of violence and intimidation?

RG: Salafists are part of the Tunisian people, enjoying the same rights and bound by same duties. They have the right to express their views by peaceful means, but they have to abide by the law, which is applicable to Salafists and non-Salafists. We defend their right to freely express their views and all their rights, but they should abide by the law. But if violated the law they would be liable [for punishment].

YR: Is it true that you are suing the Independent for the article by Robert Fisk in which the Syrian foreign minister said that you had accepted money from Qatar for Ennahdha’s political campaign?

RG: The Independent is a respectable newspaper and Robert Fisk is a great journalist. But if he and the paper overstepped reasonable limits, published false news, he should be held accountable. I have hired Carter-Ruck in London, an expert company in this respect, to file a lawsuit against the newspaper and the journalist, or at least to ask for an apology.

YR: Has Fisk contacted you to discuss the allegations?

RG: Not yet.

YR: There have been many threats against Tunisian artists in recent months, and some say that the claims of blasphemy are less about religion and more about silencing political criticism…

RG: We defend the freedom of innovation, we believe that freedom of innovation is not absolute, but should be restricted by customs and values prevailing in each society as each society has its own ethics. Arts, as well as journalism, should respect the values of the people. In order to live in society, we should respect each other’s sacred values.

Ennahdha did not file a lawsuit against anyone, but if a citizen or a lawyer filed a lawsuit against an artist, the courts would arbitrate. Ennahdha has never filed lawsuits against any artist or journalist.

YR: Concerning the charges against Ayoub Messaoudi [Marzouki’s former advisor who criticised the army and defence minister for not informing the president of their decision to extradite Baghdadi Mahmoudi to Libya], isn’t taking a political dispute into the courtroom exactly the type of tactic the former regime used against its opponents, including your own movement?

RG: We are not part of this case. He accused the military, and the military filed a suit at the court. We have played no part in this, as we defend the role played by the military in supporting the revolution.

YR: What are the main lessons that your movement has learn since coming to power, and what do you think you will do differently in the future?

RG: The youth of the Ennahdha movement are not entirely pleased with the performance of the government. They want the government to speed up the pace of the transitional justice courts, and to try the conies of the ousted regime.

They want the government to take a tough stand against corruption and corrupt officials, and against those who have stolen [public funds] and tortured people.

We expect next year, in the near future, that government will take steps to combat corruption, to put corrupt officials on trial and to speed up development projects; steps that would be more effective in the next phase [of the political transition]. 

Follow Yasmine Ryan on Twitter: @YasmineRyan 

Source: Al Jazeera