Tuesday, February 01, 2011

The rise of Islamists in Tunisia

Mahan Abedin - Why haven't Islamists played a prominent role in the street protests? The people on the streets appeared to be of the trendy variety; left-wing beards and fancy veils dominated the scenes.

Rashid Al-Ghannouchi - Islamists can be trendy too! The Tunisian Islamists are different to Islamists in other parts of the Arab world. They have been fiercely harassed and repressed for decades and as a consequence they are reluctant to show themselves or to adopt an Islamist appearance. For the past 22 years they have kept their Islamic identity in their hearts as opposed to wearing it on their sleeves in the form of headscarves and beards.

Mahan Abedin - On a more serious note, you are adamant that Islamists played a leading role in the street protests that forced Zine El Abidine Ben Ali from power?

Rashid Al-Ghannouchi - No one can pretend that this revolution has been led by Islamists or Communists or any other group for that matter. This is a popular revolution and all the trends in Tunisian political society are present on the scene. At the same time it is clear that the Islamists are the biggest political force in Tunisia. The former regime suppressed all groups and in this transitional period all the groups are concentrating on rebuilding themselves.

Mahan Abedin - You are widely regarded as a reformist in the international Islamist current. In your interview with Al-Jazeera on 22 January you appeared to categorically reject the Islamic Caliphate in favour of democracy. Is this the culmination of your reformist Islamist thought?

Rashid Al-Ghannouchi - This is the authentic and realistic position. The notion of Khilafah (Caliphate) is not a religious one as some groups claim. It reflects a period of time.


Mahan Abedin - Is your embrace of democracy strategic or tactical?

Rashid Al-Ghannouchi - It is strategic. Democracy is crucial to dealing with and reconciling different and even conflicting interests in society. Islam has a strong democratic spirit inasmuch as it respects religious, social and political differences. Islam has never favoured a monolithic state. Throughout their history Muslims have objected to the imposition of a single all-powerful interpretation of Islam. Any attempt to impose a single interpretation has always proven inherently unstable and temporary.

Mahan Abedin - Of late Islamism has been more focussed on moral issues and identity politics, as opposed to taking concrete steps towards securing social justice. I refer to staple social justice demands, like affordable housing, cheap food and job security. Is Al-Nahda in a position to address these issues both at a theoretical and practical level?

Rashid Al-Ghannouchi - The origin of most Nahdawis [supporters of Al-Nahda] is in the rural areas of Tunisia. We understand social justice very well. 
Mahan Abedin - You used to have a left-wing outlook and rhetoric in your earlier days, especially the 1970s and early 1980s. Is that still the case?

Rashid Al-Ghannouchi - In my youth I was a Nasserist. Islam is against injustice and the monopoly of wealth and resources. The notion of Brotherhood in Islam has profound socio-economic implications in so far as it points to the equitable distribution of economic resources. In the economic sphere Islam is closer to the left-wing outlook, without violating the right to private property. The Scandinavian socio-economic model is closest to the Islamic vision. 

Mahan Abedin interviews Rashid Al-Ghannouchi for Religioscope. More Here. 

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