Tunisia’s Ghannouchi and separating religion from politics

He made contradictory statements on the same day, voicing surprise that some want to separate religion from politics, yet promising to do exactly that

Abdulrahman al-Rashed

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Tunisia’s Islamist Ennahda party chief Rached Ghannouchi is one of the few leaders in political Islam with the influence to alter the paths of political movements and Islamic governments, saving them from themselves and saving the region from their plans to dominate. However, there are two Ghannouchis - the one who addresses the West, and the one who leads Ennahda.

Ahead of the party’s congress last week, he told French daily Le Monde that there was no room left in post-Arab Spring Tunisia for political Islam. “We confirm that Ennahda is a political, democratic and civil party whose point of reference remains rooted in the values of ancient and modern Islam,” he said.

“We’re heading towards [transforming] the party into one which only specializes in political activity. We will exit political Islam and enter Muslim democracy. We’re Muslim democrats, and we don’t define ourselves as affiliates of ‘political Islam.’ We want religious activity to be completely independent from political activity. This is good for politicians because in the future they won’t be accused of employing religion to serve political aims. It’s also good for religion so it’s not held hostage to politics, and thus it’s not employed by politicians.”

These are great statements that we need to hear at this time. However, we saw the other Ghannouchi as he addressed Ennahda on the same day. “We’re surprised by some parties’ insistence to eliminate religion from national life, although the leaders of the national movement have historically adhered to our Muslim religion,” he said.


He made contradictory statements on the same day, voicing surprise that some want to separate religion from politics, yet promising to do exactly that. Most members of other Tunisian parties are also Muslim, but Ennahda wants to be presented as representative of Islam. This is where the problem rises. Islam is a fixed doctrine, while politics is changeable civil work. Figures of authority who work in religion have often used the latter.

Addressing the Ennahda congress, Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi said although there are many licensed parties in the country, he chose to attend Ennahda’s conference because the party has an important role. Essebsi urged its transformation toward civil life.

He made contradictory statements on the same day, voicing surprise that some want to separate religion from politics, yet promising to do exactly that

Abdulrahman al-Rashed

Despite the contradictions, Ghannouchi’s statements to Le Monde were welcomed by the media, social-networking platforms, intellectuals and political figures. They believe that with this approach, he will not only lead Tunisia but the entire Muslim world toward modernizing the concept and role of political Islam.

If he means what he says, his statements reflect a progressive ideology that distinguishes him from other clerics of political Islam. However, we do not know which Ghannouchi to believe. What makes leaders who are described as “moderate” make contradictory speeches? Is it due to pious policy, because they want to market themselves and their parties to the West, or because they live a life of contradictions?

I have held discussions with many of these figures, including Ghannouchi. Despite the disagreement between us, which reached British courts, he is a prominent intellectual. He has a renewed proposal, and he has lived through the era of several movements, learning from them and influencing them.

However, I see him as a fox, like all other foxes of politics. This does not underestimate the value of his intellect. I think he means what he says about his desire to develop Islamic partisan ideology in order to resemble the western European experience, where those with Islamic ideas can work in politics and influence it from their religious perspective while respecting their competitors.

However, what may obstruct this tolerant ideology is the desire to remain in power, as the leader must adhere to the intellect of his party members, and most of them do not believe in these Western liberal ideas. This is why he wears two hats. As Ennahda chief, Ghannouchi is concerned with pleasing the party’s supporters and the Islamic audience, which is mainly against coexisting with others and adopts the principle of monopolizing governance.

This is what the late Hassan al-Turabi did in Sudan, and what the Muslim Brotherhood tried to do in Egypt after it rode the wave of democracy and made it to power. The Brotherhood sought to dominate, abandoning the rules of democratic work and allowing others to use its practices as an excuse to make it to power.

This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat on May 23, 2016.
Abdulrahman al-Rashed is the former General Manager of Al Arabiya News Channel. A veteran and internationally acclaimed journalist, he is a former editor-in-chief of the London-based leading Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat, where he still regularly writes a political column. He has also served as the editor of Asharq al-Awsat’s sister publication, al-Majalla. Throughout his career, Rashed has interviewed several world leaders, with his articles garnering worldwide recognition, and he has successfully led Al Arabiya to the highly regarded, thriving and influential position it is in today. He tweets @aalrashed

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