On Saturday 16 February 2013 Rashid Al-Ghannouchi addressed a crowd of tens of thousands in Tunis, to reaffirm the goals of the Tunisian Revolution two years after the overthrow of the Ben Ali regime . Composed mostly of pro-Ennahda and Salafi supporters, the Islamist rally was interpreted by most local and foreign media as a show of strength by Tunisia’s Islamist community in the face of growing opposition to the country’s Islamist-led government. The rally also followed weeks of political tension and street protests sparked by the assassination of left-wing Tunisian politician and human rights lawyer Chokri Belaid.
Mahan Abedin witnessed the rally and subsequently met and interviewed Rashid Al-Ghannouchi in the El-Manzah district of Tunis. In this wide-ranging interview Al-Ghannouchi discusses the gains and challenges of post-revolutionary politics, in addition to sharing his thoughts on the international Islamic movement.
This discussion builds on the January 2011 interview when Al-Ghannouchi was met by Religioscope just a day before he left for Tunis following the overthrow of the Ben Ali regime.
Born in 1941 in Qabis province (southern Tunisia) Al-Ghannouchi received higher education in Cairo, Damascus and the Sorbonne in Paris. In 1981 Al-Ghannouchi founded the Al-Ittijah al-Islami (Islamic Tendency) which was renamed Hizb al-Nahda (aka Hizb Ennahda) or the Renaissance Party in 1989.
Notwithstanding his lack of a formal role either in Ennahda or the Tunisian government, Al-Ghannouchi is universally regarded as the intellectual leader of the former and is widely considered to be the most powerful man in Tunisia at present.
In recognition of his status as a major Islamic and political thinker, Al-Ghannouchi was named as one of TIME‘s 100 Most Influential People in the World in 2012 and Foreign Policy‘s Top 100 Global Thinkers in 2011.
Mahan Abedin – You have just given a speech to a pro-Ennanhda rally. What did you tell the crowd today?
Rashid Al-Ghannouchi – I confirmed the legitimacy of the system, namely that of the constituent assembly (parliament) and of the elected government. I opposed calls to dismantle the government with a view to establishing a government of technocrats which I believe is tantamount to a soft coup d’état.
Mahan Abedin – But the call was made from someone inside your own party, namely the Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali .
Rashid Al-Ghannouchi – I am not talking about the intention but I would consider such a move a negative one against the people and against the revolution. Such a move means that we go back to the Ben Ali regime. In today’s speech I re-asserted Ennahda’s identity. The media is trying to sabotage Ennahda’s image of moderate Islamism by linking us to Salafsm. They are trying to say that we engage in double standards and that our belief in democracy and human rights is superficial and false. This is the official discourse of the local media and the media is trying to impose this interpretation and world view on the foreign media, especially in France. Ennahda is a moderate political Islamic movement and party.
Mahan Abedin – Your speech today comes in the wake of serious incidents in the past weeks and more and more people are talking about a polarisation in Tunisian politics.
Rashid Al-Ghannouchi – I tried to dismiss talks of polarisation centred on secularists and Islamists. My point is that the only polarisation is between the revolutionaries and the counter-revolutionaries.
Mahan Abedin – But to what extent were the events of the past few weeks predictable?
Rashid Al-Ghannouchi – The killing of Chokri Belaid was not expected.
Mahan Abedin – I am not referring to that particular incident but to the general mood that prevails today, namely the mood of polarisation. To what extent was that predictable?
Rashid Al-Ghannouchi – Please explain further.
Mahan Abedin – I mean didn’t you always anticipate such ferocious opposition in view of your party’s remarkable successes in the past two years, especially the resounding success at the October 2011 parliamentary elections?
Rashid Al-Ghannouchi – When you put it like that then perhaps you are right. But we are directing significant efforts into overcoming these differences. But by the same token we shouldn’t over-estimate this opposition. The opposition is divided into former regime elements linked to the formerly ruling Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) and hardcore leftist types. Their only common base and unifying cause is antipathy toward Ennahda and Islamists. Beyond that, they agree on very little. They were bitter enemies for many years and they have only sought to cooperate tactically against the rising tide of Ennahda and the Tunisian Islamic movement as a whole.
Mahan Abedin – At your speech today you re-affirmed the discourse of the Tunisian revolution. But according to your own definition of revolution which you formulated during the long years of exile, has Tunisia experienced revolutionary change in the past two years?
Rashid Al-Ghannouchi – Yes we have. But every revolution has to contend with counter-revolutionaries. We are at the beginning of the process and the struggle against the remnants of the former regime and other counter-revolutionary types continues apace. The transition process in terms of securing justice has hardly begun. We have formed a new ministry to establish justice for the victims of the previous regime but many files remain closed.
Mahan Abedin – Don’t you think the core problem in the Tunisian case is that you haven’t forcefully removed the remnants of the former regime from positions of power and influence? If you look at all the classic examples of modern revolutions, such as the French, Russian and Iranian revolutions, the revolutionaries moved quickly to completely dismantle the old system and to re-make the state from scratch. Critics might argue that you have barely scratched the surface in Tunisia.
Rashid Al-Ghannouchi – I disagree with that assessment. We have made significant progress in forming and developing new institutions. If you look at the elected assembly all of the elected deputies are from the ranks of the revolution. This is revolutionary change.
Mahan Abedin – What has disappointed you the most in the past couple of years?
Rashid Al-Ghannouchi – The abuse of freedoms by Ennahda’s opponents. They try to cause chaos on the streets, they picket outside government buildings; they have brought work in some factories to a halt; and they have mobilised the trade unions as the main bastion of opposition against the government. The trade unions are in the hands of the far left and this is a constituency that barely secured two per cent of the popular vote in the last elections (October 2011), so they try to compensate for their lack of electoral clout by flexing their trade union muscles. The far left is also strong in the media sector. They can’t compete with Ennahda in the political arena, so they are agitating in other arenas, namely the economic arena where we face considerable challenges.
Mahan Abedin – You are painting a picture of semi-chaos, with Ennahda and its Islamist allies in one corner and the far left, the secularists and former regime elements on the other. Where do the security and intelligence services stand in this bitter political struggle?
Rashid Al-Ghannouchi – The Ben Ali regime was a police state. After the revolution many in the security and intelligence sector stood accused of torture and other abuses. Consequently, the security and intelligence sector feels besieged and many in that community feel demoralised and dejected.
Mahan Abedin – But are elements in the security and intelligence sector actively helping your opponents?
Rashid Al-Ghannouchi – I don’t think so, because they are preoccupied with their own problems. Their main concern is to escape prosecution in cases related to the former regime’s victims. Moreover, there are re-training programmes afoot in that sector and many security service personnel and police officers are being re-trained.
Mahan Abedin – Have you actively tried to place your own members and sympathisers inside security and intelligence structures?
Rashid Al-Ghannouchi – Very few because security structures tend to be total institutions with a highly idiosyncratic culture and a well-defined hierarchy. You can’t just parachute people in who have no background in this sector. You have to respect the hierarchy.
Mahan Abedin – But you can try to transform these institutions systemically by changing their culture and operational methods.
Rashid Al-Ghannouchi – This is being done at present, albeit slowly. The Ministry of the Interior is co-operating with European security forces to re-train our police. But this has to be a slow process and these institutions must be given the time and space to effect meaningful changes, changes that are in accord with the spirit and values of the Tunisian Revolution.
Mahan Abedin – In your January 2011 interview with Religioscope you argued that political Islam and democracy are compatible, but some well-informed and well-intentioned people disagree with that conclusion. How do you alleviate this significant level of scepticism and indeed fear on the part of secular Westerners and Tunisians alike?
Rashid Al-Ghannouchi – We have made it very clear that we will never impose our understanding and vision of Islam on society. For example, in today’s demonstration one of the slogans was: “if you pray then that is good, if you don’t pray we ask Allah to guide you”. The underlying logic is that we are all Tunisian citizens and no party or movement has the right to impose their values and behavioural norms on others.
Mahan Abedin – It appears that your central strategy of addressing the fears of local and foreign secularists is to stress the citizenship discourse.
Rashid Al-Ghannouchi – Yes, that is correct.
Mahan Abedin – But this strategy can only go so far since politics is not always conducted rationally, especially at the street level. By way of an example, at today’s rally my own observation was that ninety per cent of participants are what you might call hardcore Islamist types. At least their appearance, their mannerism and their slogans gave this impression. This is potentially divisive, don’t you think?
Rashid Al-Ghannouchi – But at least you admit that ten per cent were not of this category and as you saw some women at the rally were not observing the Islamic Hijab. This indicates that we can attract non-Islamists to our movement.
Mahan Abedin – But historically speaking, one of the core aims of the modern Islamic revivalist movements has been to Islamise the public sphere, that is to entrench Islamic values and norms at street level, in particular by banning the sale and consumption of alcohol and by enforcing the Islamic Hijab. Are you saying you no longer believe in this fundamental aspiration?
Rashid Al-Ghannouchi – No, I want to Islamise society, but I want to do this through soft methods, namely consultation and persuasion. Islamisation cannot be achieved by force.
Mahan Abedin – Are you saying that no matter how strong Ennahda becomes politically and electorally – for instance, say tomorrow you secure eighty per cent of the popular vote – you are not going to try to introduce Islamisation not necessarily by force but by way of positive discrimination and other active measures? For example, you are not going to try to create incentives (or dis-incentives) for shops to stop selling alcohol and similar measures?
Rashid Al-Ghannouchi – Never! We won’t do this. We believe that at the heart of religiosity lies “intentions” and that religious behaviour must be based on strong belief. We are interested in strengthening beliefs not in creating surface appearances.
Mahan Abedin – But isn’t there a danger of stressing democracy too much at the expense of the religious base and values of your movement? Moreover, given that your belief in democracy appears to be rock solid, what specific contribution can a religious Islamic movement like Ennahda make to the cause of democracy and good governance in Tunisia and indeed the broader Arab world?
Rashid Al-Ghannouchi – Our plan is to make democracy work in a local and indigenous setting by making it compatible with religious values. Democracy is not just a tool and a set of procedures, it is in fact based on a culture, a culture of tolerance and mutual understanding, and as such it is compatible with all the major world religions, including Islam.
Mahan Abedin – Looking at this historically, the post-colonial regimes in the Arab world failed to bring democracy. Instead they entrenched various forms and degrees of autocratic rule. What makes you so confident that Islamists can do any better?
Rashid Al-Ghannouchi – The answer is very simple. The post-colonial regimes failed to bring democracy because they marginalised Islam. If you want democracy in the Arab world you have to emancipate political actors who are foremost motivated by religious beliefs. It is not insignificant that in Turkey the cause of democracy and human rights was considerably strengthened by the coming to power of the Islamists of the Justice and Development Party (AKP).
Mahan Abedin – On that note, is the Turkish AKP a role model for you?
Rashid Al-Ghannouchi – Yes, it is a successful model. But it is a Turkish model and as such it is adapted to local circumstances. We can’t copy that model wholesale in Tunisia but we can take valuable lessons from it and apply them here.
Mahan Abedin – Ennahda has been described as an enigma with “moderate top layers and a base defined by a distinctly fundamentalist tilt”. Isn’t this a fair appraisal of the complexities of the movement?
Rashid Al-Ghannouchi – Ennahda is a large movement with many tendencies. But all of these tendencies believe in the so-called moderate Islam. This is the base of all Ennahda members and supporters. We are an Islamic movement so no one in this movement can be outside Islam. At the same time we believe in democracy and no one in Ennahda can reject the democratic process. Moreover, from an organisational point of view, all Ennahda members and supporters have to respect the decisions of the movement’s core institutions.
Mahan Abedin – I understand that this is a disciplined movement with well-developed decision-making processes. But let’s try to imagine the following scenario. Let’s imagine that on a particularly contentious issue the base of the movement is far away from the leadership and that there are major divisions in the movement as a result. Even under those circumstances you are confident the base will obey the leadership?
Rashid Al-Ghannouchi – Not the leadership, but the institutions and the official decision-making apparatus of the movement.
Mahan Abedin – You don’t fear major defections from your ranks in the future?
Rashid Al-Ghannouchi – Anyone who doesn’t obey the official decisions will find themselves marginalised. A good example is that of Sheikh (Abdelfattah) Mourou, who was marginalised because he decided to canvass outside the official Ennahda list at the (October 2011 parliamentary) elections. He decided to challenge the movement and as a result he was forced out.
Mahan Abedin – The quest for Khilafah (Caliphate) is still the primary ideological goal for many Sunni Islamists. Has Ennahda abandoned or merely re-formulated the quest for an Islamic Caliphate?
Rashid Al-Ghannouchi – Ennahda operates within a national framework and we regard the nation-state as the primary point of reference in international politics. But of course from a religious point of view, we believe in the concept of an Islamic nation (Ummah), but the fact is we are divided into nation-states and we have to work within this framework. The only thing we can do is to increase cooperation between Islamic states with a view to entrenching unity at an institutional level.
Mahan Abedin – You say that, but back in November 2011 the secretary-general of Ennahda (and former Prime Minister) alarmed segments of local and international opinion by referring to a “Sixth Caliphate”.
Rashid Al-Ghannouchi – They are just words.
Mahan Abedin – But words are a window onto intentions.
Rashid Al-Ghannouchi – He was quoted out of context. He talked of the early five Caliphs of Islamic history as an example to follow. He was talking about values. His words were interpreted literally and they were seized upon by our opponents as political ammunition to be used against us.
Mahan Abedin – To what extent can we re-formulate the Khilafah concept to serve practical political goals at the international level? For instance, can you imagine a supra-national body like the European Union (EU) emerging from a radically transformed Khilafah concept?
Rashid Al-Ghannouchi – Yes, the EU is a powerful example and a similar project can be undertaken in North Africa and the wider Arab world. In any case, Khilafah is a political concept not a religious one.
Mahan Abedin – But there is a body of opinion which contends that an Islamic state, based on the Sunni tradition, can only be viable and durable if it is underpinned by the Khilafah concept and the resulting institutions. By way of comparison, they point to the Imamat system in Shia Islam, and the resulting Velayat-e-Faqih (rule of the Jurisconsult) concept, which has been successfully applied in Iran.
Rashid Al-Ghannouchi – Our model is the nation-state. It is neither possible to overcome this centuries-old system nor to operate outside it. But we can create new spaces and possibilities with a view to promoting and entrenching Islamic unity on the global stage.
Mahan Abedin – You say this but at today’s rally I heard with my own ears slogans calling for “Hukuma Islamiyah” (Islamic state), and some might argue that by definition an Islamic state in the Sunni tradition must be based on the Khilafah concept, since historically and ideologically there is no other model to work with. Some might argue that you can’t have an Islamic state and democracy operating side by side. It is a contradiction in terms.
Rashid Al-Ghannouchi – No, we believe in the Muslim state and the first article of our constitution states that Tunisia is an independent state based on an Arab and Islamic identity.
Mahan Abedin – The influence of the Salafis appears to be growing in Tunisia. In your view, are the Salafis a threat to Tunisian democracy?
Rashid Al-Ghannouchi – I don’t think so. It is a challenge but it is not a real threat. Tunisian culture can’t accommodate the Salafi project. This project runs counter to the very nature and mood of the Tunisian people, the vast majority of whom prefer to follow moderate Islam. The Salafis thrive in areas and regions where there are serious socio-economic challenges, such as poverty. To counter this challenge, we have to remedy the underlying socio-economic malaise.
Mahan Abedin – In terms of categories, what type of Salafism constitutes the dominant category?
Rashid Al-Ghannouchi – Most of them belong to the Ilmiyah (Scholastic) category. And this category cooperates with Ennahda in the political realm. Some of them attended today’s rally.
Mahan Abedin – What about the Salafi-Jihadi tendency. How strong are they?
Rashid Al-Ghannouchi – They are a minority within the Salafi community but they are thousands strong. It is not an insignificant sub-culture in the Tunisian Salafi community. They consider Ennahda-type Islam as “Islam-lite” and for the time being they are willing to tolerate it. But they have made it clear that they would call for Jihad if the secularists and the far left came to power.
Mahan Abedin – Ennahda has been accused of adopting an accommodating or at least a tolerant attitude towards the excesses of Salafi activism in Tunisia. What is your response to this accusation?
Rashid Al-Ghannouchi – We reject this accusation. We are not soft on Salafi radicals. But we refuse to declare war on them, by for instance arresting them en masse in the style of the former regime. The secularists are pushing us to arrest and detain Salafis by the thousands and I told them if you wish for Tunisia to be ruled by Salafis in a decade’s time then you should adopt this tough security approach. This is what Ben Ali achieved for Ennahda. He oppressed and victimised us for decades and now we are in power.
Mahan Abedin – To what extent are Jihadi Salafis engaged in violent activities in Tunisia?
Rashid Al-Ghannouchi – To my knowledge, in the past year twelve Salafis have been killed in skirmishes with the army and the security forces. Some have been imprisoned and around five hundred have been arrested as a result of specific violent incidents such as the attack on the US embassy (in September 2012).
Mahan Abedin – What is Ennahda doing to moderate Salafi behaviour?
Rashid Al-Ghannouchi – We try to encourage them to regulate their affairs by forming coherent organisations. This is the best approach in terms of integrating them into the system and thereby to minimise the risk of violence. But we can’t suppress their ideology. If we can tolerate extreme leftists in Tunisia, why can’t we tolerate the Salafis?
Mahan Abedin – Looking at the regional and international scene, and in view of the unprecedented political developments of the past two years, do you think the future of the Arab world belongs to Islamists?
Rashid Al-Ghannouchi – Yes, no doubt. There is no other coherent mass-based ideology to guide society. The nationalists and the leftists have been defeated at every level. Only the Islamists are left on the scene.
Mahan Abedin – To what extent is your future here in Tunisia tied to the success (or lack thereof) of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt?
Rashid Al-Ghannouchi – We are in a different situation in Tunisia. Tunisian culture is different to the Egyptian one. Moreover, we are more closely tied to Europe and the European Union. We don’t see our future being determined by events in Egypt.
Mahan Abedin – What is your opinion of the performance of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt?
Rashid Al-Ghannouchi – I don’t follow events in Egypt in a detailed manner. I am entirely preoccupied with Tunisian affairs. Previously, when we were in exile I used to follow Egyptian politics and commented on it by writing articles. In any case, in answer to your question, it appears that the situation in Egypt is far more complicated than the one in Tunisia.
Mahan Abedin – You have always been regarded as a strong proponent of Shia-Sunni unity. How do you assess the strength of sectarian-based identity politics in the Middle East?
Rashid Al-Ghannouchi – Ennahda has always been tolerant toward Shia Islam. We were influenced by the Iranian Revolution of 1979. We even propagated in favour of the Iranian Islamic revolution. Because of that we were accused by the Salafis and others of being pro-Iranian. We continue to defend the Shia role in the Islamic community. Shiaism is not the best form of Islam but it is part of Islam nonetheless. However, I don’t support Shia proselytization activities in Tunisia.
Mahan Abedin – Who is behind these activities?
Rashid Al-Ghannouchi – For the most part Iran-based organisations. But there are also groups from Iraq, Kuwait and elsewhere who are engaged in such activities in Tunisia.
Mahan Abedin – How many people have they converted?
Rashid Al-Ghannouchi – Definitely hundreds of hardcore converts. Tunisia is a remarkably homogeneous country in terms of religion, race and culture and we don’t want this reality to be altered.
Mahan Abedin – Partisans and supporters of the Islamic Republic of Iran contend that the Islamic system in Iran – and the principle of Velayat-e-Faqih which underpins it – remains the only authentic and at minimum the only successful model of Islamic governance in the modern period. What is your view?
Rashid Al-Ghannouchi – The Iranian model is only attractive to Shias and even then not to all Shias. The Velayat-e-Faqih system has been successful because it has come to be associated with Iranian nationalism and the geopolitical aspirations of the Iranian state.
Mahan Abedin – Do you not consider Velayat-e-Faqih as an authentic Islamic model?
Rashid Al-Ghannouchi – No I don’t. The Muslim state is democratic and it is based on the rule of the people. Velayat-eFaqih in contrast is based on the notion that the ruler (Valiy-e-Faqih) is not a normal human being in so far as he has extraordinary and super-human capabilities. He has absolute power and this idea is entirely inconsistent with the Sunni tradition.
Mahan Abedin – What is your assessment of the situation in Syria?
Rashid Al-Ghannouchi – I believe the Syrian people will topple the dictator. Iran is committing a major mistake by supporting the Syrian regime. I met the Iranian ambassador recently and I asked him how can a regime that was formed out of a revolution now stand against another people’s revolution? How can people who fought and defeated the Shah now support another dictator?
Mahan Abedin – Do you believe the successor regime in Syria will be Islamic in nature and character?
Rashid Al-Ghannouchi – Yes, I believe so.
Mahan Abedin – To what extent can newly empowered Islamic groups in North Africa – and their ideological compatriots in the Middle East – re-define Arab-Western relations?
Rashid Al-Ghannouchi – We are determined to assert our independence whilst at the same time seeking equitable relations with all powers, including the West. Historically, the West has preferred to deal with dictators in the Arab world because they could impose unequal relations on these dictators.
Mahan Abedin – Do you believe the West will accept the new democratic reality in North Africa and the wider Arab world?
Rashid Al-Ghannouchi – Yes, they will accept it. There is no other choice.
Mahan Abedin – At today’s rally I noticed some placards accusing the French of pursuing neo-colonial policies in Tunisia. Some placards even drew a comparison with the French military intervention against the ruling Islamists in central and northern Mali. Do you envisage a period of tension with the former colonial ruler?
Rashid Al-Ghannouchi – I didn’t encourage these placards and in principle I am against inflammatory statements, from both sides. But I ask the French not to intervene in our affairs. We don’t interfere in their business and they shouldn’t interfere in ours. We have strong institutional relations with the European Union and we want to maintain these ties.
Mahan Abedin – But as a Tunisian leader, what is your view on the French military intervention in Mali?
Rashid Al-Ghannouchi – In principle, I am not in favour of military interventions. However, if an independent government asks another government for assistance then I don’t see a major problem.
 Lotfi Hiduri, a spokesman for the Tunisian Interior Ministry, told Reuters on Saturday 16 February that more than “one hundred thousand” people participated in the rally.
 Hamadi Jebali has since been replaced by Ali Laarayedh.
Mahan Abedin is an academic and journalist specialising in Islamic affairs.