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Opinion: Ghannouchi and Separating Religion From Politics - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Sheikh Rachid Ghannouchi is a leading figure in the field of political Islam. He is one of a few leaders, like the late Sudanese leader Hassan Al-Turabi, that has a presence and influence that can be used to change the course of Islamic movements and governments, and save them from themselves in addition to saving the region from projects to dominate the government.

But there are two different Rachid Ghannouchis, there is one who addresses the west and then there is another who is the head of the Tunisian Ennahda party.

Coinciding with the tenth conference of the Tunisian Ennahda Movement held recently, Ghannouchi told the French newspaper Le Monde “Ennahda is a political, democratic, and civil party based on Muslim and modern civilizational values. We are moving towards a party that specialises solely in political activities…We are leaving political Islam and entering democratic Islam. We are Muslim democrats who no longer claim political Islam” We want religious activity to be completely separate from political activity. This is very good for politicians because, in this way, they can no longer be accused of manipulating religion for political ends. And this is very good also for religion so that it is not a hostage to politics and manipulated by politicians”. These are great words at a time when such a proposal is needed.

However, we saw the other Ghannouchi when he delivered a speech to the party on the same day in which he said “We are surprised by the insistence of some to remove religion from national life, although the leaders of the national movement have historically adhered to our Muslim religion.” This is all very confusing because he contradicted himself on the same day.

The majority of workers in other parties are also patriotic Tunisians and Muslims, but Ennahda wants to be presented as a representative of Islam. Here lies the controversy; Islam is a consistent creed as opposed to politics which is variable civil work and has been persistently used by figures of authority who work in the religious field.

The President of Tunisia Beji Caid Essebsi, who delivered a speech in front of the Ennahda party, said he was reluctant to attend the party’s conference due to the large number of licensed parties in Tunisia (about 204). However, he singled out Ennahda because the party plays an important role, and he urged it to transform into a civilian oriented party.

Despite the contradiction, Ghannouchi’s remarks to the French newspaper Le Monde, was greeted enthusiastically by the media and intellectual and political figures via social media. They considered it a shift that was intellectually and historically important, and that with this concept the sheikh would not only lead Tunisia, but also the Islamic world towards modernising the concept and role of political Islam. If he means what he says, his statements reflect a progressive ideology that puts him ahead of other political religious figures. However, I do not really know who to believe; the Ghannouchi of Le Monde or the Ghannouchi of the Tunisian religious renaissance. He is not the only one whose speech is contradictory.

What makes so called “moderate” leaders deliver contradictory speeches? Is this a policy of caution? Or are they marketing their personalities and their parties to the West? Or do they live contradictory lives?

I have had discussions with many of them including Sheikh Rashid, and despite our differences which went to the British courts, he is a prominent intellectual figure. He has a renewed proposal and has lived through the era of many different movements, has learnt from them and impacted them. However, I think the sheikh is a fox, like all other foxes of politics.

This does not diminish the value of his idea, and I imagine that he means what he says about his desire to develop the party’s Islamic thought by aligning it with the western and European experience so that those who hold Islamic ideas engage in political activities and influence it with their religious point of view whilst also respecting their competitors within the broad democratic concept.

However, a leader’s desire to stay in power may obstruct this tolerant thought because a leader must adopt the view of his party members. This is why we see Ghannouchi wearing two hats; one hat belongs to the liberal western Islamic thinker and the other belongs to the Islamist party member who wants to stay in power.

As the head of Ennahda, Ghannouchi is eager to please the party’s supporters and the wider Islamic audience which is mostly against the idea of coexistence with others and adopts the principle of monopolising governance. This is what Dr Turabi did in Sudan and what the Muslim Brotherhood Party did in Egypt, after it rode the wave of democracy and obtained power. It then tried to dominate and disregarded the rules of democracy, and this allowed others to use its practices as a pretext for attaining power.