These excerpts pertain to Rachid al-Ghannouchi and the challenge of blending Islam and democracy.
Rachid al-Ghannouchi’s thinking is rooted in his experiences in Tunisia and then applied to other Muslim societies. He has also been heavily influenced by Third World nationalism and the views of intellectuals from the global South who see their region as locked in a struggle against Northern “neocolonialism.” A popular philosophy teacher and speaker educated in Damascus and Paris, Ghannouchi founded the Mouvement de la Tendance Islamique (MTI) in 1981 during a brief interlude of Tunisian political liberalization. Tunisia’s government refused to legalize the MTI, however, citing laws that excluded religious parties from politics. Ghannouchi persisted in calls on the regime to share power by introducing political pluralism and economic justice. He was jailed from 1981 to 1984; after his release, the authorities forbade him to teach, speak in public, publish, or travel.
In 1987, Ghannouchi was again arrested and charged with plotting to overthrow the government. He was released after a bloodless coup in November 1987, which led to another brief political thaw. The MTI, renamed al-Nahda in early 1989 to remove religious overtones, was promised a place at the political table. But by the time of the April [End Page 71] [Begin Page 73] 1989 legislative elections, the thaw was over. Reforms were stalled and confrontations mounted. Ghannouchi went into voluntary exile. The government charged al-Nahda with plotting a coup; the party was outlawed and Ghannouchi was sentenced in absentia to life imprisonment. Britain granted him political asylum in 1993, and he is now the most prominent Islamist leader living in the West.
Ghannouchi is controversial. In speeches and interviews, he often declares himself to be “against fundamentalism that believes it is the only truth and must be imposed on all others,” yet he has visited Tehran, has traveled briefly on a Sudanese passport when he went into exile, and has condemned Zionism and Westernization. His 1993 book Civil Liberties in the Islamic State is dedicated to dozens of people, including “the forerunners of Islamic liberalism in the women’s movement” and prisoners of conscience of every creed. But it is also dedicated to an imprisoned Hamas leader, to the late Ayatollah Khomeini, and to Malcolm X.
Of all the major Islamist leaders, however, Ghannouchi seems to have expanded his thinking the most in recent years. In Tunisia, his understanding of democracy was a matter of theory only. He used to say that, as an Islamist, he was not afraid of ideas and wanted a free dialogue with believers in different faiths and political systems. Since the beginning of his exile in 1989, he has traveled in Europe and the United States, come into contact with a wide range of policy makers and opinion leaders, and experienced the workings of different democratic systems firsthand. His years of exile have tempered some of the well-worn jingo common in Islamist parlance. Although the field of comparison is small, Ghannouchi now ranks among Islamism’s most accessible and mature thinkers on the issue of democracy. Whatever happens in Tunisia or to an-Nahda, his contributions will remain important to Islamic thought.
Ghannouchi advocates an Islamic system that features majority rule, free elections, a free press, protection of minorities, equality of all secular and religious parties, and full women’s rights in everything from polling booths, dress codes, and divorce courts to the top job at the presidential palace. Islam’s role is to provide the system with moral values.
Islamic democracy is first the product of scriptural interpretation. “Islam did not come with a specific program concerning our life,” Ghannouchi said in one of several interviews between 1990 and 1995. “It brought general principles. It is our duty to formulate this program through interaction between Islamic principles and modernity.” Believers are guaranteed the right of ijtihad in interpreting the Koranic text. Their empowerment is complete since Islam does not have an institution or person as a sole authority to represent the faith–or contradict their interpretations. The process of shura, moreover, means that decision making belongs to the community as a whole. “The democratic values of political pluralism and tolerance are perfectly compatible with Islam,” he maintains.
Second, Islamic democracy is also a product of recent human experience. The legitimacy of contemporary Muslim states is based on liberation from modern European colonialism, a liberation in which religious and secular, Muslim and Christian, participated together. “There is no room to make distinctions between citizens, and complete equality is the base of any new Muslim society. The only legitimacy is the legitimacy of elections,” he said. “Freedom comes before Islam and is the step leading to Islam.”
Ghannouchi concedes that Islam’s record in the areas of equality and participation has blemishes. Previous Muslim societies were built on conquest. But he contends that the faith has also traditionally recognized pluralism internally, noting the lack of religious wars among Muslims as proof of Islam’s accommodation of the Muslim world’s wide diversity. Citing the Koran, he explains that Islam condemns the use of religion for material or hegemonic purposes: “O mankind! We created you from a single [pair] of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other, not that ye may despise [each other]” (Sura 49:13).
Ghannouchi calls the act of striking a balance between holy texts and human reality aqlanah, which translates as “realism” or “logical reasoning.” Aqlanah is dynamic and constantly evolving. As a result Ghannouchi, like Soroush, believes that Islam and democracy are an inevitable mix. In a wide-ranging address given in May 1995 at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London, he said: “Once the Islamists are given a chance to comprehend the values of Western modernity, such as democracy and human rights, they will search within Islam for a place for these values where they will implant them, nurse them, and cherish them just as the Westerners did before, when they implanted such values in a much less fertile soil.” He pledged an-Nahda’s adherence to democracy and the alternation of power through the ballot box, and called on all other Islamist movements to follow suit in unequivocal language and even in formal pacts signed with other parties.
Ghannouchi’s acceptance of pluralism is not limited to the Islamic world. Responding to Samuel P. Huntington’s widely discussed essay on the “clash of civilizations,” Ghannouchi contends that cultural or religious differences do not justify conflict, but instead can provide ground for cooperation rooted in a mutual recognition of complementarity. “We appeal for and work to establish dialogue between Islam and the West, for the world now is but a small village and there is no reason to deny the other’s existence. Otherwise we are all doomed to annihilation and the destruction of the world,” he said in a 1994 interview. In his 1995 London address, he added: “Islam recognizes as a fact of life the diversity and pluralism of peoples and cultures, and calls for mutual recognition and coexistence. . . . Outside its own society, Islam recognizes civilizational and religious pluralism and opposes the use of force to transfer a civilization or impose a religion.”
Excerpts from a Lecture by Sheikh Rachid al-Ghannouchi Chatham House, London, 9 May 1995
The Koran acknowledges the fact that conflict and competition are natural features of development and of the balance of power within each individual, within each society, and at the global level. However, while the Koran calls for jihad as well as the use of peaceful means to establish justice and equality, it condemns aggression and oppression and warns against falling captive to selfishness and lust. Furthermore, the Koran recognizes the legitimate right of an oppressed to resist and even fight in order to deter oppression, but it warns against the perpetration of injustice.
Koranic teachings encourage humans to seek justice and to cooperate . . . in serving the interests of humanity, which is perceived as a single family that . . . is created by One Creator. . . . Thus Islam recognizes as a fact of life the diversity and pluralism of peoples and cultures, and calls for mutual recognition and co-existence. . . .
Contrary to the claims of Huntington and his colonial ancestors, such differences do not justify war but provide a good ground for richness, plurality, and cooperation through complementarity rather than incongruity. . . . [D]iversity is a challenge that provokes and awakens the powers of creation and innovation in nations, ridding them of laziness and flaccidity. . . .
While on the one hand Islam guarantees the right of its adherents to ijtihad in interpreting the Koranic text, it does not recognize a church or an institution or a person as a sole authority speaking in its name or claiming to represent it. Decision making, through the process of shura, belongs to the community as a whole. Thus the democratic values of political pluralism and tolerance are perfectly compatible with Islam.
Outside its own society, Islam recognizes civilizational and religious pluralism and opposes the use of force to transfer a civilization or impose a religion. It condemns the use of religion for material or hegemonic purposes. . . .
Once the Islamists are given a chance to comprehend the values of Western modernity, such as democracy and human rights, they will search within Islam for a place . . . [to] implant them, nurse them, and cherish them just as the Westerners did before, when they implanted such values in a much less fertile soil.
Download Robin Wright’s full article (PDF)
Here are links to the other essays on “Islam and Liberal Democracy” that appeared in the same issue, including three that commented on her article:
“The Challenge of Secularization,” Abdou Filali-Ansary (PDF)
“A Historical Overview,” Bernard Lewis (PDF)
“Recognizing Pluralism,” Laith Kubba (PDF)
“The Limits of the Western Model,” Mohamed Elhachmi Hamdi (PDF)