Wednesday, October 1, 2014

An Afternoon With Rachid al-Ghannouchi

As a follow up to the recent Evening With Ayaan Hirsi Ali, yesterday THC attended a lecture at Yale Law School by Sheik Rachid al-Ghannouchi, leader of Ennahda, Tunisia's Islamist party.  The Sheik (as he was referred to) spoke about democracy in Tunisia after the Arab Spring revolt of 2011.

Because of his complicated, and at times murky, background this post will contain more biographical information than did the Ali post.

The Shiek was born in 1941 and became attracted to political Islam in the 1960s.  In 1981 he founded the Islamic Tendency Movement, specifically based on non-violent Islam, to seek reform from the autocratic administration of Tunisia's long-time President, Habib Bourguiba.  That same year he was arrested, imprisoned and tortured before being released in 1984.  In 1987 he was arrested again and sentenced to life imprisonment but freed shortly after Bourguiba was deposeda.  In 1989 he went into exile in England where he remained until the overthrow of Bourguiba's successor Ben Ali in early 2011.  Upon his return he became leader of Ennahda and one of the most prominent politicians in Tunisia.  Ennahda is the largest Tunisian political party and has been actively involved in the development of Tunisia's new constitution which was adopted in January 2014.  The country's first parliamentary elections under the new constitution will be held on October 26 and its first President election on November 23.  Despite Ennahda's popularity it will not field a Presidential candidate.

While regarded as a democratic Islamic moderate al-Ghannouchi also has a more controversial side.  He is an outspoken opponent of Israel and a strong supporter of Hamas, the latter position resulting in him being denied a visa to visit America in 1994.  He also denounced King Fahd of Saudi Arabia for the "colossal crime" of inviting US forces into his country in response to Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

According to the Investigative Project On Terrorism reporting on a 2011 visit by the Sheik to the U.S:

In a May interview with the Al Arab Qatari website, for example, Ghannouchi called for the destruction of Israel and expressed optimism that the Jewish state would disappear in the very near future.

The Arab Spring "will achieve positive results on the path to the Palestinian cause and threaten the extinction of Israel," Ghannouchi said. "I give you the good news that the Arab region will get rid of the bacillus of Israel. Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the leader of Hamas, said that Israel will disappear by the year 2027. I say that this date may be too far away, and Israel may disappear before this."

[Cautionary note:  The link takes you to an Arabic language website and THC has been unable to find an English language version so cannot vouch for the accuracy of the statements quoted.  This is a not uncommon problem in this area.  As an example see this apology that The Economist issued to the Sheik in 2011.  Doing some quick research for this post THC found several statements repeated in many articles but could not locate an original source.  For instance there is a repeated allegation that "Mr. Al-Ghannouchi was a founding trustee and board member of a group that signed onto a notorious 2004 fatwa endorsing the killing of U.S. troops in Iraq and has personally urged the Muslim world to “burn and destroy” U.S. interests across the glob" but THC has not found a definitive source to support this.  THC did found several contemporaneous articles containing other statements demonstrating al-Ghannouchi's hostility to Israel and to American policy in the Middle East].

(Recent photo from al-Ghannouchi's Facebook page showing him with leader of Hamas)

Because of his ties with the Muslim Brotherhood he has also raised suspicions about his ultimate goals with other Arabs interested in reform (see this article from Al Arabiya News) and amongst those concerned about some of the ambiguities in his public statements (see this Open Letter, for instance).

Unlike Hirsi Ali's appearance, the Sheik's lecture was not the subject of objections or protests from the Muslim Students Association or any other student group. 

What follows are THC's notes from the lecture and Q&A.  There were about 100 attendees with the room not quite filled to capacity.  The Sheikh's lecture was in Arabic with simultaneous translation but he answered questions in English.  With him was a female aide who responded to some of the questions regarding details of the new constitution; she was quite well-spoken.  In person the Sheik comes across as humble and good-natured and made several jokes.

The Professor introducing the Sheik (but who failed to introduce himself) hailed the new Tunisian Constitution pointing out that it rejected Sharia law and provided for the protection of the rights of women, noting that Tunisia was, quoting al-Ghannouchi, the "last candle" of the Arab Spring.

The Sheik started by noting that justice and oppression were the only things fairly distributed during the 40 years of dictatorship but that today, three years after the Arab Spring, Tunisia was the "only tree standing in a destroyed forest".  He spoke of it as the birth of the first Arab democracy and of Islam rejecting terrorism.

He spoke of the difficulties during this transition period mentioning that in 2013 terrorists entered Tunisia and conducted two political assassinations that almost dealt a fatal blow to democracy.

The new Constitution is the 1st Arab constitution enshrining freedom of conscience and association and believes there is no conflict between Islam and democracy and that the terrorists (who he later described as Al-Queda affiliated) have remained isolated.

He described why he thought Tunisia was succeeding where others failed:

1.  Belief in co-existence between moderate Islam and moderate secularism.  That coalition has worked.
2.  Rejection of exclusion.  They opposed the proposed political exclusion law which would have forbid previous regime figures from running for office in the future those eliminating a potential grievance.
3.  A consensus approach to governance rejecting monopolization of power based on 51% of the vote.  Ennahda specifically rejected this even though it was the largest party, making sacrifices such as not taking key ministries and not running a candidate in the upcoming Presidential election.
4.  The military stood by the people and did not intervene in the process.

The challenges were terrorism and economics.  He did not speak much to the latter other than the importance of growing the economy to provide opportunities for people.  As to terrorism he stated that with a declaration of August 27, 2013 the Tunisian government had declared its own "war on terror" against two groups but that military solution alone was not sufficient and must be countered by capturing "hearts and minds" [yes, he used that exact phrase].

Islam has no relation to terrorism.  It is a religion of peace.

1.  (From Professor who introduced Sheik). On the compatibility of Islam with democracy.  If democracy means the sovereignty of the people and Islam is based on the sovereignty of God how can this be reconciled?

A.  There is no contradiction.  In Islam there is no church, no religious authority, no official spokesman for God.  A Muslim makes direct communication with God.  There are many interpretations of Holy Text - there is no official interpretation.  The people of Islam are free to adopt any interpretation.

2.  (From Syrian who fled the country).  Started by commenting, "We followed the Tunisian example and look where it got us".  Question was around how to handle returning radicalized fighters from Syria. 

A.  Sheik mentioned their experience when after 2011 revolt 3,000 political prisoners were released by the new government but some of them resorted to terrorism and that prompted the 2013 decree outlawing two of the groups.  He went on to say it requires a social, security and cultural solution but that their view of Islam is false [occurred to me that this might contradict the Sheik's response to the first question].

3.  (From an Egyptian-American).  What went wrong in Egypt?

A.  The Egyptian elite (by this he meant across the political spectrum) refused to dialogue and manage differences.  In Tunisia in 2013 when things were near collapse the Chamber of Commerce, Labour organizations and the human rights league intervened and called the government and opposition together.  In Egypt the military intervened to prevent dialogue.

4.  If Muslims are free to chose doctrine does this not open the door to terrorism?

A.  We oppose extremism.  Democracy is pluralism.  We recognize all who recognize the rule of law.

5.  Does he consider Hamas attacks on Israelis to be terrorism?

A.  "I come to talk for Tunisia" and refuses to say anything further.  This was the only time when he was interrupted with applause.

6.  How do you improve the rule of law after the dictatorship and corruption?

A.  Still a work in progress.  Next challenge is turning the Constitution into law.  They have established a Constitutional Court along with independent committees empowered to balance executive and legislative branches.

7.  (From a Tunisian who left country).  Concern about ex-regime people now returning to the country and maybe returning to office.

A.  He opposes automatic exclusion and revenge or collective punishment just based on holding a position in the old regime.  That would only spread the hatred.  He cited Mandela as an example of reconciliation and then said we must "make victory against our desires for revenge".

THC had to leave at this point so missed last few questions.

It is clear that regardless of who rules the Arab countries that hostility towards Israel and the U.S. will remain.  As to the future of democracy in Tunisia it will be very interesting to see how this plays out in the next few years and the role the Sheik chooses to play.  Is he an actual inclusive Islamic democrat or just a cleverer tactical politician than those in Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood?  THC doesn't have a clue.

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