Items filtered by date: November 2015
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This was one of my earliest articles, published in the The Maghreb Review:

“The Fuzzy boundaries between Reformism and Islamism: Malik Bennabi and Rashid al-Ghannushi on Civilization.” The Maghreb Review 29, 1-2 (2004):123-52.

If you want to go into Bennabi's thought in greater depth and discover how he influenced a whole generation of thinkers, including Rachid Ghannouchi and his Ennahda Movement, this will be worth your time! In particular, long before the 1990s theory of the "Clash of Civilizations" (Samuel Huntington), Bennabi was theorizing about the rise and fall of civilizations, about the pathology and diagnosis of civilizations. His thought also falls within the postcolonial thought of French Caribbean thinker Aimé Césaire. In the end, Ghannouchi borrows much of his mentor's framework but adapts it adroitely to his particularly aims in Tunisia.

Two events have taken place since I wrote the second installment of this trilogy of blogs on Sheikh Rached Ghannouchi.

That said, the Quartet’s work could not have succeeded had their advocacy with Ennahda, the ruling party, not borne fruit. Ennahda did what rarely any party has done anywhere else, by stepping down from power before their mandate had come to an end. True, the country had been shaken by the assassinations of two secular opposition politicians that year. Still, the fact that Ghannouchi’s Ennahda willingly gave up power to join the other political forces of Tunisia in drawing up a new constitution and reconvene a new set of parliamentary elections in the next year is nothing short of phenomenal.

Ennahda, among all other political currents, was justified in taking some credit for this honor. Thanks to all the political factions, the so-called Arab Spring would continue to live on – with all its ups and downs – in the land where it was born.

The second event was more personal. Sheikh Rachid Ghannouchi addressed a packed conference room (I know, as I was sitting on the floor in the overflow room!) at the Washington, DC United States Institute of Peace (USIP) on the theme “Democratizing under Fire: Can Tunisia Show the Way?” His presentation was followed by a panel with two USIP scholars, and questions from the floor. Even though it took a lot of effort to drive there and back on a rainy day from Philadelphia, it was very rewarding – both the content of the seminar and the opportunity to meet him and several of his aides, including one of his daughters who will coordinate with me on the translation of her father’s book. Sheikh Rachid, as he is affectionately called, is indeed a gracious man, and I certainly felt privileged to have met him in person.

 

Ghannouchi on the emergence of human rights in the West

In the previous blog post, I quoted from his Chapter 3, “Basic Democratic Principles.” Here I back up to the previous chapter, “The Islamic Perspective on Freedom and Human Rights.” Here is the first paragraph:

 

“Since the declarations of human rights on civic freedoms were only guarantees for the bourgeoisie against the feudal lords and the papacy, in the end their deceitful nature and partiality betrayed them. Then came the various socialist currents aiming to expose their empty rhetoric and emphasize social rights for humanity – while acting in fact as another set of tyrants.”

 

Let me unpack this a bit. Ghannouchi is saying that the 18th-century Enlightenment philosophy was a declaration of independence from the absolute reign of Europe’s feudal kings (an idea violently carried out in the French Revolution), just as the papal grip on much of Europe had been gradually eroded by the Protestant Reformation two centuries earlier. Following thinkers like John Locke, the beginning of human rights discourse was mostly about individual rights against the encroachment of political rulers, and much more about the elites than about poor peasants and the growing urban poor.

So who benefited from the industrial revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries? It was largely Europe’s urban middle classes, says Ghannouchi, who were able to maintain their power over a largely disenfranchised working class employed in often sub-human conditions within the coalmines and factories of the day.

Marxism in its various shades built upon the reality of this class struggle and defined freedom as the downtrodden overthrowing the monopoly of the bourgeoisie over the means of production, which then would lead to a transitional dictatorship of this proletariat. In the end this process would create a utopian, classless society. The reality, as alluded to in his above quote, was the complete opposite.

Still, European colonialism and its attendant ideologies had an enormous impact on Muslim nations, for instance in the 19th century in places like Egypt and even in the heart of the Ottoman Empire (today’s Turkey), where many of the elites had been educated in the West and chose to adopt Western ideas and implement political, legal and economic reforms.

 

Shari’a and freedom

Ghannouchi mostly wrote his book, The Public Freedoms of the Islamic State, from a prison cell. He knew the underbelly of state repression first-hand. What is more, in the 1980s his generation was the first one raised in the postcolonial era, when the nations’ “right of self-determination” had become the main paradigm of human freedom (still to be achieved by Palestinians). It was also a time when global condemnation and boycotting of the Apartheid regime of South Africa was beginning to mount. Further – and Ghannouchi would not have known this – a movement of both Catholic and Protestant theologians in Latin America (and South Africa) were developing a “liberation theology” leaning on the teaching and practice of Jesus to launch a grassroots (mostly) nonviolent movement designed to empower the poor who were often brutally exploited by the capitalist elites propped up by US political and economic interests in their region.

That is the context, I believe, in which this paragraph makes the most sense:

 

“Since Islam is a comprehensive revolution seeking to overthrow tyranny and darkness, freeing the human will from all subjection to what is not God, it would be possible for those who study Islam to summarize it in the words, ‘a comprehensive revolution of liberation.’ One should not understand from the common usage of ‘freedom’ that it’s simply about permission or permissiveness. The logic of truth cannot entertain that the liberational message of Islam – brought to humankind from creation by thousands of prophets and messengers, in addition to their successors in the general announcement to people – would be summarized as God allowing you to do what you desire. No, Islam’s conception is quite the opposite. God created you and he forbids you to follow your every ignorant whim, and he commands you to follow – as a conscious decision of your own will and design – the path that pleases Him for your life, the only one in which you will find happiness and development in this life and the next. But if you turn your back on it, you will find eternal calamity.”

 

“The path that pleases Him for your life” – quite literally – is the Shari’a. Etymologically, it’s the desert path that leads to the watering hole, or the path that guides people to a full life in this world and the next.

Still, that sounds like a very different definition of “freedom,” you might say. Yes, but it’s no different than in Judaism (replace Shari’a by halakha) or Christianity. In the gospels, Jesus’ first call to people is to follow him. In fact, to do so requires the disciple’s death to self-will and ambition (symbolized by picking up our own cross, as for instance in Luke 9:27). Freedom means that you get to choose or refuse this offer.

 

Human trusteeship and human rights

To some extent, Ghannouchi is right that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) offers “the marks of secularism or a human religion based on the divinity of humankind in the universe and on people making themselves the source of every right and legislation.” But that’s not a necessarily so.

In fact, the UDHR was hammered out in a long process of negotiations between people who represented the world’s main religions, as well as strong secularists. So in practice, it can certainly be interpreted in that fashion. Still, influential voices in their midst included two Christians, Eleanor Roosevelt and Charles Malik (the Lebanese representative), and the Chinese Confucian philosopher and playwright Pen-chun Chang. Moreover, seven Muslim-majority nations contributed handsomely to the discussions (see my paper, “A Muslim and Christian Orientation to Human Rights”).

I have always argued that human rights discourse is only a framework into which people from many faiths and no faith can inject their own theology of humanity. That certainly was the main theme of my book, Earth, Empire and Sacred Text – Muslims and Christians converging in their doctrine of creation by seeing God empowering humans to rule on earth as his trustees and thus being fully accountable to Him for the way in which they manage its resources and people. Notice how important this concept is to Ghannouchi here:

 

“[God] alone is Creator and Owner of all his creatures, and the Definer of their way of life (Shari’a). And human beings are His trustees, whom the Creator honored by granting them a mind, a will, freedom, and by the sending of messengers in order to help them discover the way of truth and follow the path of perfection by means of their commitment to the Shari’a or law of God, which He defined in its final form, revealed as it was through the agency of the Arab prophet Muhammad. This Shari’a is the general framework meant to guide human life individually and collectively, but also granting humanity within that framework wide empty spaces, requiring them to fulfill their God-given trusteeship by managing everything within their scope, and thereby joining together in harmony, freedom and commitment, unity and plurality.”

 

Therefore, the God-given dignity conferred upon the human person is what impels Muslims to set up a polity that allows all citizens to enjoy these rights:

 

“ … human rights should be grounded in humanity’s Creator:

a) This gives them a sanctity that pulls them out of the orbit of a regime’s domination, or that of a political party that manipulates them at will.

b) It renders them a trust that believers can hang around their neck, holding them accountable for their protection, for their establishment in human society, and for resisting the tyrants’ violation of them, because that is a religious duty that will be rewarded if fulfilled, and punished if neglected.

c) It gives them the true dimensions of humanity, and thus warding off any discrimination based on race, nationality and class, since He is “God of the Worlds,” and not of only one nation or umma.

d) It gives them a comprehensive and positive dimension that moves them away from mere formalism or selectivity in legislation, because God is the Creator of humanity and He alone knows the true needs of his creatures.

e) Tying rights to the Divine Legislator is not to enforce the despotism of a theocratic polity, for there is no clergy in Islam that sanctions or forbids. Rather, the One who loosens or binds is God, who shows no partiality nor treats anyone unjustly, for He is in no need of anything or anyone in the universe, and thus finds no benefit when he is obeyed and no harm when he is disobeyed. Therefore, he grants rights in an absolutely just manner and enlists every believer to defend them when they are violated, whether the enmity is directed toward him personally, or toward someone else, whether believer or not. It is a duty to both remove injustice and to achieve righteousness.

 

 

But what are these rights recognized by the Divine Legislator? I have no space to delve into the details here. But we do know from contemporary debates that there’s clearly a tension between how Islamic law was traditionally interpreted and contemporary norms of human rights and citizenship in a democratic polity. For Ghannouchi, however, the latter trumps the former, and this mostly because of his theology of humanity:

 

“Islam is not content to declare the human person’s right to life, freedom and personal integrity; it considers that a sacred duty enjoined upon the community and the individual. The human being is appointed as God’s trustee, that is, his deputy charged with the responsibility to judge among his creatures with justice. Thus anyone who sets out to obey God and judge his creatures aright is God’s trustee.”

 

Apostasy as an example

But what about the Muslim who decides she no longer wants to remain Muslim? Apostasy and blasphemy laws in conservative countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan account for egregious human rights violations one can regularly read about in the press.

Ghannouchi devotes several pages to this issue, stating that the majority opinion traditionally – based on one particular hadith, and not the Qur’an – was that the apostate should incur the death penalty, because it came under the category of the hudud offenses (those which violate “God’s rights,” and are stipulated in the Qur’an and Sunna, like hand amputation for theft).

At the same time, there was always a minority view, which has become even more mainstream today, which sees apostasy as something between God and the individual. The Qur’an in several places warns those who abandon their faith of tragic consequences in the life to come, but mentions no punishment in this life. In fact, according to this view, the words and deeds of the Prophet and the four Rightly-Guided Caliphs show that apostasy was a political crime for them, which was committed by people who posed a material threat to the young Islamic state in Medina. It would be like people put on trial for treason today. That is also Ghannouchi’s view.

Characteristically, he then looks at the wider context of Tunisia’s Muslim society, deploring the inroads that Western-style secularism has made on many people’s minds. They have bought into a distorted view of Islam and often turn their backs on religion. Is this apostasy, he asks? No, the blame goes to the Muslim leadership in mosques and schools. A new and more relevant approach is needed. As such, education captures a key role here and in many other parts of his book.

Let me wrap up here. Ghannouchi’s emphasis on genuine, full-fledged democratic political procedures and state institutions, on the one hand, and on the necessity for a wider culture of respect for the ethical values put forward by religion on the other, opens a wide area of agreement between people of all faiths – and in particular, between moderate “islamists” like the followers of Ennahda, and American evangelicals, who also deplore that loss of basic values within their own political system. This is an issue I take up in part in a forthcoming trilogy of blogs on “The Impossible Islamic State?”